Common Swifts: From China to Africa and Back!

Dr. Nial Moores, May 26th 2015

The Common Swift Apus apus is widely-considered to be the world’s most aerial bird species. Unlike the more familiar Barn Swallow (and presumably also unlike the generally less familiar but still highly aerobatic Pacific Swift, most often seen in the ROK winging high above offshore islands), the Common Swift both feeds AND sleeps on the wing when not nesting. Although they weigh only ~35-56gms, Common Swift fly huge distances in their lifetime: up to 190,000km per year according to one source!

The Common Swift has been only very rarely reported in the ROK (most recently in May 2015 on Baekryeong, though with none of the records yet supported by images). However, BirdLife International maps the Common Swift as wintering in Africa and breeding across much of Europe and Asia. It is believed to breed as close to Korea as the Shandong Peninsula and although declining, it still breeds commonly in Beijing. And this spring, research coordinated by the China Birdwatching Society finally confirmed that these pekinensis Common Swift breeding in Beijing do indeed spend the northern winter in southern Africa. That is, Common Swifts which breed each year in Beijing fly at least 26,000km under their own power to southern Africa and back, without ever landing…

For more on these fantastic birds and this outstanding research collaboration in China, please read the excellent accounts on the Birding Beijing blog.

And for birders here in Korea a question: who still believes that Common Swifts, with their huge migrations and long-range feeding forays, are really rarer here than the now annually-reported Himalayan Swiftlet?

PacSwifts_May22_Baek_RS2A very small part of a flock of 3,100 Pacific Swift Apus pacificus (which contained at least one Common Swift!) on Baekryeong Island, Ongjin County, May 22nd 2015 © Nial Moores

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