Saturday 19 December 2020

The Sound of Summer

    This is a very 'unlike me' kind of blog post, normally I tend to like writing about either a day out birding or something important to me within the birding community, but seeing as I've sadly not had a chance to write for such a long time, I thought this might cheer me up just a little. Having finished one of the longest and hardest school terms so far, being plunged into Tier 4 more or less killed off what little enthusiasm I had left for 2020 and Christmas.

    I always struggle a lot in the winter - darker, colder, shorter days; very little cricket and sport; less time spent outdoors. I feel happier and safer within myself when it's the complete opposite to that, and I know that I'm not the only one to feel this way. The fact that I even lost interest and enthusiasm for nature for a month or so from mid February showed how much I needed the change in season. Of course, it always comes, and venturing down to Beddington Farmlands, which has arguably become my new patch, on the 22nd March (the last weekend before lockdown) to see Spotted Redshank and Surrey's first Little Ringed Plover of the year was a huge lift to my spirits. Then less than a fortnight later, the first spring Wheatears - I managed to find 15 or so locally this spring - often acts as a turning point for me, as does the first spring Swallow, seen on the 8th April, a little later than usual this year. Generally I do like keeping track of when I first see the common spring migrants, so I logged it on this Excel Document for certain 'spring indicator' species, which was simply to make me feel a little bit of hope at times. In all honesty, the first singing Blackcap and Chiffchaffs of 2020 brought me as much of a smile as the Yellow-browed Warbler, Siberian Chiffchaffs and Firecrests seen on the same day back on the 8th February...

Logging my personal records

    With spring meaning so much to me, I spend most years myself desperately looking forward to its return, this year more than ever in many ways. Though I love Wheatears and Swallows, the one bird that always marks the return of better times is what I will always describe to be my favourite 'British' bird, the Common Swift. The arrival of 'proper' spring and indeed summer for me generally comes with the first Common Swift of the year. My first visit to Beddington during lockdown, as it was approximately an hour's walk, ended with me watching over 300 new-in Swifts swirling around the lake in light drizzle and sunshine. The deep breathe I took at that point, the relieved smile - I'll never stop appreciating that once-a-year moment.

Swifts at dusk

Swifts from the garden

Dusk lighting

pair of Swift at dusk

pair of Swift at dusk - these nested across the road, a true delight to watch for over a month

feeding on the wing

   So with lockdown keeping everyone at home or within close proximity to home for spring and early summer, I set myself a simple, little target from around the start of May, a few days after I saw the first 2020 Swifts on the 29th April, and that was to make sure that, at least once a day, I spent even a few minutes standing in the garden watching and listening to the Swifts. So that's exactly what I did, through the lowest times and the best times in the spring and summer. To start, sometimes I took my camera out with me as well as my binoculars - I've always wanted to get some half decent Swift pictures, so whilst not amazing I was pleased wit this year's efforts. Most of the time however I went with just binoculars, and just stood there, watching the screaming frenzies of family groups which filled the skies over South London. 

Swifts during the rain in front of the Crystal Palace tower


Close up

Swift at Beddington

in front of the Beddington incinerator

I find the sound almost enchanting at times - just so peaceful and soothing. In the end, I started to go outside with my sound recorder and mic in a mission to record them, which proved harder than I thought due to the volume of other birds, traffic and other mechanical noise. However, I did get some recordings I was happy with and I'm not scared to admit that I've probably listened to the recordings upwards of 50 times since I got them. Sound Recording - my next blog post - has been probably my birding highlight of the year. To be able to record these family groups brought me joy that at times, almost nothing can beat, so I continued to do so until our local birds left in the first week of August. 

Feeding over the water during a storm

     As well as Swift-watching/listening at home, the second place I normally take special notice of them is at my cricket club, Cheam CC, where I've played ever since I was 7. As a substitute for not being able to watch them there so much this year, until the middle of July at least when I could actually play cricket again, I focused on them at Beddington. Though brilliant to patch during lockdown on warm, sunny days especially, where the reedbeds were alive with the sound of warblers, the lake holding several Little Ringed Plovers, and the bushes holding several pairs of rattling Lesser Whitethroats, I started to 'twitch the weather.' By this, I mean go down to the Farmlands when storms were predicted, and rain and wind was stronger. Most people do this for rarities, or for certain winds and species dropping in, but I ended up doing it for the Swifts instead. When the skies clouded over and the rain began to fall, hundreds of Swifts from the local area all gathered in a feeding frenzy of 400+ birds, picking off insects over the lakes. They came so close sometimes, within metres of where I was stood, and it's safe to say those were some of the best birding memories from the summer. I went to Beddington for Swifts over 10 times in the end, and was never disappointed, returning feeling much better than when I left.

   By the end of July, I started to fear their departure, and so each miniature birding missile seen or heard was even more valuable than the last. I've not enjoyed school in recent years as much as I'd like - with it being my A Level year, I was even less enthusiastic about school than ever before, but (cringy, I know,) seeing my final 2020 Swift on my first day of school on the 2nd September, flying over as I arrived, was the most reassuring thing I could have asked for really. 

Swift sonogram on Audacity
Xeno Canto link here

    We all have certain special birds and animals, that hold a special meaning to us. Swifts are my special bird, reminding me of certain people, certain times, and certain emotions that keep me going through the hard times. They do me wonders for mental health and my frame of mind, and I always love hearing that others feel the same about them. The joyous, peaceful sound of summer; I know that when I see it, the first Swift of 2021, it'll be such a good moment...

    As Lev Parikian said on Twitter, here, only 200,000 minutes to go. Only...