Our Photo & Picture Gallery


Good photos of Swifts have until now been rare. But recent activities in Swift study, especially by people with DIY colonies, combined with the advent of the digital camera, have produced some great pictures. Here are a few to whet your appetite! They show the amazing, daring, skilful and exciting nature of these birds, as well as their vast charm.

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The "Scanish Swift", a fossil Swift from 49 million years ago and the oldest known Swift.

(Scaniacypselus szarskii; Apodidae; Mayr & Peters 1999)

This species measured about 80mm from head to tail, and had a wingspan of about 200mm, rather smaller than our modern Swift.

It flew and hunted insects over the shallow tropical seas and marshlands in the area that is now Hesse in Germany. It died in flight, falling into the sea, and was preserved in the oil shales of the Grube Messel.

You can see this superb fossil in the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt. Click here to see their web site and find out more.

Photo Ulrich Tigges

This excellent photo shows an adult Swift in level flight.

Look at the shape of the wing feathers, the long and forked tail, the dark colouration and the paler throat, all features that help you to identify Swifts.

The deep set eyes, bullet shaped head and long tapered wings are adaptations essential for the Swift's life, spent in more or less constant flight.

Photo Tom Lindroos

A pair of Alpine Swifts, Apus melba, migrating over the dusty hills outside Tarifa in Andalusia, Southern Spain, heading for Morrocco in Autumn 2014.

The Alpine Swift is a good bit bigger than our Swift, it's wing span can just about reach 60 centimetres, and it is an incredibly fast and powerful flyer, migrating down to Southern Africa for the winter from its strongholds in coastal and mountainous areas, from Spain through the Alps and the Balkans through Turkey to Georgia and Armenia.

You can find Alpine Swifts in lots of easy-to-access sites, near the central railway station in Turin, above the Greek theatre in Taormina, over the New Harbour in Dubrovnik, over the southern sea cliffs in Rhodes, flying over the old Roman bridge in Merida in Spain, and over the sea cliffs north of Varna in Bulgaria.

To spot them, listen out for their very different trilling calls, look out for their creamy tummies, their amazing power-mad flight. N.B. they are at their most active at breakfast and tea time!

Photo Phil Palmer/Bird Holidays

This Little Swift, seen over Andalusia in southern Spain, is just about a European Species, with a few breeding outposts in Southern Spain, but otherwise a sub-Mediterranean Old World bird with a patchy range that takes it from Africa right across to India and southern China. It is everywhere rather dependent on urban areas for nest sites, and at its most abundant in sub-Saharan Africa and India, where it is a common bird.

Little Swifts, also known as House Swifts in some parts, have some odd nesting habits. They may take over the mud nests of House Martins and Red-rumped Swallows, and make them a bit more cosy with linings of feathers; you can see the feathers sticking out as a sort of fringe around the entrances. They also nest in holes, like other Swifts do.

Their calls are more insect-like than our Swifts', and they don't always migrate.

Note the blunt tail, small compact form, and white throat. They also have a white rump, making them confusable with House Martins, but the very different, very direct, guided missile-like flight is a good way of telling them apart. They go like a rocket!

Photo Phil Palmer/Bird Holidays

Nothing flies like a Swift! Speed, aerobatics, drama, social interaction, hunting activity, flying for the joy of it, that is what Swifts do, and what makes them so magical.

These two photos (this one and the one below) were taken at the height of Swift activity, on the 30th June this year, 2014 at Klaus Roggel's own colony in Berlin, from the terrace at loft level. The Swifts are flying around at about 20 metres above ground level.

Klaus writes: "
With a little luck some from 100 photos are sharp and useful." which just about sums up the tricky art of Swift Photography!

 
Photo Klaus Roggel

Look at this one! The Swift is vertical in the air, on its side, and its head is perfectly level with the ground.

We think birds do this to keep a sense of the lateral, so their eyes inform their brain all the time of where the ground is and where the sky is, so they do not get disoriented in high speed flight as human pilots can so easily do.

Remember those stories of novice pilots trying to land on the Milky Way because they thought it was an illuminated airport when they were flying in the pitch dark? It couldn't happen to a Swift!

 Photo Klaus Roggel

They don't get more dramatic than this! A fantastic photo of a Swift skimming a dead calm water surface and just about to drink. Try flying like this and not getting wet...... you would be very hard put to do it!

This shows what amazing control and skill Swifts mobilise to get through such a mundane task as drinking some water. Just as for us, water is vital to them and they have to get it and this is the only way, as they never land. No sipping at the bird bath for Swifts, instead, this truly amazing performance.

And it takes them just a split second to do it!

Photo David Moreton

Returning to feed its chicks with its throat stuffed with food, this excellent photo shows how Swifts carry a "food ball" made up of hundreds of small flying insects.

This unique technique enables them to "bulk feed" their chicks with enough food to keep them going for quite a while, in contrast to birds like Blue Tits and Robins who have to ferry food to their chicks every few minutes. With Swifts a food gathering run can last from maybe 20 minutes to even two or more hours.

The chicks can last quite a while without more food, and this means that the adult Swifts can range far and wide to find it for them, unlike the smaller birds.


Photo David Moreton

One of the first, if not the first, accurate illustrations of a Swift, prepared at the behest of the pioneering naturalist Francis Willoughby, 1676.

A copy of this superb work may be seen in
Wollaton Hall in Nottingham. Another is held in the British Library at St Pancras, London.

A flock of screaming Swifts dashes past a wall in Israel, marking their territory and strengthening their bonds with their partners nesting in crevices near by. In the Middle East Swifts start to arrive and nest in February, and are gone by the end of June. This early nesting period coincides with insect availability and also with a cooler period; the extreme heat of the summer would make nest places too hot, cooking the eggs and killing the chicks.

Photo Elias Eli


 

This photo shows an adult Swift in a typical, yet now fast-vanishing nest place, the open eaves of an old building.

The Swifts make their nest on the "plate", the wooden beam that runs along the top of the outer wall and in turn supports the rafters that hold up the roof.

This eaves gap allows air to enter and ventilate the loft area, reducing the humidity that would otherwise cause rot and decay.

New buildings lack this feature, relying on other means to ventilate the roof space, while old buildings being renovated often have their eaves blocked with grilles to keep all wildlife out.

Over time this is proving fatal for Swifts' chances of survival in the UK.

Photo Alan Wadsworth


 

An immature Swift peeks out from its nest hole in a tree. Note the very pale face, typical of juveniles.

Swifts will nest in trees, but their requirements are specific; they usually nest in very old Great Spotted Woodpecker holes in very old trees, like this oak. It may be that Swifts nested principally in old, dead and dying trees.

But really old trees are rare in Europe and Northern Asian as nearly all forests are now commercially managed. So the number of tree nesting Swifts is very limited.

They still nest in this way in Abernethy in Scotland, in Northern Sweden, in north eastern Germany , in the primeval Bialowieska Forest in Poland, and probably also in Siberia. This superb photo was taken in Sweden.

Photo Olle Tenow

Journey to the Centre of the Earth!

This is the River Congo at Yangambi, in the very centre of Equatorial Africa,
equidistant from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

It is more than 1500km upstream from the Congo Delta, and the river is already 3 kilometers wide with many alluvial islands.

The photo was taken at 6:45 am on 8/8/2010, about the date of the earliest Swift arrivals in the Congo Basin.

Swifts fly over these lush hot wetlands and forests during our Winter, feasting on the rich insect life, getting fit and ready for their return to breed in our Northern latitudes.

Photo Elizabeth Kearsley

Swifts nesting in a hole behind drainpipes in a suburban house. These types of nest places are often stopped up during renovation or redecoration work, and the Swifts as a result lose their nestplaces for good. It is this sort of well-meant but uninformed repair work that is costing so many Swifts their nestplaces, and even sometimes their lives as the chicks become trapped in the nest holes and die.

Photo Doug Mackenzie Dodds

 

A new Swift chick sleeps beside its parent. If it survives, this will be the longest period of rest it ever knows.

Most of the rest of its life will be spent on the wing. If lucky, it may live for 10 years, and in that time it will fly 20 times to and back from Southern Africa.

The nest is basic, made from airborne debris, feathers, moss and saliva. Sometimes Swifts don't make a nest at all. They just lay the eggs on the bare surface.

Swifts usually raise no more than 2 chicks, with a family of just one being quite common.

Photo Ulrich Tigges

In this spectacular image, Amir Ben Dov has captured the moment when a Swift lines up with its target snack, a large flying insect.

Swifts will eat all the flying and wind-blown invertebrates that they can catch. Spiders, flies, hover-flies, flying ants, beetles, aphids, gnats and mosquitoes, all are taken. However, Swifts avoid insects with stings; they will take drone bees (that have no sting) but will not take bees or wasps that do have stings.

It is thought they can tell the difference by the sound each creature makes when it flies.

Photo Amir Ben Dov



Another great photo of a Swift returning to the nest with a food ball stored in its throat. In this photographn one can really appreciate the aerodynamic qualities of this high speed extremely agile flyer.

One can also just see the tucked up feet, placed far back on the body almost under the tail. Swifts' legs are short and no use for walking. but they are very strong, with extremelyn sharp claws, and enable the birds to climb and fight with ease.

Photo David Moreton 


 

A Swift  displays its agility, immensely long wings and also its pale chin (rarely visible from the ground) as it flies up to its nest place in a building.

Swifts are amazingly supply and acrobatic flyers, but it is only when they are either nesting, or more likely prospecting for nest ppaces, that they perform such spectacular manouvres as we see here.

Photo Doug Mackenzie Dodds


 

This young Swift was found exhausted and unable to fly on Guernsey one summer. It was rescued by Margers Martinsons and Nick Winship, nursed back to health by the staff of the Guernsey Animal Shelter and released to fly off to Africa.
Note the superb binocular vision, the deep-set eyes, the small beak and, very well shown here, the feet, with their three forward pointing toes and claws sharp enough to cling to rock faces and walls.

Photo Margers Martinsons

Swifts can often find places to nest under ill-fitting pantiles on old roofs.

These two photographs, taken near Lincoln, show a Swift, its throat bloated with insect food collected in the air for its chicks, returning to its nest place beneath the tiles.

See how the Swift is using its entire body as an air-brake to stop its forward movement. It will have approached the nest at speed, and must decelerate rapidly to land safely. The body is held almost vertical, and the wings and tail are spread out to present as big an obstacle to the air as possible.

New or renovated pantile roofs are easily adapted to let Swifts nest in them, without any fuss or mess. See our Nest Places in Pantile Roofs page for more photos and details.

Photo Bill Ball 

This next photo shows the Swift landing. Forward movement is limited to settling on its outspread feet, as the tail is actually in contact with the tiles and will be slowing forward movement to nil.

The Swift will now scuttle on its very short legs beneath the tiles to feed its young, then emerge very rapidly to take off and fetch more food.

It will continue to do this in a series of shuttle flights for the 40 or so days it will take to rear its chicks to the stage where they are perfectly feathered, and can fly off straight to Southern Africa for their first Winter.

Photo Bill Ball


 

A Swift meets its end as a meal for a young Yellow-legged Gull, on a rooftop in Rome. Swifts have been nesting in Rome for maybe 2500 years. The patterns of the tiles haven't changed since the days of the Romans; they are perfect for Swifts to breed and roost under.

While Swifts normally have a low mortality rate (and a slow reproduction rate) they do have predators. To some extent, these are man-made. Roof dwelling cats, rats and roof breeding big gulls are recent arrivals, all were aided by man, and all are potent predators. Big gulls have only bred in Rome for the past 30 years or so, drawn in by landfill sites and the food waste there.

The gulls have taken over the Roman roof tops, and there they come upon the resident Swifts, easy enough to catch as they emerge from their nest holes.

You can still see lots of Swifts over Rome on summer evenings. Sit on the Spanish Steps an hour or two before dusk, and watch the skies!

Photo Gerry Firth 

Two juvenile Swifts sit in their nest, almost ready to fly to Africa for the winter.

Note the thin nest-lining of saliva and a few feathers (caught in flight) that make the man-made nest cup comfortable. 

Juvenile Swifts, like these, have a pale edge to the feathers of the head and wings, that wears away as they mature.

Adults are all-dark, with a pale chin patch, difficult to see except in bright sunlight; they are much darker than the juveniles.

Swifts can continue to use the same nest space for many years precisely because, unlike other birds, they do not fill it up with debris.

Photo Erich Kaiser 

This photo shows fascinating details of the Swift's aerodynamic features. Note the alulae or "bastard wings" sticking up from the normal wing surface about a quarter way out from the body. These are fully controllable by the bird, corresponding to the "slots" used on aircraft, and give increased lift and manoeuvrability at low speeds. The tail is here dipped to the bird's right, showing how it is steering through the air, a bit like the rudder on a boat.

Photo Jonathan Pomroy

An amazingly dramatic photo of an enraged Swift driving off a rival from his nest space after a bitter fight. Swifts will compete and contest for nest spaces, the more so if there is a shortage of them. Fights can last for hours, the combatants lying gripped and struggling in each others' claws, until one gives up and succeeds in getting away.

Photo Louis-Philippe Arnhem

A handsome photo of a Swift in flight, giving good views of its underside and especially its chin and tail. You can see the pale throat, often impossible to see in normal light, and also the sculptured effect of the tail and body boundary.

Photo Jonathan Pomroy

Two Swifts in flight - a more exhilarating and satisfying sight is hard to imagine. The sheer beauty, skill, daring and vigour of these birds as they dash across the sky is just amazing.

Photo Marc Guyt /
www.agami.nl

Swifts have to drink, and they have to do it in flight as they cannot land on the ground, unlike the Swallows and Martins who can drink at the water's edge if they need to.

Swifts can choose between hunting raindrops or skimming ponds. In windy weather they'll probably choose the raindrops as the water surface may well be too agitated to make the skimming technique viable and safe.

In these stunning photos Marc Guyt has captured in great detail the precision and detail of the Swift's approach and (below) the skimming flight only millimetres above the water's surface.

Photo Marc Guyt /
www.agami.nl

Contact! The Swift is scooping up water at high speed, leaving a white-water wake where its lower bill has cut the surface.

A second later it will pull up and climb into the sky, refreshed. Just how often Swifts need to drink is not yet known, nor how they manage to get by with limited water supplies on migration across such arid areas as the Sahara, the Sahel and the Kalahari.

It may be that they choose coastal routes where there is a better chance of rain, and some coastal marshes where the water is sweet enough to be of use to them.

Maybe someone is doing the research which will give us the answers?

Photo Marc Guyt /
www.agami.nl

This fascinating photo shows a Pallid Swift ( a very similar species that breeds mostly around the Mediterranean) with a ball of captured insects in its throat; note the bulge.

Swifts catch insects by pursuing and snatching, and when in swarms of small insects, by just scooping them up, like Basking Sharks catching plankton. The compressed insects are then carried to the nest and fed to the chicks.

Swifts will travel immense distances to find food for their chicks. Several years ago, when bad summer weather diminished insects in Sweden, Swifts there moved en masse to Bavaria to gather food. To cope with this, Swift chicks can endure several days without food by initiating a torpid state where their body temperature and activity fall to minimal levels.

Photo Terry Simms 

A sight that is getting rarer every year as rebuilding and refurbishment remove ever more nest places. A flock of Swifts renews its social and territorial links, in fast screaming flight above their nesting territory. Note the amazing flexibility of their wings. This gives them supreme control of the air, enabling Swifts to fly like no other bird, much faster, with greater agility and grace.

Swifts display a variety of social flights, from low level screaming flight of the birds nesting in just one or two streets, to big late-summer get-togethers of the year-old non breeders from several colonies. These are flown at much higher levels at dusk, when they ascend to the heavens to sleep on the wing.

Swifts sleep in flight with their senses of place, windspeed and direction alert. Gliding on the breeze, they compensate for wind drift and change of direction to stay in place above their home territory. At dawn they descend rapidly back to lower levels, to fly and feed around their familiar territory.

Photo Jorge Sanz




A fine study of a Swift in flight. The forked tail is rather different from those of the Swallows and Martins with which the Swift, while no relative, is often confused.

In this photo the pale throat is very obvious. It is often impossible to see when looking at Swifts flying fast overhead in shady urban streets, or against a bright sky, when the birds appear uniformly dark.

Swifts show extreme sophistication in their aerodynamic design. See how the tiny feet are completely retracted into the plumage so they cannot interfere with the air-flow over the streamlined surface of the bird and create "drag".

The outer wings create leading edge vortexes which greatly enhance lift and improve flight stability. Swifts share this capability with the most advanced fighter jet aircraft, only they have had it for over 50 million years!

Photo Derek Brown



Two alert young Swifts sit in their man-made nest box.

Swifts have ultra-sensitive sight and hearing. Acute sensitivity to pressure and airflow enables them to avoid dangerous weather.

They navigate by magnetic systems, backed up by a memory of star maps, and are guided by a precise memory of their nest location. They will reject a familiar nest if its hole is not found within a couple of centimetres of its previous location.

They identify insect prey by the sound it makes, so avoiding dangerous species, and identify their mate by call, not appearance.

Photo Ulrich Tigges

Coming in low and fast, a feeding Swift chases invisible insects during 2004's plethora of huge aphid swarms.

The adult bird's pale throat patch is just visible.

Swifts will eat whatever insects are available, timing their migrations to coincide with swarms of suitable species, such as termites in Africa, and emerging aquatic fly species in Europe.

Photo Martin Grund  



A Swift reaches the apex of its climb, slowing to an aerodynamic "stall", or stop, before falling into a dive. The purpose of this manoeuvre is to check a possible new nest site.

The similarity between Swifts' flight and that of the most demanding aircraft aerobatics is remarkable, though Swifts never seem to turn upside down.

Watching them closely, you can see they always keep their heads parallel with the ground, maintaining their orientation and stability.

Photo Ulrich Tigges 

Coming in fast! A Pallid Swift does a rapid turn in the air over Tarifa, Southern Spain. See how the tail is dipped to act like a rudder, cutting the air and forcing the bird into a turn. One wing is dipped so the bird can pivot on it, while the extended flat wing provides the lift that keeps the bird in the air. The faster the bird flies, the "tougher" the air will become, behaving much like a liquid at the highest speeds.

The head is kept level with the horizon, whatever the flight posture. This is to keep the bird from becoming disoriented during rapid manoeuvres, and may correspond to the "artificial horizon" used in aircraft. It is a notable feature of all highly agile birds.

Note the width of the Swift's mouth, well designed to scoop up swarms of tiny insects in flight.

Photo Terry Simms


 

A common but often overlooked habit of Swifts is to fly up a building's walls to have a look for suitable nest places, or, having established a nest, to visit the nestplace to feed the chicks.

That's what seems to be happening here. There is probably a nest under the ridge tiles (where the white droppings are visible), and it's probably situated on one of the brick-ends, a favourite spot for a Swift's nest.

Once feeding the chicks, the Swifts will shuttle back and forth with their balls of insect food, making several visits a day each. They may fly a very long way to collect this food, for hundreds of miles if need be, or they may be lucky and find all they need over the local gardens, parks and reservoirs.

Photo Marc Guyt /
www.agami.nl

Swifts mate in the air, or on the nest. Here you can see a spectacular coupling in flight. They are perhaps the only birds that do this, evidence of their amazing flying skills and their completely airborne life style. For Swifts, not flying is to be in danger, the air is the safest place they can be.

This behaviour is easy enough to see, if you watch Swifts carefully on their high-in-the-sky flights early on in May and June. But the whole act takes only a second or two, so you have to be sharp eyed and sharp witted to witness it!

Photo Graham Catley

This superb photo shows a pair of Pallid Swifts, the lighter-coloured southern Swift species. They breed on the Western Mediterranean littoral and along the Persian Gulf, and occasionally turn up in the UK.

Pallid Swifts spend the winter months in an area from West Africa and the Sahel, across to the Sudan and Ethiopia, and so have a much shorter migration than does the Common Swift.

Because of this they can spend longer in the breeding areas, (from April to November in Southern France), and can raise two broods. They like rocky gorges and cliff faces as nest sites, preferring coastal or river valley sites.

This species does wander. Pallid Swifts have been seen as far apart as Ireland and South Africa, demonstrating that their flying abilities match those of the Common Swift.

Photo Seyed Babak Musavi  

A stunning study of a Pallid Swift, flying through a town on the Persian Gulf. The lighter colour of the bird, so evident here, is best seen in brilliant sunlight.

On overcast days or in low evening light the birds can be almost impossible to distinguish from the Common Swift. This has lead to much confusion over the identity of individual birds, and even the definition of the areas occupied by each species.

But it is thought that Pallid Swifts are doing well, with an increase in their numbers, whilst the Common Swift is declining, especially in Western Europe.

Photo Seyed Babak Musavi  

Another fine photo of a Pallid Swift, seen here over Tarifa in Southern Spain. There are some slight visual differences apparent here differentiating it from the Common Swift. The bird appears broader winged and more plump.

More reliable clues are the paler colour, (seen best in very bright sunlight or from above) and the slightly deeper tone of their calls.

Photo Terry Simms 

This close up of a young Swift's head, several times larger than life size, shows the unique scale-like feathering, and the streamlined shape, supporting high-speed flight.

Also evident are the bristles and feathers that protect the deep set eyes from contact with air-borne debris, and damage from the spiky legs and wing cases of insects eaten in fast flight.

The gape of the mouth is vast; it opens almost as wide as the whole face, to give the Swift great scooping abilities when feeding.

Photo Ulrich Tigges 

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