Darkness is all they've known. Imagine the moment: leaving the black depths of a hollow tree or chimney to emerge into the brightness of an open sky, flying into the light.
The flight paths of Vaux's swifts. Two families, recorded between 6.35pm -6.45pm, above a tiny clearing in the forest. The palest lines indicate the first minutes, gradually moving to darker for the later ones. Drawn while laid on my back...
Migration path along the West Coast into South America
A detail from the picture, showing the wide mouth and large eyes. Their closest relative is not the swallow - but the humming-bird.
Perhaps their nest fell away from the vertical wall of the chimney, but these five nestlings landed in the hearth, and I was able to sketch them before we placed them in a shallow basket on a low ledge in the chimney. The parents continued to feed them, and they all flew successfully.
We kept the flue closed after that, knowing the parents would feed any that fell. A relative of these swifts creates the nests used to make the famous "bird's nest soup". The twigs were those from the damaged nest that had been glued together with saliva - the famous ingredient of bird's nest soup. So, how do those nesting twigs taste?...Salty.
What do you feed a fallen nestling? It was so tiny when we found it in the ashes of the fireplace, still with eyes tight shut and no feathers. Thankful for the help and advice of our expert friend Julie Stonefelt, we began intensive care - feeding it every hour.
As we warmed each feed, I would mimic the sweet swift's call, which communicates that the parents are coming with food - and always got an answer. In the last few days, he began to make short flights; landing on the stone of the chimney, the sleeve of my cardigan, or in my hair, hanging vertical.
During August, his chimney siblings were the last family to fledge, and we went outside to watch their flight. On the next day, as their flight was reflected in his large dark eyes, he spread his wings and lifted into the air, circling the house to gain height, then flying up and out of sight to join them.
Throughout the day I watched for him. The young family flew in unison, their flight was less confident with more wing flaps than older birds. Then I saw him - his body smaller, his feathers a little ragged. He was flying lower than the rest, but an adult flew beside him like a guide or companion, leading and following every curve and turn in his flight.
That night, I waited until long after dark, not knowing if he could or would follow the fast descent of the others into the tiny chimney. When I came indoors I called up into the sooty darkness above the hearth...and he answered. He answered every night until the whole family left together, about a week later.
Favorite place, clinging to my hair
Every spring when the swifts return, their flights seem joyous. Calling loudly, they circle low around the house, the only time they ever do that. I always go out and answer, wondering if he's there among them...