Farewell, sweet swallows!
As I sit at my desk on a Saturday afternoon on the first day of October and watch a brief autumn squall fall across the rays of the sun, provoking the green leaves of the ash and exaggerating the white trunk of the birch and generally enlivening all the colours that nature has to offer me, I reflect on the last week at work and the changing of its soundtrack.
I am, of course, referring to the birds. This week saw the last of the swallows leave my client’s property on the 28th September. The family had kept a vigil, popping out at roosting time with a dim torch so as not to disturb them, checking that they were still there. And each evening for the last week they had been greeted with the tell-tale sight of five white bottoms protruding over the edge of a wooden shelf they had specifically put up under the entrance to an old courtyard. On the evening of the 27th, they were still there, but on the evening of the 28th, they were gone.
To me, these birds are the living representation of summer in our isles. Every year, as March nears its end, I find myself looking skyward with ever more frequency to look for the fleeting shape of elongated tails far above as the returning males make for their old nesting sites, and turn my ear to see if I can catch the confirming high-pitched chirp that signals their passing. By mid-April, they are usually back in Worcestershire, invading our garages and commandeering our gables for their nest sites. And of course now they are gone, flying 200 miles a day, eating on the wing, and passing over the likes of Dorset (where an excess of three-thousand were counted flying out to the Channel in late September over the course of a single day).
It is slightly hard for us, with our twenty-first century comforts, to think that only a century ago, the migration routes of birds, and their destinations, were something of a mystery. It was only when a solicitor from Staffordshire tagged a young swallow chick with a leg ring, way back in the spring of 1911, that the length of these migrations were finally revealed. Bird ringing was in its infancy in 1911 and was starting to reveal great insights into avian behaviour, and 18 months after the bird was ringed, the solicitor, one John Masefield, received an astonishing letter all the way from Natal, where his specimen had been found. (And if find it hard to understand how people a century ago could not understand this, if we go further back, to the 1500s, then it was often believed that migratory birds that disappeared for the winter ‘went and slept underwater!’ An unfortunate addendum to this belief is the great man Edward Jenner, of Gloucestershire, famous for his interest in milk maids and small pox. Ever the scientist, he tested the theory of swallows and swifts hibernating underwater by submersing a specimen to see if it could breath. His conclusions were negative, though I think the bird, alas, might have had stronger words for it than that!).
John Masefield’s ringed swallow proved that the tiny birds could fly the 6000 mile distance to South Africa, crossing over the Sarah, the most dangerous part of their journey. Nowadays, with modern GPS tracking technology, we know that there are mainly two routes the British swallow takes: first it is down through France toward the Pyrenees, and then across Spain into Morocco. There they face a choice: some cut across the Sarah, whilst others take a path through West Africa. Other European swallows follows the Nile Valley south, whilst other European birds head to winter quarters in India and Arabia. With a maximum flight speed of 35 mile per hour (which nearly outpaces my van!), the birds fly at low altitudes, eating on the wing, and brave storms, dehydration, and starvation on the way. It is an incredible feat for such a small bird and only enhances my appreciation of them all the more.
As grand as the swallows migratory route is, there are other birds that far surpass it. The winner is the Arctic Tern, which sees two summers each year, covering a staggering distance of around 50,000 miles! In the northern summer, they dwell in the Arctic, and then migrate south to the other side of the planet to benefit from the southern summer, reaching the edges of sea ice in the Antarctic. As the average lifespan for these birds is 30 years, a rough calculation indicates that these birds could travel 1.5 million miles in their lifetimes! To think of what they could tell us if they could speak!
All of this goes to prove a simple adage I have come to live by: the more I discover about the natural world, the more impressed I become!