Last year, I wrote an article about five birds with brilliant but bizarre beaks – from the wrybill, which has a bill that bends to the side, to the impressive shoebill, which has a massive, hook-tipped monster of a beak that is perfect for catching and holding onto large, slippery fish. But picking only five beaks to include in the list proved difficult, and there were several birds that I initially considered that were eventually cut from the final selection.
No bird can stay in the air permanently. At the very least, they must come down to earth to nest. But the common swift, with a streamlined body that is honed to aerodynamic perfection and narrow, sickle-shaped wings, spends more of its life in flight than any other bird. Its habitat is the sky itself.
A couple of years back, Alex and I went to London for a few days. The trip was planned around a book-signing event (where I finally got to meet Sir David Attenborough in person), but we also found time to go to the theatre, the Tower of London, the Natural History Museum and, of course, the London Zoo. Perhaps the greatest highlight, however, was going into Kensington Gardens with some seeds and chopped-up apples and hand-feeding the flock of ring-necked parakeets (and a few cheeky squirrels) that live there.
From our clifftop vantage point, the whole of Tor Bay stretched out before us, a wide, sweeping vista of calm ocean. A light breeze ruffled my hair and I tasted the slightest hint of salt on my lips. In the distance, a flock of gulls – little more than tiny white dots to us – were following a small fishing boat. I turned my gaze downwards, scanning the rippling surface far below, searching for signs of movement in the water.
If you take a walk on a heath on a warm, still summer evening in southern England, you may hear a very strange sound from above you – a so-called ‘churr’. It has an otherworldly, almost mechanical quality. Centuries ago, people thought this was the sound of witches cackling in the bushes. But it is, in fact, the song of a bird – a male nightjar, to be precise.