A swift appointment

An appointment with Pallid Swifts (Martin Kelsey)

Standing in Trujillo's main square one evening this week, loud screams distracted my quiet contemplation of the socially-distanced groups dining at the pavement cafes. The disturbance came from above. At the rooftops, small bats rolled out from their roosts and fluttered over the tiles. But the sound came from higher still. Only then, squinting hard into the disappearing light of when evening turns to night, did I make out the culprits. A swirling gang, wheeling and dealing swifts, growing in density as if by vortex, others were sucked in. Perhaps there were sixty or so, it was hard to tell. I glanced back to cafes and realised that no one else was peering, stiff-necked, upwards. I was the only one mesmerised by these aerial barracudas. Perhaps no one else had even heard the screams.

Swifts gathering (Martin Kelsey)

Gravity sucked these long, stiff-winged birds downwards, plunging towards the cavities and cracks in the masonry in the 16th century palaces cornering the square. There they would roost. Some of the swifts swooped, as in a victory lap, proudly straight to their chosen spots. Others took on an odd fluttering flight, tentative and unpractised. I wondered if these were juvenile birds.

With darkness, the sound disappeared, but I remained standing, quite exhausted simply as a witness. I vowed to return.

And so it was a dawn today, fifteen minutes before sunrise. There were just three other people in the square, all bemasked. An elderly man sat on a bench, with a stoic gaze. There were two street-cleaners, in hi-visibility jackets, busy beside their small trolly-van. Bats were returning to their roosts and forays of Spotless Starlings, were erupting from the trees in bee-lines to the grasslands out of town. Above the belfry of the Church of St. Martin, above the now empty White Stork nests, higher still, came the sound of screams. And there was the frenzied pack of swifts. They had beaten me to it, up in the sky before I had even entered the square. The light was slowly growing, the sun still below the horizon, but the sky already washed pearly blue, with Venus to the east and the waning moon to the west. From the slightly disyllabic call and their shape, I reckoned that almost all of the swifts were Pallid. This surmise was confirmed as the sun rose and their grey-brown plumage was evident. Indeed, I only saw one sootier Common Swift that I was sure of. 

Morning in the main square of Trujillo (Martin Kelsey)

The flock started to disperse. Some headed off, whilst others returned, almost to ground level, in their terrifying chases of twos and threes, at breakneck speed and extraordinary in agility, with twists and turns to avoid the sides of buildings, almost ricocheting down the alleys leading off the square. Too fast to follow with binoculars, they left me breathless.

Crag Martins taking in the early morning sun (Martin Kelsey)

When my turn came to leave, there were a mere handful of swifts left to watch, whilst on the now sunlit granite walls on the western side of the square, thirty Crag Martins gathered in a loose group to sunbathe and preen, enchanting in their quiet and purposeful busyness.


Sue H said…
That’s a wonderfully evocative description. Thanks Martin. I just wish I’d been there to hear and see those wonderful birds.

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