The evening sky over Antequera, and over most towns and villages in Andalucía, is now crowded with fast, aerobatic and noisy entertainers with distinctive scimitar-shaped wings – this design is almost unique to this family of birds. Swifts, recently returned from their wintering areas in sub-Saharan Africa, begin arriving here in April and numbers continue to build into early May. The birds’ arrival brings the sights and sounds of summer to urban areas, where the birds display, mate and nest. Apart from when they are at the nest, swifts are entirely aerial, feeding, drinking, roosting, copulating and even collecting nest material on the wing.
While in Britain we have only one species of swift, the Black Swift, southern Spain has three widespread species: the Black Swift, similar sized Pallid Swift, and the larger Alpine Swift. The last of these, identified by its white belly and slower wing beats than the smaller species, is mainly a bird of higher attitude areas, where it typically nets in holes in cliffs, although some have taken to breeding in man-made structures. The smaller species in western Europe have adapted to nest largely in buildings, especially those with tiled roofs where gaps beneath the tiles allow access to the birds, and also in cavities elsewhere in buildings. As a result, both species are now essentially town dwellers. As its name implies, the Pallid Swift is paler brown than its blacker cousin but the difference is not always clear as the birds speed past overhead, silhouetted against a bright sky; in good light conditions, however, the difference is apparent, especially if seen through binoculars.
On arrival after their migration from Africa, the birds’ priority is to prepare for breeding as their breeding season is short, with the adults and their young leaving for Africa again in August. The most conspicuous behaviour after arrival involves groups of birds flying very fast among the buildings, emitting loud screaming calls as they chase each other in what appears to be a frenzy of flying skills. These flights are often below roof height, making use of streets and narrow gaps between buildings. Despite the speed, and the proximity of the birds to each other and to the masonry, I have never seen a collision!
With the shortness of time that swifts are with us before they head back to the tropics, it is the sight and sound of chasing screaming parties that signify summer to me. As a child birdwatcher I was excited to see and hear the first swifts each May and that feeling persists. Sadly, where I live in southern England now I am denied that thrill: new buildings, and roof renovations on older properties, have seriously reduced the nesting areas available to swifts, leading to a national decline in their numbers. An early May visit to Antequera, however, allows me to get my swift “fix” for the year.
Even in southern Spain there are signs that swifts are coming under pressure from modern developments, again following re-roofing and new building design. In July 2010 I was fascinated to watch fledgling swifts emerging from the spaces in an old tiled roof of one of Antequera’s churches. I was utterly astounded to see Lesser Kestrels hopping about on the roof in attempts, some successful, to catch young swifts before they could take to the air. The Lesser Kestrels were presumably from the small colony that nested in the spire of Antequera’s San Sebastián church, only about 100 metres away. Now, the roof of the church that housed the swifts has been replaced and swifts no longer nest there. And following restoration of the spire of San Sebastián church Lesser Kestrels appear to have ceased nesting there.
It would be a tragedy to lose these masters of the air from our villages, towns and cities, and to miss the entertainment they provide to imbibers of al fresco bebidos and tapas during the warm summer evenings of Andalucía.