Friday, August 10, 2012

My Log 315 Aug 10 2012: Swifts, compared to frigate birds in their ability to stay aloft for hours, days and even weeks.

English: Dubrovnik from the aeroplane.
English: Dubrovnik from the aeroplane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English Harbour
English Harbour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was watching the swifts doing their enchanting perambulations across the Old Town of Dubrovnik the other morning, I remarked that it reminded me of when I watched frigate birds, in similar circumstances, in the island of Antigua back in 1974.
I had taken my whole family --- then early-teenagers --- for a holiday, with the intention of writing a book. Miraculously we managed to hire a beachside cottage around the corner from English Harbour in the south of the island, for $250 a month. (The next time we returned to Antigua five years later, the same cottage was renting for $250 a day.) Every morning I would write my book between 6 am and noon, while my wife would take the children off to one or other of Antigua’S 365 beaches, and at noon we would all pile into our mini-moke, drive up through the island to St. John’s, the capital, where we would go for lunch to the garden of the Kensington Palace Hotelk,m where a grouop of civil servants would emerge from their surrounding offices to play in a steel band over the lounch hour, while we drank rum and ate club sandwiches to our heart’s content,before taking off for one of the beaches where we would spend the afternoon in the sun. These are memories of happy times that have never left me: perhaps because I succeeded in finishing the book, and returned to Montreal feeling as if I had been on holiday, which, indeed, I had.
But before I got into this daily routine, I would bundle up the family and drive up to watch the frigate birds take off from the cliff above us. Our cottage lay just under a huge cliff from which, in the evenings, just as we would be settling for our evening gin and tonic, an army of bats would arrive to swoon around over our heads as they caught the myriad insects that came out at that time. Very similar to what the swifts do over Dubrovnik, or so I am told.
The cliff we drove up to was called  Shirley’s Heights, where an abandoned fortification from Napoleonic times stood on the top of the cliff, looking out to sea for any suspicious --- namely, French! --- ships that might heave into view. Just as the sun was rising, a flock of frigate birds would rise from the cliff below us, soaring up into the wind as still and quiet as if asleep,  never moving their huge wings as they caught the draught, and passed us almost within touching distance until, higher up, they caught the wind and headed off out to sea, every morning. It was such a wonderful sight I have never forgotten it, more especially since, on our return five years later, we discovered that the fortifications had been restored, restaurants and other impediment had been built, and the frigate birds had disappeared.
Oddly enough, when I looked up the indications for swifts, frigate birds were mentioned as having something similar to the swifts in characteristics, namely that they are both mostly aerial creatures which can live in the air for days without ever touching down, just like the swifts, especially those of certain species in some parts of the world.  There are five varieties of frigate bird, and the one that hangs out around Antigua and its neiughbouring island of Barbuda has become the subject of a scientific study which is trying to build more knowledge about a bird whose characteristics remain largely unknown to humans.
Swifts, apparently, in certain species, can live in the air for weeks at a time, and have even been known to mate in the air, as well as feed in the air from consuming insects. One Web site I read about frigate birds indicated that they are thieves, which steal food from out of the mouths of competing species, although in what circumstances they do this was not clear to me. I remember that in Antigua we watched in amazement one day as some frigate birds circled around a neighbouring bay and entertained us to an amazing exhibition of sharp-shooting --- that is, diving from a huge height and at a considerable speed into the water, and emerging holding a fish. So this seems to be one feeding characteristic not much noted by the experts on frigate birds, at least those two or three I have read.
Like the frigate birds, the swifts  seldom flap their wings, but they still manage to catch the draughts and soar at an immense speed back and forth in what looks like gay abandon.
This morning when I awoke and opened the door to the balcony I was almost knocked over by the wind. It is often like that for a short while in the mornings, but the wind soon moderates, and even sometimes dies away completely, as it has almost done already, two or three hours later. When these strong winds occur, the swifts are not to be seen, except perhaps one or two brave ones that have caught the wind and are soaring away up in the air above us, barely visible to the naked eye. 
I find it hard to believe that insects have been able to maintain themselves in such high winds, and I have some doubt that the species of swift we see here really does get most of its food from picking off insects in the air. Maybe I will meet someone I can ask about that in the month remaining to me in this extraordinary little town.
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