A call from Badger during a wet and windy Friday afternoon about a Little Swift showing well at New Brighton sent me into a pleasure of anticipation. Up till then I was so depressed that I was contemplating the desperate act of doing some housework so bad has been the weather and my lack of opportunity to get out and see something - anything! Badger was unable to do anything that evening due to a pressing social engagement which would involve alcohol and a likely hangover and suggested we wait until next morning to see if the swift was still around. I was also committed to spend Saturday with my daughter who was down from Glasgow University for a long weekend.
However I worked out that if I left that Friday night to be at New Brighton for dawn there was every chance I could be back at home by 10am well before my daughter was awake. I therefore curbed any idea of immediately heading North after receiving the news from Badger and reasoned that if the swift was seen to go to roost that evening there was a chance that if I got there early the next morning I would have more than an even chance of seeing it leave the roost. This plan worked perfectly for once as it was seen to go to roost on the Pier House that evening at around 9.30pm although exactly where on the building was unknown.
Once this was known I made the decision to go for it and to leave home at midnight. I sent a text to Badger informing him of this and with typical selflessness he wished me luck and no hard feelings. It would be a two to three hour drive and it gets light surprisingly early around this time of year (even the rain cannot affect this) with the first pale patches in the eastern sky appearing from about 2.30am onwards. So it was that myself and the Audi set off north for New Brighton, a destination as of yet unexplored by me. There is something indefinably comforting about driving alone through the night. Maybe it is the lack of traffic on usually congested and hazardous Motorways which allows driving to become a pleasure again and almost enjoyable. The reassuring comfort of the instrument lights turned low telling all is well with the Audi along with the radio providing a gentle and supportive backgound murmur seal you into a cocoon of warmth and security from the dark night outside.
Not long after midnight the World Service kicks in on the BBC. As a seasoned "thruthenite" twitcher I consider myself an afficionado of the World Service. If you want to know about crop yields in Lower Boggistan, who deposed the latest dictator in the Republic of Zob look no further than yours truly. DJ's you thought were dead or long retired, BBC presenters you thought had emigrated to Taliban radio and programmes that should have been killed off at birth all resurface on the World Service. It's often a load of twaddle but millions listen in with great affection and often rely on it to be impartially informed when occasionally real news breaks. On the World Service I have even briefly overheard Dave Lee Travis spouting his usual garbage whilst I was camping on the banks of the Zambezi in the middle of nowhere on the Zimbabwe border. Sadly he could not be left there but was in the security of a studio somewhere in the bowels of Bush House. But it was a nice thought to contemplate. Regaled with tales of an attempted coup in Paraguay, lack of rainfall in a previously anonymous third world dictatorship and the threat of Dave Lee Travis and his top twenty world hits I headed undaunted up the M6. Badger sent a text at 1.30 in the morning advising he was just starting on the whisky! Dodging seemingly endless Eddie Stobart lorries I made good time and found myself passing through Chester and on down a deserted M53 to Wallasey and New Brighton as the first light appeared in the East. I found the seafront easily and driving along the wide, deserted and windy boulevards on the seafront eventually found myself next to Pier House where the Little Swift was allegedly roosting.
There were now definite light patches in the sky even though there was industrial light pollution on a grand scale from the other side of the Mersey. Parking in a layby I tipped back the seat in the Audi and went to sleep. I awoke with a start and it was now much lighter although the time was still only 3.15am. Although I had seen no birders when I arrived there was definitely some birder activity on the other side of the road on the Promenade. I got all my stuff together and joined about ten other birders who seemed to be peering intently through scopes and bins looking at a ledge high up and to the right hand end of Pier House.They were looking at what appeared to be a dead or torpid swift and getting very excited but to my mind it was far too big to be a Little Swift and was a Common Swift. Everyone was looking at this bird and a couple of birders had already convinced themselves that they had located the roosting Little Swift.
The ledge on which the Common Swift was ensconced ran along the front of the building and below a series of windows and ran the length of the front of the building. I was convinced this was not the Little Swift and I decided to check the ledges and windows further left and in the bins could see what appeared to be possibly a piece of black and white paper caught in the angle of a window and the ledge. Firmly in the back of my mind was the fact that Little Swifts have a very large white rump patch. I hoped my hunch was correct and getting the scope on the roosting swift I was convinced that I was correct in my identification and to my mind there was no doubt about its identity. I could with the improving light see the bird was firmly wedged into the angle between the window frame and the ledge.
It was perched uncomfortably at an angle on the hinge of the window and what I was seeing was its fluffed up white rump facing outwards towards us plus its wings and dark sooty brown mantle. Its head was obscured. I could see the wings clearly either side of the rump plus its short tail and even see the body rising and falling with each heartbeat. The light was now getting progressively better so I studied the Little Swift's plumage through the scope in case I had made an error (not unknown in this business and with the senses dulled by no sleep and an early morning trysts such as this, definitely a strong possibility). I did not want to make a mistake and end up looking foolish. I checked the other birders scattered around me. All the other birders were still looking at the Common Swift and not where I was looking much further to the left on the building.
I took a deep breath and announced, "Excuse me but I think you will find the Little Swift is roosting in the angle of one of those large windows and the window ledge well left of where you are looking". All turned to look at me. Then in response came a chorus of "Where are you looking". I replied "Find the fifth set of double windows from the left hand end of the building and just look in the bottom left hand corner. There was silence as all heads bent to scopes and then murmurings and affirmation "Bloody hell you're right. That's it. Well done. Thanks. How on earth did you find it? That's definitely it."
Now a battery of scopes and cameras were trained on said window in what looked like a very upmarket building converted to expensive flats and even sporting a Penthouse. We then all stood there and watched the Little Swift waiting for it to do something but it had other ideas. For the next hour and a half a crowd of around fifty birders watched a Little Swift fast asleep. Occasionally it would have a Little Swift nightmare, well wouldn't you if you lived in the sun in some exotic location and ended up in New Brighton, and raise its head and shuffled a bit but basically it remained steadfastly asleep clinging to the hinge of the window.
However this was a golden opportunity to study a bird that is rarely still and many plumage features were on view and could be studied at leisure. I could clearly see the large white rump patch and how extensive it was and even see how the lowest most central feathers of the rump were brown and formed an uneven border to the uppertail coverts. The uppertail coverts were long and dark brown and the central ones reached well down the tail. The tail was short and square ended with just a slight indentation at the centre. The tips of the central tail feathers were white but this looked like staining from droppings or even paint. On the wings the tertials were tipped prominently with white forming distinctive V's and the greater coverts were tipped with pale buff as were the inner median coverts. The secondaries were thinly fringed with pale buff and to a lesser extent so were the inner primaries. The outer webs of the flight feathers were paler grey brown than the inner webs. The mantle and back were dark brown almost black with no sign of blue gloss and were darker than the wings.This all indicated that this bird was probably a juvenile. How remarkable. It must have been raised very early and from what population had it come? North African or further East?
As time wore on we were now speculating what would happen if the residents of the flat behind the window drew their curtains only to be confronted with an apparent paparazzi of birders all intently looking at them. Explain that one at five in the morning! All remained calm apart from a random geezer arriving from the beach with a pack of dogs and a Great Crested Grebe under his arm. "Who wants this then?" he enquired repeatedly and was steadfastly ignored. There were no takers for the unfortunate grebe and he was eventually advised to find a Bird Hospital or pet refuge and departed muttering to himself about selfish birders. By now all the Common Swifts were wide awake and flying around feeding but our hero slept on. Some sexist wag remarked it was asleep so long it must be a female.
Thankfully the Little Swift finally stirred itself and left the ledge at around 5.45 whilst the curtains behind remained firmly closed although I must compliment the resident in the next apartment on their nice arrangement of geraniums. Although always fairly distant the Little Swift now put on a display feeding back and forth over the Mersey in the company of about twenty other Common Swifts. Much more square ended than its common cousins and with wings broader and with blunter tips it was quite distinctive. It's flight was much more martin like with short wing flutters followed by frequent gliding.
I watched it for about an hour during which the original Common Swift left its ledge but then returned to resume its dead bird impression. Very odd. I needed two power naps on the long trek home but made it back for 10am. My daughter was still asleep and Badger was nursing a monumental hangover. I hit the sofa and entered dreamland
With grateful thanks to Phil Woollen http://wirralbirders.blogspot.com
for the use of much better pics than mine