Birds of May.

Autor Dave Langlois

Birdsong in La Vera peaks in the first fortnight of May. Many nightingales are singing all night and much of the following morning. After a short afternoon rest (the siesta must be a sweet relief) they kick off again at nightfall to sing right through to the next dawn chorus, the other species each entering the fray at their appointed time as though ushered in by a (super) natural conductor. This order, indeed, is pretty regular and foreseeable. Apart from the night singers (the nightingale itself, the wood lark and cuckoo), the sequence in La Vera is more or less the following: swallow, black redstart, robin, blackbird, wren, golden oriole, melodious warbler, Sardinian and subalpine warblers, cirl bunting, blackcap and, almost always the last of all, the chaffinch.

Chaffinch. Photograph by Sam Langlois

What’s the reason for this sequence? We don’t know for sure. But it might partly be explained by the different ways of singing. The insectivorous/omnivorous birds (which usually have the most striking songs) can be broken down into 2 main groups: those that give static performances and those that sing while eating, moving meanwhile through the foliage, like the blackcap. It would make sense, therefore, for a bird from the former group to make use of the half-light to flaunt its strength and reliability to its incubating female. A bird of the second type, however, like the blackcap, is not likely to sing until it’s light enough to look for insects and sing at the same time. As for a seed-eater like the chaffinch, which hasn’t got to catch anything, well, what’s the hurry?

The villages now resound with the most typical sound of summer. The screaming swifts. The swift is a miracle of evolution we can marvel at every day in any village of La Vera. It’s the perfect flying machine. Its wings, indeed, are so long and its legs so short that it can’t take off from the ground. That’s why it breeds in the eaves, from where it can simply drop and start flying. The vast majority of swifts only stop flying to breed. All the rest of the time they’re up there in the air. They eat in flight, sleep in flight, gather their nest material in flight, mate in flight. . .   On 22 May I lucked into one of these aerial copulations. The pair flew over, screaming, side by side, wings fluttering, and then joined up, the male holding its wings up and the female hers down, making a black, one-second daytime star.

Swift nests

The mathematics of this aerial lifestyle is staggering. Swifts don’t reach breeding age until their third year. After leaving the nest, therefore, a young bird has no reason to “land” for this whole 3-year period, flying to Africa and back every year meanwhile to learn the migration route. The first time a 3-year old bird thwacks into the eaves to breed, therefore, it might have flown up to one million miles nonstop . . . you read that right: one million miles.

As well as the common swift another swift species breeds in some La Vera villages: the pallid swift. In Villanueva there’s a small colony of 6 or 7 birds in the westernmost houses. In flight it looks almost identical to the common swift, unless you catch it in good enough light to see that, as its name suggests, it is a touch paler in colour. But the call is quite different, a schwuuuuuu instead of the well-known schwiiiiii  of the common.

The crepuscular ballet of this magnificent bird can be enjoyed from any village square in La Vera, beer in hand to do justice to the spectacle. Try it and see…