Swifts! That’s what that high tinkling sound is, I said to myself. Now, where are they? I scanned the sky and then looked out to sea, and there the White-throated Swifts were. Three sleek black and white bundles of feathers looping and weaving complex patterns through the updrafts over the cliff face as they hunted the insects being carried aloft by those rising winds.
What an appropriate name for these sickle-winged marauders that spend virtually all of their waking hours on the wing. They hurtle high overhead after the aerial plankton, primarily insects, on which they thrive. A few birds are faster, and a few fly farther afield, but I doubt that any can sustain a swift’s speed for as long, nor travel as many miles every day. The only possible rivals I can think of at all are seabirds.
Of the four species regularly seen in southern California, the White-throated Swift is by far the most frequently encountered. They can be found at any time of year, most commonly along the coastal bluffs and hillsides, where they nest in rocky clefts. While they number in the tens today on the Palos Verdes peninsula, in the 1970’s several hundred swifts lived in the quarry cliffs at the end of Forrestal Drive. The collapse of one rock face there may have done in a good many birds. It certainly did in the best habitat, and nesting swifts are scarce there, today.
Sometimes inelegantly described as cigars with wings, White-throated Swifts like their kin are rather stubby birds, somewhat larger than a sparrow, with very long narrow wings. But there is nothing inelegant about these birds. They are striking in their sleek black and white plumage; butlers of the skies.
Swifts are frequently heard before they are seen. Certainly that was true of my birds today. Theirs is a musical series of descending notes, which I once described in a poem as: “tinkling notes falling where the headlong swifts/have cracked through crystal air.” It is a sound to remember. It’s a command to look upward in search of these consummate aerialists.