Country diary: the old mystery of the 'devil birds'

Hathersage, Derbyshire: Vibrant and restless, swifts are never anywhere for long

I’m not sure why Coggers Lane is so named. A “cogger” in these parts is someone who wields a hammer, and by extension someone who hammers people: a fighter. Hathersage has its moments, but I’m guessing the name is more a fossil of the village’s industrial past. I do know it offers one of the prettiest views of the Derwent valley to the south, and to the east high above the gritstone cap of Higger Tor, richly coloured by the early evening sun. I stood drinking it in until the swarming midges drove me inside.

When I emerged hours later the sky was deepening to black, on the threshold of night. Blinking in the gloom, I heard them first: an outburst of screaming that broke over my head. Looking up, half a dozen swifts were slicing and jinking through the thickening dark as they skimmed the roof, or else dived towards their young sheltering in the eaves. Then they were back out, blading through warm air still thick with those hateful midges. Their throats bulged with them, a ball of protein glued together with saliva to bring back to their brood.

Swift nests are half-hearted, more nomad’s bivouac than des-res. Vibrant and restless, the birds are never anywhere for long; a burst of summer madness and then, in late July, gone, back to Africa, before the chill of autumn can snag their wings. They likely won’t touch the ground again until next summer.

David Lack’s much-loved 1956 book, Swifts in a Tower, is republished this month in an updated edition, his research still the cornerstone of our understanding of this delightful bird.

Modern photography also traps their magic in cold detail: wings spread vertically, heads twisted to the horizontal, or else mouths agape as they scoop water from a pond. Even so, watching them in Hathersage, I felt something of their old mystery, these little “devil birds”, as they were once called, with their hooded faces and deep-browed eyes.

There’s another old road in Hathersage with a strange name: Besom Lane, “besom” being an old-style broom of tied twigs, the kind a witch might ride, up among the swifts, shrieking their charms against the failing light.


Ed Douglas

The GuardianTramp

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