It was yesterday evening, the day after midsummer night, the sun not quite down and I was paddling my kayak along the local river on the Broads. There was purple loosestrife on the banks, a Cetti’s warbler called and the stinkboats had all gone to bed for the night.
A few swifts were whizzing about in the air ahead of me, hawking for insects at about 20 feet, making that classic shape: as if the bow had flown off with the arrow, as Edward Thomas said. One of them flew over my head, did a rapid 180 out of sight and came back over my shoulder, dipping sharply and, without dropping its speed for a second, it skimmed the water and took a refreshing drink a few feet in front of me.
The control and skill were startling and the light behind me revealed the technique in precise detail, spotlighting the bird as it pulled off this virtuoso manoeuvre. The scant few ripples it left were lit up in gold but the swift was already well above the banks and climbing fast. As I paddled on, one swift after another took its turn, swooping, sipping, rising, never for an instant slowing. Swifts have been timed at 69 mph in straight and level flight, these were flying at maybe half that, still bloody quick, and the smallest error would have been both obvious and comic. But they didn’t make any. It was easy for them.
A swift drink is one of life’s small pleasures. Have you got time for one? Well, just a swifty… A great deal of birdwatching is about flight envy, and I have seldom seen a swift without wanting to be one. But for the first time I watched a swift and experienced drink envy.
- Apologies to anyone who has looked in vain for new material on this spot. I had a technical problem in Lockdown, when no one could come and fix it and I’ve only just managed to sort things out. Poor show. Must do better.