The sky has been haunting me for days now. It is the featureless nature of the sea of blue, spanning from horizon to horizon, its neglect of offering a foothold to the wandering eye that binds my thoughts.
They have gone.
The dots in the sky, forming whirling, twirling and spiralling clouds, breaking into a dashing descent, tossing themselves from one side to the other, turning, diving, screaming, and spiralling upwards again, have vanished. The theatre of the evening sky that soothes the mind and brings to rest the hot summer days is over.
The Common Swifts have left Germany behind as their journey South has begun. They are the first of our migrant breeders to go, and they are gone by the beginning of August.
That is early.
Gone with them is the evening balcony routine of pointing out the groups of dashing black shapes to my toddler son, telling him about the “Mauersegler”, the Wall Sailors as the Swifts are called in German. To him their departure means little. He had always ignored my pointing out anyway and had continued to play with his toy elephants, and he will ignore my failure to point out anything now and continue to play with his toy elephants.
But to me, their departure means a lot. Here is why.
The Common Swift holds a unique position amongst the birds of Europe, a position that makes it particular and peculiar beyond its astounding adaptations to an aerial life: It defines a season.
Sure, every season has its typical set of birds. Winter has ducks and gulls and finches. Spring (in the minds of most of the people reading this) has warblers, warblers, and then some warblers. Fall has shorebirds or lately Grey-headed Gulls (Gray-hooded if it needs to be, or just plain ol’ hybrids).
Well, in Europe summer has the Common Swift, and the Common Swift has summer.
This is a surprisingly little-discussed or disputed fact amongst birders and regarded by all as a universal truth. But what makes them so?
It isn’t their time of arrival here, as it coincides with the arrival of many an African migrant. It also isn’t the beauty of their song, as they don’t belong to the songbirds – and rightfully so. And it sure isn’t the beauty of their plumage. Rather, it is a combination of two things:
Historic inner cities and cold beer.
Now, I can see how this may surprise some readers, but the underlying reasoning is quite comprehensible: Common Swifts breed in small crevices and cavities of cliff faces, and old buildings make for some terrific secondary habitat. The species is quite common within settlements indeed, and the inner cities are a favoured haunt. It is here that they display their presence most impressively by forming small parties that dash through the narrow canyons between buildings. It is here that their screams are just about the only natural sound that surpasses the noise of civilization. It is here that you need to see them to have seen them, and not the countryside. And it is here that you meet with friends after work, sit outside under an old sycamore tree in a beer garden and enjoy the location’s specialty.
And now at the peak of summer, when temperatures tend to hit their highest levels – they leave us.
It is unbelievable.
The birds of summer have gone. Time to heat the spiced wine.