The year is turning. Can you feel it? The light in the morning has shifted ever so slightly, but it’s noticeable. We’re past the peak, and before long the red-gold winds of autumn will be upon us. Thanks to the fierce heat we had in July, some of the trees are already wearing their russet cloaks. I shouldn’t be surprised if we’re in for a long, dry winter this year. Perhaps that’s the way of things to come, perhaps not. Time will tell.
The family of swallows that nests in the barn near the house have had a very successful year. I counted eleven of them on the wires this morning: two parents with full streamers and nine noisy youngsters whose tails have yet to grow out in full. I had to count twice because of a sand martin who seems to prefer hanging out with swallows than his own kin, who have a colony in a field half a mile down the road. There comes a time every year, usually in September, when the swallows and martins suddenly gather en masse in a noisy spectacle before setting off for the south. We’re not quite there yet, no matter how abnormal this summer’s weather has been, but it sure felt like a nod to that day this morning.
Swallows, swifts and martins – collectively known as hirundines, which might have something to do with the Latin word harundo, meaning the forked shaft of an arrow – really are some of nature’s miracles. The tiny flashes of blue and white that dance over the fields with such cheerful abandon in summer travelled around 9,700km from their wintering grounds in South Africa to get here, and in the space of a few short months they have to make the same journey all over again in reverse, this time with their young in tow. Most estimates have them traveling about 320km every day. That’s a bloody long way to go when you’re only a few months old!
This morning the family looked like they were getting some practice in for the long journey ahead. Mum and dad would sit with the youngsters on the wires for a while, chattering amongst each other while the kids preened endlessly, before suddenly taking off and wheeling about the garden with their offspring racing after them. They might have been hunting, of course, but some of the young ones were far more interested in playing keep-up with a pigeon feather, catching it and keeping it from touching the ground, the way children sometimes do with a balloon. It was really quite endearing to see.
In the past, where our swallows went each winter had us stumped. There were some truly bizarre theories floating around. Following in Aristotle’s footsteps, some thought they hibernated underground. Some thought that they slept at the bottom of deep lakes and ponds, since they spent a great deal of their time hawking over the water during the summer months. One 17th century theory, courtesy of Englishman Charles Morton, claimed the Moon as the swallows’ winter destination as the only logical explanation for their total disappearance. It sounds absurd, but it’s not so outlandish a theory when you try to imagine explaining that these tiny creatures travel further twice a year than most humans will in a lifetime. It even makes the underground hibernation theory seem plausible!
It’s an incredibly hazardous journey, and not every one of our brave swallows will make it there and back. There are all manner of dangers they have to face: sea crossings, storms, high winds, predation by hobbies (consummate swallow-catchers), not to mention human interference – some will be caught for food, and the Maltese in particular are infamous for their practice of trapping migrating birds by liming fences. And then, of course, there’s the mighty Sahara Desert. Michael Morpurgo wrote a fantastic children’s book about that journey – Dear Olly – which you should read if you want an idea.
So why travel all that way? Competition might well have something to do with it. After all, Africa has plenty of swallows of its own (without all these European swallows “comin’ over ‘ere and takin’ our jobs” etc.) and fans of Monty Python will be well aware of the fact that African swallows are non-migratory. On my travels around Uganda during the rainy season (November) back in 2012, I saw plenty of familiar-looking swallows hawking over the White Nile, but most of the birds I clocked were local species that don’t travel far from home. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether maybe just one of the brave little birds flitting by had crossed my path sometime before, either in Spain or the south of England. How’s that for a flight of fancy! <groan>
Swallows are remarkable creatures to watch. While we still have a few weeks left of summer, try to find a few minutes to enjoy the little winged miracles. I’m sure they do wonders for one’s mental health, but to use less clinical terms, they sure can lift one’s spirits. Today, for the first time, I saw two of the youngsters doing something I’ve never seen swallows do before: sunbathing. Plenty of birds do this kind of thing to regulate body temperature, but it’s the first time I’ve seen swallows in the act. It was just two of them who kept leaning over in the sunlight – the others were far more interested in preening, though the sand martin looked as though he wanted to get in on the action!
One swallow does not a summer make, but their departure certainly puts an end to it! If you’ve enjoyed reading my homage to our chatty little neighbours, you might find the links below worth a browse, too. Until the next time! BB x