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.
“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.