Chimney Swift: York, N. Yorkshire (photo: Malcolm Douglas).
As the forecast for Tuesday 24th July 2007 was for fine, settled, weather for once in what has been a very poor 'summer', I had decided the previous evening to 'do' my local patch the following morning before work - if I woke up early enough! As it happened I did and was out of my flat by 5.30am.
My local patch consists of the stretch of the River Ouse between York and Naburn, several miles to the south, although this morning I was only going to walk down as far as Bishopthorpe Bridge where the A64 crosses the river. It was a variably misty start to the day, almost foggy at times, but with the sun trying to break through. I proceeded down the eastern side of the river via Fulford Ings and was to cross the road bridge and walk back up the western side via Middlethorpe Ings. There was a lot of small-bird activity and I had noticed rather more Common Swifts around than usual, so I started to pay them some attention...
As I was nearing home, walking along the towpath opposite Rowntree Park in York, my attention was drawn to a flock of some 30-40 Common Swifts circling quite high above the river. When I looked at them I soon noticed a much smaller bird which rather stood out, both in terms of its size, and bat-like appearance.
Having seen a Chimney Swift on the Isles of Scilly in 1999, and admired a stunning photograph of one in the November 2006 issue of Birding World only the night before, I immediately realized that I was now looking at one again! The bird was quite high up, maybe three or four times tree-top height, so plumage detail was not easy to discern, but I watched the bird intently for a few minutes until I had satisfied myself I had seen enough to write a reasonable description before spreading the news.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes I rang as many local birdwatchers as I could, after contacting John McLoughlin of Birdline Northeast, who said he'd be straight down there! So I spent some time juggling with my mobile 'phone whilst trying to keep an eye on the bird, but fortunately found it relatively easy to relocate amongst the Common Swifts each time I took my eyes off it to ring people.
I decided to stay with the bird until other observers arrived, but it was an agonizing hour or more before anyone else turned up, being especially mindful of the non-acceptance of a Black Kite I saw briefly over the very same spot in June 2003!
However, I was eventually joined by local birding pal Malcolm Douglas, armed with his camera, and John McLoughlin. It was a while before the bird reappeared, however, and it was still too distant for photography. With the bird now in 'safe hands', I left for work. Thankfully it came closer not long afterwards, allowing Malcolm to get some decent record shots.
I returned to the scene after work at about 5.30pm and, of course, there were a few more birders around by then as the bird had lingered in the area all day, although it was only seen intermittently as the accompanying Common Swifts were rather mobile!
I managed to record some 50 species down the river that day, which is fairly average, apart from one extra-special addition this time! All birders dream about finding a 'mega' anywhere in the country, never mind on their local patch, and in my case literally at the bottom of my street! I have to say that I virtually floated into work that morning and probably didn't get much done (my work colleagues would say "no change there, then"!) but the event was made all the more enjoyable by so many other birders being able to catch up with such a rarity and add it to their lists whether 'life' or 'Yorkshire' or both.
I took the following notes on the bird as the basis for my description, with comparison to Common Swifts in the vicinity...
Size/shape - appearing about half the size of Common Swift with rather bat-like appearance. Almost stubby, cigar-shaped, body with short square-ended tail and fairly 'compact' triangular wings being broad-based but pointed at the tips with fairly straight rear edges. Tail spines not visible.
Flight - seeming less hurried with stiff rather shallow wing beats and rather more gliding/soaring with occasional jinks.
Plumage - appearing dark overall at the range seen, but when catching the sun the flight feathers appeared paler and warmer brown producing a slight contrast with the body. Vent and rump appeared a touch warmer brown with the hint of a slightly paler throat now and again but difficult to see.
After careful study of the available photographs it has become evident that the bird is most likely an aberrant Common Swift. The bird appears to be missing primaries, plus tail, hence creating a completely different 'jizz' in the field - Eds.