Chimney Swift – Axmouth, Devon

On Friday 22nd October Britain witnessed an unprecedented arrival from North America of at least 13 Chimney Swifts. Individuals were seen on the Isles of Scilly, Penzance, Plymouth, Axmouth, at least one in Ireland and possibly one in Dorset. There were also 9 others in Sweden, Portugal and The Azores. I considered the Plymouth and Axmouth birds to be within range. The Plymouth bird was at Rame Head where a Red-flanked Bluetail had already been present since 17th October, this would take me just under 3 hours. The Axmouth bird, which had been found later on in the day, would take me just over 60 minutes. Nick rang me on Friday evening from a public phone box to see if I was going. I said that I couldn’t go on Saturday and that I may go to Axmouth on Sunday. Nick said that because he needed the Bluetail he would be going to Rame Head in the morning. Later on in the evening I agreed with Sara that as long as I was back by about 11am (Nigel, Emma and the boys were coming for lunch) then I could go out birding.

I set the alarm for about 5.30am and I was on the road just before 6am. At 7am I arrived in the Seaton/Axmouth area and parked the car just below the hill-top wood where the Swift had been seen the evening before, it had been associating with 40 or more House Martins. There were about 5 other cars parked up and with it still being fairly dark I tilted the seat back and tried to get some rest. Several other cars began to arrive and with the light beginning to improve (and with memories of the time Peter missed a Black Stork in Suffolk because he slept on in the car) I decided to get out and start looking. The weather was fairly threatening although it wasn’t raining yet. Swifts often move off early in the morning particularly if the weather looks a bit dodgy and so I was anxious not to waste time. I joined a small group of birders and began looking for flocks of Martins. After a short while I decided that the place I had parked the car probably offered a better vantage point and so I wandered the 200 yards or so back to the car. The nearest birders were now 100 yards around the corner yet I still felt strangely optimistic.

I glanced up towards the wood on the hill and in the foreground noticed a movement. The object was silhouetted and I instantly decided it was a large bat, probably a Noctule. Just as quickly I then realised it was actually a bird and with a flight pattern unlike any House Martin. The key feature was a fluttering bat-like wing movement. It flew very low and directly away from me and maintained the fast wing movement without gliding. These were all jizz features and although the light was still very poor there was no white rump evident. I watched the bird head directly down the road due south always below tree top height. I marched down the road and as I rounded the corner I expected to see several happy birders. Unfortunately, no one else had seen the bird. Within about 10 minutes another birder joined the group, he was in a rush to get back to his car as he had seen the Swift further round and up the hill. Everyone seemed content to wait and fairly soon the first Martin flocks appeared. They were all flying very high and with their characteristic long glides but the Chimney Swift was not with them. Shortly afterwards the heavens opened and  there were no other sightings of the bird. It seems likely that the bird may have decided to move on ahead of the weather front.

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