Swallows, a Hopeful Return

Across the globe as we collectively weather the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hunkering down at Crockern.  As such, I’ve had plenty of time for thinking.  Thinking of science and epidemiology.  Thinking about governmental policy.  Thinking of how others are coping.  And more immediately, I’m thinking of writing, cooking, walking the dogs, playing the piano, gardening, reading books and addressing the bounty of projects here at Crockern.    All that thinking leaves me with one certainty:  If ever there was a time to contemplate nature, it is now.

After nearly six months of relentless rain and strong winds, we finally have a reprieve.   It is blissfully sunny and the land seems to roll for miles under a gleaming blue canopy.  The green and gold of the hills are dotted with sheep.  Our night sky is luminous with an abundance of stars.   My morning dawn walk with Millie and Brock is typical for this time of year:  crisp air and a light layer of frost upon the ground.  The bird song is triumphant.

It’s important to anchor myself with these observations.  As I look at my calendar, I’m reminded that only a few months ago the political caucuses in the USA began and Brexit preparations continued to fill the news.  Nearer still, during the last two weeks of February Roger and I had the good fortune to be in Zambia on a safari.  Over the past few weeks, all of our lives have transformed into something different and what was once normal – kids in school, adults in work, and Roger and I moving about freely – now seems a long time ago.  It’s hard to imagine how much our lives will be reshaped by this pandemic.

And yet, somethings remain unchanged.   With spring upon us, the pied wagtails are busy building their nests in various nooks and crannies in the stone walls.  The daffodil bulbs are all happily blooming across the garden.  The green woodpecker continues to mock me with its laughter call as I daily set about filling potholes.  Our duck couple come and go to the pond, sparking our hopes they will have a brood of chicks swimming on the water soon.  Roger is repairing fencing in order that we can protect the 120 trees we need to plant from sheep, who will destroy young saplings in a single grazing session.  These are the very trees we had hoped to put into the ground over six weeks ago, when nothing but wind and rain confounded our efforts, and the news of COVID-19 seemed somehow distant.

When we were in Africa in February, we saw over 90 types of birds and I have no idea how many different types of butterflies.  Herds of Puku, Impala, Zebras and Elephants appeared around bends in the dirt road.  There were Hippos, Baboons, Hyenas, Giraffes, Buffalo, Kudu and Wild Painted Dogs.  We even saw a lion hiding in the bushes after dragging her kill to a more remote location.  At night, the calypso chorus of frogs would sing us to sleep.  Before drifting off, I might startle if I heard calls of baboons, warning of a predator nearby.   But seeing the familiar swallow, the very ones who migrate from Africa to Europe provided me a connection to my daily wildlife discoveries between Crockern and the remarkable gifts of Zambia.

1N7A0441 copy

“Are you going to come visit us this spring?” I would ask when we saw the different swallows in South Luangwa National Park.  “I certainly hope so, and if not you, perhaps some of your friends?”

In the last several years, our swallow population at Crockern has dropped dramatically, and without any explanation.  Did they get lost on route, or blown off their migratory course with strong winds?   I’m anxiously awaiting their return.

Swallows make the spring.  Their aerial gymnastic arrival, eating insects on the wing and diving in and out of our outbuildings, is right up there with the start of baseball season or BBQs with friends.   They build their mud nests, have 2-3 broods, eat loads of bugs and sing their happy chatter song throughout the long summer days.  By September, they show their restlessness, fluttering about on the barn roof, and prepare to migrate back to Africa.  Their return journey takes about six weeks.  Swallows from different parts of Europe fly to different destinations, but according to the  RSPB, our visitors to England end up in the very southern parts of Africa, traveling down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco, crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest, before finally reaching as far south as South Africa and Namibia.

For the past few years, it has been difficult to trust their arrival.   Our first year at Crockern, we counted over 30 active nests around the property.  Last year, we counted a mere six.   Such a decline in a single decade.

Lots of theories abound as to why this might be.  Changes in agricultural practices throughout the globe, where pesticides and insecticides eliminate their main source of food:  insects.  The gradual disappearance of grasslands, hedgerows and wild spaces also changing the insect populations.  Climate change and crazy weather with its accompanying drought, extreme temperatures and weather events may have a hand in their decline.

It’s almost April and we’re bunkering due to a global pandemic.  Despite this madness, the leaf buds will soon unfurl with new foliage.  By May I’ll have the veg beds mostly sorted.  And hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll catch glimpses of the long tail of a small bird diving, swooping and zigzagging flight patterns overhead.   There is something comforting in the knowledge that the Swallows are due to return.  A nod towards normal.   After a long six months since they left, we’ll welcome their return as they hawk for insects and delight us with our imagined stories of their travels from Africa to Crockern.

A Flight of Swallows

Mission bells ring as crowds gather, with all eyes turned toward the skies.  Mariachis play, a parade marches past and a huge fiesta kicks off to celebrate the annual return of the legendary Cliff Swallows at Mission Capistrano in California.  While Roger and I may not greet the ancestral migration of the equally loyal and remarkable Swallows of Crockern with a fete, we find their annual return and summer visit remarkable nonetheless.  (See also, https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/bird-song-dartmoor-cuckoos/).

Consider the distance they’ve traveled from Africa, managing to negotiate their way back to their birthplace, here at Crockern, just to raise their young at our house.  Admittedly, I could use some of their navigational skills as more than a few times I’ve found myself lost down a Dartmoor country lane.  Once here, the Swallows roost under the eaves of the house; inside the barn, chicken coop, and all the sheds; on top of some fencing we left propped up in a corner; and, among debris I was planning to take to the tip, but now must delay.

Swallow at Crockern Farm

Up on the roof

There is an old saying, “When the Swallows fly high, the weather will be dry.”  I remain skeptical as to whether or not one can accurately predict the weather by observing the flight pattern of a Swallow, but their busy nature does confirm a fine day in the making.  The warmer and dryer the weather, the more bugs and with them, more Swallows on the hunt.  We have had an extended run of clear days this summer and so have been outside addressing a number of projects.  In the past two weeks we have completed our track repairs, built a concrete base for a new oil tank, mended more of the stonewalls, and kept abreast with the growth in the vegetable garden.  Being outside for most of the day I am drawn to watching the zigzagging flight patterns of our Swallows.  I know we don’t own these Swallows, but I think of them as part of the gang of critters and creatures who consider Crockern their home and as such, they are part of our family.

Like any family member, they give great joy along with the occasional annoyance.  Take for instance their wonderful chirping calls as they dive bomb through the air feeding along the way.  Swallows have a number of songs to communicate excitement, attract a mate, or issue an alarm.  Typically, their delightful musical twitterings are comprised of a simple melody followed by clicking sounds.  But the call denoting “Feed Me!” by the young, that early morning demand and begging solicitation, is most uncivilized and wakes me up.  This is neither cute nor clever.

Despite this rude awakening, I find Swallows to be among the loveliest of birds with their graceful movements and bodies shining blue and black when the sun hits their glossy wings.  I like seeing their pale bellies, splashes of red at their throat, and those long tail feathers as they soar through the air.  Sometimes when the Swallows return up the valley, I watch their flying dance imaging if each were trailing long bits of fibre, how they could easily braid a rope.  Mostly, I find their flight agility as nothing short of miraculous.  It’s a noisy, busy, aerial display available daily confirming the most basic truth:  the smallest things make life wonderful.

There are few predators agile enough to catch a Swallow, but sometimes Sparrowhawks or Hobbies are able to do so in flight.  I love Sparrowhawks and cheer on their survival, but I do not want to be witness to the snatching of a Swallow.  Which side to choose?  While shoveling the umpteenth bucket of rocks (by the end of a single day, nearly two tones shoveled and moved) to make the concrete mixture, I looked up and saw a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with about thirty Swallows mobbing a Sparrowhawk near the trees by the river.  From the distance, I don’t know if the Sparrowhawk held a Swallow in its clutches, but I do know that the Flight of Swallows saw off this spectacular bird of prey.

I enjoy the aerial acrobatics of these elegant birds and happily benefit from their insect hawking expertise.  Mosquitoes, Midges and Aphids are among the Swallows’ food, captured and devoured almost constantly while in flight.  The Swallows may be helping our broad beans survival since our beans have a few aphids, despite the companion planting of nastursum (admittedly, planted too late) and leaving a patch of nettles nearby.  I recently learned that a Swallow consumes 60 insects per hour, based on a 14-hour day, that’s a whopping 840 per day!  At last count, we have twenty-three nests, with at least 2-6 Swallows per nest, so by my calculations, that is over 77,000 fewer insects, on average, when we are enjoying our bar-b-que.  How can you not love Swallows?

And so what if they are a bit piggish, aren’t they entitled?  These birds give new meaning to Puritan Work Ethic:  constantly catching food, repairing nests, singing songs, and coursing back and forth over 600 miles a day, at an average speed of 45 miles per hour, as they forage for bugs.  They spend most of their waking hours on the wing, more than any other songbirds in the world, and do this just to catch enough flying insects for their survival and that of their young.  When they aren’t swooping about, they rest briefly on tree branches or on our roof, the very one we had repaired in December.

Swallows at Crockern Farm

Swallows taking a short rest on the roof

When the Swallows returned in April, following our roof repair, they had some construction work of their own as some of their nests were damaged where we replaced guttering.   It took the parents about a week to build and restore their nests; working dawn to dusk with only brief rests.  Just outside our bedroom window is a cup nest tucked up under the rafters.  If I sit quietly, I can watch the Swallows zoom towards it, hover briefly and then shoot off in a new direction.  I can only view this nest from an odd angle as I hang out the window, so I am left to guessing the number of young living in it.  What I can see are thousands of small mud pellets used in its construction.  As Roger and I move onto the next round of projects, we may wish to observe how Swallows accomplish so much in the course of a day.  Whatever their secret, I draw the line at living off of bugs.

Swallows at Crockern Farm

A Swallow in the nest, one zooming in and I’m hanging out the window taking a not so great photo.

There is something comforting in the knowledge that each summer we can expect the Swallows’ return to Crockern.  And while they are here and I enjoy their beauty, their intrigue, and their bug-eating enthusiasm, I must also make a note — before they flock and begin their epic migratory journey away, crossing Europe, the Mediterranean, deserts and the equator — to locate some bells to ring in their return next year.

“When the Swallows come back to Capistrano

That’s the day you promised to come back to me.

When you whispered ‘Farewell’ in Capistrano

‘twas the day the Swallows flew out to sea.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUSC37bLuuU