Where Swifts Fly

Breeding, wintering and migration

The UK's Swifts have one of the longest migration journeys in the World, 22,000 kilometers (14,000 miles) every year. They fly to and from Equatorial and Southern Africa, using largely unknown routes. If in the late Summer or Autumn you see Swifts heading purposefully South or South East, you are witnessing their migration.

The map shows the breeding range in dark pink. Arriving from the South, (reaching the Middle-East in February, Naples in April, London in May) Swifts will breed within this area, but their location depends on suitable breeding and feeding sites. Cities, ruins, ancient monuments, cliffs, quarries and old woodpecker holes in ancient trees in ancient forests can all provide nest places for Swifts, and density at such places can be high or even amazingly low. Freshwater areas with concentrations of flying insects attract masses of feeding Swifts. In other areas Swift presence may be minimal or non-existent.

The Migration routes (in yellow) are partly assumed, partly based on observation. Swifts leave Europe as soon as they have bred. The Northern-most birds, arriving last, will leave last. London's birds are on their way in early August, with the last leaving by the middle of the month. Further South, the birds leave even earlier (they leave the Middle East by June). Those last to leave Europe will still be crossing the desert in November.

Winter is spent in the Equatorial and Southern parts of Africa (the blue-green area). The birds are silent, flying high and fast and covering large areas in the search for food. They can appear out of nowhere in large numbers after even the smallest rain shower, seeking out the termites that burst forth from their mounds when the rain comes. Then when the rain stops they will vanish again, in a flash. They spend all their time on the wing, never landing. They are vulnerable to bad weather; there have been mass fatalities following severe storms. Confusion with similar local species makes study of Swifts in Africa difficult, but recent developments in electronic tracking are beginning to reap rewards.

The UK Swift population was estimated at 80,000 birds in 1990. They are thought to have decreased by as much as 50% since then. There's just one Swift now for every 1750 UK humans.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth! The photograph (right) shows the River Congo at Yangambi, in the very centre of Equatorial Africa. This is where our Swifts fly 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)

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