Swift flight

How about the Albatross then? Roaming the southern oceans for thousands of miles. Well, take away wind and wave action and you’d be left with a sitting duck right?! Albatrosses have adapted perfectly to a life at sea. Whose home in the sky more? The Peregrine with his speed record? Well, take away gravity and his hunting stoop and you’d be left with a good flyer who’s not having the edge over it anymore?! Whose home in the sky more? The Arctic Tern with its revered 50 thousand miles annual migration route? Well, graceful as the Tern may be in flight, I will be talking here about someone who may easily clock up to 3 million miles during a lifetime fuelled only through an insectivore diet. An awe-inspiring masterpiece of the skies flies about.

Who’s home in the sky more? Let us go sky-high now. The aerial master at the top for all disciplines; top-speeds, mind-blowing maneuverability, effortless soar, swoop and glide, teamwork, elusory flutter, echolocation abilities, edible nest making, dizzying heights and deliberate close calls when they come low… Swifts, Swiftlets and not least Needletails and Spinetails. Brilliantly adapted to life on the wing they are the true masters of the sky. "With swifts, anything is possible." No wonder they eat, sleep, drink, bathe, collect nest material and even mate in flight. For them it’s ordinary and everyday business although I’m not so sure the latter would be for every day 😜

Asian Palm SwiftAsian Palm Swift
This is the opportunity taken; An Asian Palm Swift hunting low for insects. Heedless of hitting any tops (and my head!) it rockets inches above the grassland. My first photo shows success! We are not looking at a double chin but a bird who has a bolus (ball of food) ready to be delivered to its baby Palm Swifts. Each bolus can easily contain 500 food items. This makes me appreciate photography more. Those Swifts go such fast you'd never notice this through bins in the field. If shooting that one wasn't a challenge check how much fun I had with the bird speeding towards me. Shooting fast small birds with a background renders the camera's auto-focus worthless. Take it that manual focusing is the secret here. And of course a good location and luck. Camera is only the old 7D and no overly expensive lens either; a f5.6 400mm with the shutter at 1/1250s. You too can do this!! 

Science has never properly figured out our Swifts and Needletails and don’t we truly love this! With Swifts we have the opportunity to fully admire them. "Magic and wonder is still in the air." Religious as it often appears when nothing is to be left unanswered; science has not yet boxed these avian marvels. The anecdote goes that the Common Swift back in England –the cradle of bird scientists- was named Apus apus and for those with little knowledge of Latin and/or Greek I’m happy to translate that into "footless". In my opinion nothing much has changed since. You won’t hear me say much ‘has’ to be learned about those birds still. No need. Perhaps it’s just the time to accept that Swifts are incredibly smart and we may not. It could well be that Swifts have neared evolutionary completion. Can they get better still? Even the most advanced human made flying object today would be poor technology, as compared with Swift abilities that is!

House SwiftPhilippine Needletail
This House Swift was coming in for a drink at a pond in a park near Bangkok. It helps when birds swoop back for a few more rounds... good for the photo opportunity and good for the multiple pleasure of watching these dive-bomb to the water's surface. I've also got the House Swifts at my place in the center of town; I'm swimming in the pool and they come in for a drink. Pool's not good for the camera but what a spectacle and speed!
The Philippine Needletail is my favourite. Super special, extremely powerful. All of the shapes in the column on the right are Philippine Spinetails. See how incredibly versatile they are. That's an aerial capability top-ranking! Would you like to join for a little mathematics regarding the Needletail photo above-right? I only had the chance to take 4 frames, my camera was on 4,5 frames per second. This means I had the bird in the viewfinder for 0,88 seconds between first and last shot. In this time I did swing my lens about 135 degrees right to left. The bird crossed a field at least 50 meter distance. Have you got your calculator near? I make that 204 km/h!! Unofficial record yeah I know. I'd just like to let Canon know their cameras/lenses can't focus that fast. Needletail's the winner ha! Another manual focus job, lots of fun and a good portion of luck after of course having chosen the perfect location. 

I am still under the swift's spell after 31 years of birding. Mystery of life on the wing continues. In the meantime science has figured out that Swifts aren’t lumped with Swallows and Martins. They now say their closest relative is the Hummingbird. Oh well, it’d be just another choice and attempt to classify. Mind you, they’ll change it again in due time. Please, don’t do all of this with Swifts or Needletails. In my humble opinion they deserve more respect and therefore you may note my willingness to accept that Swifts are just Swifts. Take your time, find a lawn, lie down on your back, watch the ☁ clouds drift, wonder about…oh look "a" Swift… I recommend you try this too and you may discover someday it may make your birding happier…

   Those birds are top in the sky but often under-appreciated. Examples are countless. The ego-trip lister who’s got 9414 IOC seen only but feels frustrated every time a Swiftlet can’t be identified… Fantastic forest viewpoint with those ‘common’ House Swifts on aerial display while the question pops-up; ‘What is there to see here?’ Gush! How about the exhilarating experience unfolding in front of your eyes? Come with me my friends and we’ll work on better and happier birding! It’s like play tennis you know. Have we learned to play properly? ✓ One may shoot the perfect ball but if your game isn’t strong mentally you’d still be the looser some way or another. Not that I would like to compare birding with tennis. ☈ The ballgame has a fixed set of rules and is perfect to be turned into a sport or competition. Birding, for most of us, is a hobby which of course is best managed by many of your own preferences. It barely ever is suitable to be turned into something competitive. In many cases with very keen competitive birding, this may often happen when people either get bored with everyday birds or simply have never really loved the birds themselves. The birds don’t play the game. Why would we want to use them for our game? Respect?? When it all becomes about the birders and what they have scored mmm ✂; Rather it should be more about the life of the birds wouldn’t it? Am I right? Maybe I’m not you say but that would be because of a different game, a shallower one... Anyhow, it is no surprise to me that quite often the Swiftlet flutters past, and us birders don’t even give it worth a glimpse 💔 ☹

 I’m making a call here for the masters of the sky. Often underrated and underappreciated and there is no good reason. Let’s play our birding stronger, because happiness lies in the small, little things. So suddenly present and yet instantly gone again, a Swifts’ appearance is fascinating to say the least. Yet brief, it is one of only a few birds able to produce powerful feelings and create a clear image in the mind.

Glossy SwiftletGlossy Swiftlet
The Glossy Swiftlet is abundant in big parts of its large range in Asia. As a result it is often neglected by birders. And they've given me easy proof of it. Google, OBI, IBC... I did a search on the internet. And it very much looks like I've been given the opportunity for a little statement. Not my fault I do this; Above left is 1 of only a handful good quality flight shots of Flossy Swiftlet to exist today?! At least on the internet and certainly for a shot with good light on a background. I'm not saying this was easy photography. I did delete 249 shots from the series. Yes I took 250. May I ask a question; Who's having fun out there?
Above-right is another Glossy Swiftlet. It shows how Swiftlets take a bath. Much bigger splash it gives as compared with one coming in for a drink. Note the feet visible which is another detail impossible to see in the field with/without binoculars.

The expat’s choice of place to live; ☼ tropical of course. I did it for the Swifts. A few Swifts for only 3 summer months a year? Nine months cold ❅ without my friends in the sky? Oh no please. My new home has got Flossy Swiftlet, Asian Palm Swift, Philippine Needletail, Purple Needletail, Island Swiftlet, Pygmy Swiftlet, Philippine Swiftlet and House Swift year round. No empty skies for me. Feel an itch now? Well, hop on the plane ✈ for an escape to Swift paradise. Have a taste. No need to be an expat and you don’t have to stay for the rest of your life for having the experience. Start watching Swifts because after all there would be few other animals on the planet that can provide you with such pure sensation.

Another something Swifts have learned me is to appreciate bird photography more. This was especially true when changing from digiscoping to the more versatile DSLR-camera + lens. I was now able to freeze Swift flight and it has revealed details you would never be able to see through binoculars in the field. Swifts are not birds which invite the casual observer to engage close inspection of bodily details. Photography further enhances appreciation for the birds. And of course to shoot Swifts is a little direct interaction between the photographer and the birds. It should be fun. I’m not using those very expensive lenses. How are you doing? Getting frustrated trying to get any single Swift shot sharp enough? You should not. After all, those Swifts are the fastest birds on the planet. It is normal that the Swift will win most of the time. Just have fun and try again playing your hobby stronger, because contentment lies in the small, little things.

May I conclude with a few links to some astounding flight shots;
White-throated Needletail ; Purple Needletail ; Common Swift ; Pacific Swift ; Glossy Swiftlet ; Himalayan Swiftlet



Stijn De Win

Needletail shape 1

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Philippine Spinetail
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Direct above is the most
exotic looking aircraft ever build; looks like...

All the rest above are my
Philippine Needletail photos
and I went strong on the
exposure edit so only the
shapes stand out.

Now choose who's build
 the better flight technology?
Nature or man?

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