Rarity finders: Little Swift in Cleveland


I've never had much luck with Pallid Swifts. One of my biggest bogey birds, I spent the last influx year (2015) seemingly driving between Apus dips in the North-East, and missed the widely twitched bird at Hartlepool in 2013 by a few minutes. The recent invasion of the species across the country seemed as good a bet as any for another shot locally and, sure enough, 11 November brought a number of birds nearby.

I opted to try for the Hartlepool individual as it is a site where they are well-known for lingering – and usually showing pretty well. Quickly packing a bag, remembering my camera and my girlfriend's Swarovski bincoulars – I had accidentally (honest!) left them in my bag after visiting her the previous day and, being much better than my current pair, it seemed criminal not to make use of them. I then headed off towards the train station.

Some time later I found myself at Hartlepool Headland. Having got off the bus from the station, I immediately spotted the Pallid hawking overhead while walking towards the lighthouse – not a bad start. Wandering down to the sea wall resulted in outrageous views as it hawked just overhead and underneath the seawall. I soon phoned my dad – who was on his way up from Nottingham – and mentioned how much it reminded me of the New Brighton Little Swift, which also showed incredibly well low over the sea.

After continuing like this for another 20 minutes or so, the weather quickly picked up and the swift headed off rapidly north. As time dragged on, I became more and more concerned that the bird had done a runner and used the rapidly improving weather conditions as an excuse to move on. At 2 pm I was rather pleased to see a swift pop out from behind the Battery to the north and begin heading rapidly towards me. I put my borrowed bins on it for a few seconds before I noticed another swift a small distance behind the first and on much the same track. A smile spread across my face; it seemed another of the day's Durham Pallids had joined in the fun. As a result, to say that I was astounded to see that this swift sailing towards me had a white rump would be an understatement! 

Little Swift, Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland (Bethan Clyne).

The much smaller, square-rumped bird stopped briefly just off the point where I was standing and criss-crossed over the rocky beach a matter of metres away. Unmistakeable through the much-superior optics, I waited for it to fly slightly further away before putting the news out. Little Swift! Upon getting through to Andrew Kinghorn, the Durham county recorder and the first number I dialled, I was greeted with: "Oh no, you must be mistaken, that was this morning". My response of: "No it wasn't, I'm watching it now!" led to the much more expected startled response and a number of expletives. As it turned out, several Cleveland birders had panicked over a misread tweet that morning relating to one of the local Pallids! Trusting him with putting it out on the local WhatsApp groups (he didn't), I phoned the BirdGuides hotline with an update that not only was the Pallid still present, a much smaller and rarer relative had now appeared!

The Little Swift's stunning performance gave birders brilliant photo opportunities (Damian Money).

It was a nervy wait for the bird to reappear. At that point, I was the sole observer and had neglected to take any pictures. After another five minutes, I was getting concerned that it had already continued its journey south, but it eventually returned from among the houses. Moving a few hundred metres further north for the remainder of the day, a number of twitchers were able to soak up the atmosphere of the showy swift duo in the afternoon sunshine.

A compilation of video footage, taken by Sam Viles, illustrating just how confiding both the Little and Pallid Swifts were on the afternoon of 11th.

Both the Little and Pallid Swifts continued to show at very close range until very late in the day (both were seen down to a matter of centimetres!) and we tracked the bird to its roosting spot in the headland housing estate just after dusk. A much-welcomed first for Durham; the sole observer of the single previous Cleveland record was far less pleased! The borrowed binoculars? Evidently a good luck charm!

The Little Swift roosted on a windowsill overnight on 11-12 November and was even visible during the hours of darkness (Colin Bradshaw).

The bird showed well throughout the afternoon of 11th and again until late morning on 12th, after which it disappeared (Graham Jepson).

Written by: Sam Viles


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