A swift visit to a swift that swiftly became a wonderful experience…

During a recent visit to Malaysia, a birding buddy said that it was possible to go shoot a swift whilst it was nesting.

Brown Needle-tail Swift

I thought “Hmm… a swift, those very dark colourless birds I’ve seen in the UK a thousand times, and not once have their nesting habits seemed remotely interesting” … needless to say, I wasn’t exactly jumping through hoops. I don’t know that much about swifts. I know some are, through their nesting activity,  the source of birds’ nest soup. And aligned to that, some nutters go to crazed lengths to try and get those nests and the monies that ensue.

I also know that the fastest bird in the world, (in flight, not stooping on prey) is a Spine Tailed Swift. And I knew that swifts cannot land on anything that’s not at least a fair slope, as their wings are so big and wide, relative to their small bodies, that they otherwise can’t take off without a favourable perch or gradient. That was a swift recap of the sum total of my knowledge about swifts. I said that swifts are ‘pretty bland’. What I meant was that in my experience, swifts had all the colour and contrast of a white cat in a snowstorm.I was told that this wasn’t just a swift. Not just any swift. This was a Whiskered Tree Swift. Well, I hadn’t photographed a tree swift before. So that was starting to get interesting. PLUS, this bird has whiskers. My curiosity was definitely aroused.

SO off we went to shoot a Whiskered Tree Swift. We drove for miles of road that meandered like a drunk man with inner ear issues. Up and down, round and round, for what seemed like an eternity. And then we stopped. “The swift is up there” we were told, as I looked up an embankment that had steepness. Real steepness. As in a 1:3 level of steepness gradient, whereby for every foot you made horizontally, the gradient would make sure you ended up 3 feet below where you started that foot if you were descending. I looked up… and up, and noticed that it went even further, UP! I was starting to wonder how my gear was going to be taken UP like that. I have to say I was having reservations. Canon pro level photography gear has many features, benefits and general attributes attached to them. However, ‘falling, sliding, bouncing, et al’ are not part of Canon’s sales pitch. There’s good reason for that!!!

Despite this gradient  seemingly extending to the stratosphere, it turned out that the swift was a mere 50 metres or so up. So as usual, taking naivety to newfound levels of stupidity, I smiled. 50 metres. With a tripod, 500mm lens, and a Canon 1DX body. I thought it would be 200+ metres and I’d be both assessing whether any mountain goat genes ran in our family, and also how responsive the local ambulance service would be. So 50 metres was a breeze! Yeah right. I don’t think I have moved this gingerly before, save for that night long ago when a certain act was done for the first time. but anyway, up we went, and with assistance with the gear, all was well. And then. Right in front of us.  As the sun began to radiate the new day’s greeting from the right, there it was.

A39T2319-impProbably the tiniest nest I have seen for a long, long time. Definitely the most beautiful Swift I have EVER seen. And that day I got to shoot it. On the nest. With a chick. Happy Days! 🙂

At first, the female, (AKA ‘Mum’), was in attendance at the nest and the chick was obscured. I’m not sure if the chick was sleeping, or whether the mother was using her feathers to provide a little protection from the ever climbing sun.

I was scrambling to set up my gear but was told that there was lots of time, this chick isn’t ready to fly and we have several hours to get the shots we want. To be honest I couldn’t really imagine spending several hours in front of a bird. Waiting for a bird I hadn’t shot well enough, or at all? Maybe. But not when it is right in front of you.

A39T2347-impAfter a short time and once my camera gear was all set up how I wanted it, the chick moved and became clearly visible. You can see the red cheeks, clearly identifying that this is a male.

The sun was rising fast now and the temperature was climbing, which, with the dew deposited during the night being predictably united with the atmosphere, provided an increasing level of humidity.

A39T2856-impI was fairly aghast at how pretty his bird was. I’d never even thought of associating the bird ‘swift’ with the word ‘pretty’ before.

The youngster decided that a little ‘stretching’ was the order of the day, and so the wings were given a good extension whilst ‘mum’ was partially obscured. On this basis, I figured that previously, the nestling was probably asleep.

A39T3032-impNot too long after this stretching, ‘mum’ decided to take flight and the chick was seen by me, alone, for the first time. I thought that the adult female most likely had gone to catch flies and all, as a suitable breakfast for the youngster.

No sooner had mum left, then the juvenile began to stretch his wings in earnest. Not just a mere extension this time – more like vociferous beating.

A39T3329-impI was unsure at first whether this was for the purpose of merely strengthening the wings and developing those critical muscles necessary for a lifetime of flight. I’m sure that this rationale certainly featured; however, it was noticeable that whilst this vigorous wing beating went on, then a fair amount of particulate debris was released into the air. Dust, remnants of ‘baby down’ and nesting material caught in the newly forming feathers were probably all included in this ‘shake out’.

A39T2873-impIt took quite some time before ‘mum’ returned, and by this time the wing exercise and ‘spring cleaning’ had finished. The temperature now was rising considerably.

A39T2750-impMum had indeed been away to gather food, and proceeded to feed her young son.

A repeated pattern of ‘mum’ bending over, youngster opening the beak, eyelids closed over, and a regurgitated meal was deposited with ease, received with gratitude.

It was noticeable that ‘Dad’ hadn’t been around too much.

A39T2699-impNo sooner had I had that thought, then ‘mum’ again took flight and ‘dad’ who had been in waiting on a nearby tree, came by to nurture the chick.

Dad didn’t participate in the feeding; he just took ‘mum’s’ place and nurtured the nestling as his mate had previously done. Note how the adult male has very distinguishable red cheeks. By this time I had taken a lot of shots. And it had indeed been several hours since we arrived. I’d lost all track of time with doing my photography and revelling in what was both adorning my viewfinder and simultaneously gracing my camera sensor. I was as enthralled after all this time as I was in the first instance when I began to fire the shutter button for this gorgeous bird.  I was still totally mesmerised with this mother and son swift, when thankfully, I was holding the cable release and ready to shoot.

A39T3643-imp Because what happened next was just heart melting. It was A MOMENT.

The young son gazes towards the mother. He has ‘that look’. That look all boys have when they’re young towards their mother and perhaps lose the innocence to display that expression in later years. but I captured it. And if I could have, i’d have downloaded that images from the memory card right there and then, just to see if I had captured that single expression.

WTS1-impI’m so glad I did capture it. That moment. That bond. That SPECIAL relationship that a son has with his mother.

And here it was, captured in one shot.

All I could do to express my feeling with this photograph was to simply watermark the shot with the words,

“Love is… “.


I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to have been able to shoot this bird. And even more so because of all days I could have been there to do this, I was here on this one. What a pleasure. What an absolute joy!

Happy Days indeed 🙂  .


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