Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Last swallows?

I’ve not seen any swallows around the house for a few days now.  Why that should be in August is a mystery to me.

I know they were still quite numerous a week or so back as a walk to the village one Sunday to view a number of open gardens on behalf of the church, became an avenues procession between these glossy-blue winged darts. I did however notice a number of swallows perched on wires by the farm. Their constant twittering along the lines a welcome sound in late summer; maybe discussing flight plans and see you in Africa cheerio’s.

I noticed that the last evening of screaming swifts here was on August 3rd when seven flew around for over an hour as dusk fell.  I watched then not realising that the following day they’d be gone.  Hard as I tried I never did find out where they’d bred, but I believe it was close by. That’s for next year.

It was over the weekend that I noticed the lack of swallows in the lanes near home as I drove along them. For weeks my journey has been accompanied by winged adventurers swooping inches off the road in front of me, close enough for me to see their glorious blue-black sheen as sunlight flickered off them, never close enough to force me to break suddenly; true aerial magicians. Having arrived home slightly earlier than usual last night, as it was still warm and sunny I headed out into the garden for some welcome fresh air and to watch the aerial display as I often do.

Because we have a lot of house martins over the house in the evening I’d not noticed the absence of swallows in the mellee. But as a write in the third week of August there are about 30 or so house martins filling the air above the garden in the evening; until recently amongst them was about half as many swallows.

House martins on the wing chatter constantly, their call to my ears more of a faltering staccato version of the swallows chattering, which with practice it is possible to distinguish easily.  This year sadly the martins tried to nest on the gable end of the house as usual, but for one reason or another they didn’t stay. Luckily houses around me are home to many martin nests, allowing the air to fill with black shapes as they swoop from down low into the nest. In the evening the ensemble seem to congregate over my house which backs onto fields and for an hour or so can be seen in a loose spiral hunting for food.

As far as I know we don’t have swallows nesting nearby but at the farm 2 fields away it is alive with these beautiful birds. If I walk to the farm on a warm summers evening the area around the buildings can have 20 or 30 swallows darting hither and yon over the fly supermarket of a cattle yard floor. Standing hard by the gate they will fly to me at around chest height, yet only a few feet away, pass on by, then on a spiralling turn return by the same route. Time and time again they fly back and forth as I watch them.

I live a mile from the coast and there I can astonish friends my getting them to stand on the opposite side of a sandy path to me. Distance apart could be 3 or 4 feet at most, but because I know these are well used swallow fly-hunting pathways if we stand rock still the swallows will fly between us at about waist height, much to the delight of the unbelieving friend. Something of a marvel to look down on a passing swallow.

Mid-August seems too early for the swallows to be gone permanently; they may have moved elsewhere, or moved to the coast to join other family groups before the big push south in September. I shall venture out and look for them for a last time before they go.

A melancholy moment perhaps; certainly the arrival of the first swallow in late April or early May is one of those moments in the heart of a naturalist that brings unbridled joy. Something the largely forgotten but pioneer romantic poet (admired by Austen, Keats, Wordsworth and others) Charlotte Smith (1749–1806) recalled beautifully in her poem, The First Swallow.

Here the first two stanza’s

The gorse is yellow on the heath,
 The banks with speedwell flowers are gay,
The oaks are budding; and beneath,
The hawthorn soon will bear the wreath,
The silver wreath of May.

The welcome guest of settled Spring,
 The Swallow too is come at last;
Just at sun-set, when thrushes sing,
I saw her dash with rapid wing,
 And hail'd her as she pass'd.

As the sun sets, the thrush sings and the swallow passes me by, such evocative words written by someone who knows what it is to be at one with the seasons of nature. Summer is still clinging onto its grip, but it will not be long before the swallow’s return next spring.

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