Better the Devil you know!

17 June 2015 | Posted in ,
Better the Devil you know!
swift / Barry Yates

Working for Sussex Wildlife Trust, whether leading conservation tasks, working with local schools or staring longingly out of the office window while trying to write a blog, there is always one thing on my mind… wildlife! Trying to explain how to set a Longworth trap or construct a hazel hurdle can be quite difficult when you’re distracted by the butterfly flitting by on the periphery or the swifts screeching overhead.

At this time of year, the fresh green leaves, flowers of all colours, abundant birdsong of returned migrants and the buzzing of insects make the world around us even more fascinating. All of these things can be easy to overlook amidst the bustle of our busy lives but some of the most amazing wildlife can be found right on our doorsteps, under our noses or even over our heads.

One such migrant bird has been filling our skies and announcing its return from African wintering grounds with a rather less tuneful song. Swifts are unmissable as they screech overhead; wheeling, diving and shrieking in the characteristic way that helped earn them the nickname “Devil Birds”.

These birds live - eating, drinking, preening, and even mating - on the wing, only landing to nest, which may not be until their third year. Amazingly, non-breeding swifts gather noisily at dusk before flying straight up, routinely reaching heights between 4,000 and 10,000 feet. At this altitude they enter a torpid state, shutting down half of their brain but still able to navigate through different wind speeds while sleeping. The birds automatically adjust their flight to stay on a specific course and wake up where they fell asleep, safe from predators.

I first observed this phenomenon while sitting in a friend’s garden in West Worthing one summer’s evening, when out of nowhere the calm was shattered by a flock of screeching Devil Birds. They massed for a few minutes before spiralling up towards the stars, their screams fading with the daylight.

I was awestruck and soon realised that the aerial acrobatics of swifts are a common sight over the skies of Worthing throughout the summer; a sight that can be easily missed if you’re not looking out for it.

Urban wildlife is often under recorded making sightings from built up areas particularly important. At Wild About Worthing we are focusing on some of our well-known but no-less interesting species which you can see in urban parks and gardens. We want to get an idea of their abundance and distribution around the town and this is where you can be a big help.

You may not have the time or inclination to run around netting, potting and identifying every bug, bird or beast that you see, but taking a little time out of your day to observe the life hiding in the nooks and crannies of your garden of flitting-by on your walk to work can be really rewarding and help conservation to.

Simple records of what you saw - when and where –can be used to identify trends and illustrate what is happening to our wildlife overtime. The key species in our Worthing wildlife surveys are brimstone butterflies, bumblebees, swifts, slowworms and stag beetles.

If you’ve noticed any of these species around the town please send your records to Wild About Worthing via our online recording forms.

Tom Simpson is the People and Wildlife Officer for the Sussex Wildlife Trust's Heritage Lottery funded project: Wild About Worthing.

Find the Wild About Worthing project on Facebook and @WildWorthing on twitter


  • Angela latham:

    14 Jul 2015 20:17:47

    Sadly reporting an absence of our house swifts this year though they are circling and screaming overhead most evenings. After arriving and staying only a few days last year we had hoped they would resume nesting in our eaves as they have for the past 20plus years. We think the building change on the neighbouring site is to blame as their traditional flight swoop up to our eaves now has a JW Kingdom Hall in the way. We don’t assume they are just avoiding the Witnesses! We miss them here at 115 Grand Avenue. In the past I had the dubious pleasure of rescuing a swiftlet; the memory of the pain as it clung to my palm is etched in my memory. I also recall freeing another from my cat (sorry!) and watching a creepy large bright green bug burrow under its feathers. I have often wondered if it brought it all the way from Africa, never seen anything like it before or since.

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