Posted by: "Jochem Kuhnen" firstname.lastname@example.org xjochemx
Date: Sat May 5, 2012 11:55 pm ((PDT))
Dear John, (sic!)
That is a great story of some great observations! Thank you very much for sharing this with this group! It’s weird that in this time of modern equipment and people travelling all over the world, there still is very, very little to be found (image/video-wise) of Swifts in Africa (please do correct me if I’m wrong here). I certainly look forward to seeing the video you took of the ‘three palms screaming party’!
Kind regards from a grey and chilly Beek Ubbergen, the Netherlands, where my only breeding pair is huddled against eachother in the corner of their nest box...
Subject: [SMS-Worldwide] The behaviour of Common Swifts in Africa - "A Three Palms Screaming Party"
Dear Swift lovers,
Since April 29, when my bird observations resumed in northern Sierra
Leone (9*N by 12*W) until today, I have been watching flocks of up to
80 "Common" Swifts. Quite possibly they are all members of the same
'meta-flock' as all my observations have been within a radius of 6 km
of our Tonkolili study site.
There were heavy evening showers earlier in the week, hopefully the
beginning of the northbound ITCZ rains, after which there have been
some substantial emergences of small black 'flying' ants and other
Each day, from about 8 a.m., often until late evening, the "A.a."
swift flock can be found somewhere - busily feeding. They clearly
prefer the hill evergreen forest, degraded, but a forest none the
less. A sumptuous community in fact, a multi-storied living carpet
that still clings to life, along the Kunsulma ridge-line, about 150
metres above the new 'village' of Tonkolili.
individually. Or rather, they fly very low over the canopy, each
individual scything back and fore only a metre or so above the leafy
crowns of the forest trees. Yet all seeking to remain part of one very
loose, almost evenly-spaced, flock.
overnight rain, more than likely they will be found foraging in a tall
wheeling column, sometimes high above the eutrophic stream which flows
out of the village. When in a column they may call, and call
frequently, contra what is said in most of the Afro-ornithological
literature that I've read.
I should mention that, apart from seeing one southbound migrant flock
in December, Common Swifts have not been found here during the long
dry season, between October and April. At that season, Pallid Swifts are present,
foraging in exactly the same areas - that is between mid-October and mid-March.
At eight o'clock, on the very clear morning of May 1st, the 'entire'
swift flock was feeding, and calling more noisily than usual, over the
crest of the ridge, west of the village. I had just sweated up to the
bald crown of a still largely wooded minor summit, where an Airtel
mobile phone telecommunications tower was erected early in 2011. And I
was busy taking "habo snaps".
down to the tower, at first in ones and twos, or threes and fours,
then quickly in larger number. They converged to dash and circle close
about the top of the red-and-white scaffold of the metal tower. Often
they flickered past it tightly, or seemed minded to dash themselves
against it, just as if this tower were their "home in the Palearctic".
From time to time they would disperse, fanning out in a broad rush-
off, completely vacating the scene, to soar high for a minute or two
before descending to repeat what was for me an exhilarating
performance. Especially so, because I haven't been in their breeding
range since July 2009. I must say that listening to their full volume
nuptial season screaming party - their summer song - was one of those
unanticipated joys that keeps the pursuit of natural history so very
keen. They continued belting around the tower for about fifteen
minutes. Then, when seemingly they'd had enough, they dispersed to
feed, rising quickly, up to a couple of hundred metres, above the
forest canopy of the ridge line. And were still up there at 1300 hrs
when I left the area.
Better yet, on the morning of May 3, at a similar time, under a sky which was
heavily overcast, I was four kilometres distant, as the swift flies,
in the lower Mawuru river valley. This is, or rather was, a very
beautiful area, a 'tranquil rural land' which has until very now
sustained fertile fields of rice, sweet potato and beans, surrounded
by high quality Guinea savanna spread across its rounded hills and
slopes. A valley threaded throughout by a few ribbons of riparian
evergreen woodland and clots of permanent valley swamp along the
Mawuru and its tributaries.
In the welcome cool of overcast conditions I had walked (without much
sweat) to the top of a low hill, very recently clear-felled and burnt-
over, trees all gone, save for three tall palms. Here a hundred or so
Sahel-bound White-throated Bee-eaters were swirling noisily, they
appeared to be indulging themselves in all the trills of a major
confidence-building session, of 'zugunruhe', in English - pre-
At about 9.30 a group, or 'our group', of sixty to seventy Common
Swifts descended from the lead-grey sky and began to dash about the
blackened hill. Often birds were tearing past me, audibly slicing the
air with their wings, only a few metres from my head. Then, as on May
Day, this loose flock coalesced into a spectacularly snaking screaming
party and whirled all around the three palms who still stand proud on
the blackened skeletal hill top. For those few, like me, nostalgic in
our world, these sixty birds might have been dashing round an old
church tower. Against such a cloudy sky, entranced by the birds, I was
cast back through time, into distant memory drifts of swifts. In those
distant days such birds could have been called common swifts, yet
essential swifts more like, swifts all screaming, as they have been,
throughout the building of our common history in Europe. Shouting out
apparently for joy, in the clean and quiet air. Air filled with insects. Among trees
and buildings old, and riddled with holes. The air they can still find
in Africa. Ancient giant trees for roosting too - that's only my
conjecture - based on incidents seen here at dusk. They can find 'free' air
over poor villages, down in these "ignorant lands".
Anyhow, in my attempt to embrace information technology, and so better
prepared this time, I managed to grab, or loose-off, a few short
videos of the "three palms screaming party". With my iPhone
indispensable of course!
The footless party continued for some ten or twelve minutes more.
Unfortunately it seems that the best video, consuming 30-something
Megs, is far too heavy to upload from a non-military server in
impoverished Sierra Leone. Somehow though I will make it available
once I'm "far up north", in a safe house in broadband-land, near to
where these swifts likely 'make their home' at the end of this month.
Phenologically, I'm thinking - Latitude Leningrad, or the spires of St
Petersburg, if you prefer that name.
There should be a couple of habo-snaps on line here: