March swallow

We went out yesterday in the howling gale and lashing rain because we just needed to get out of the house. But there was also a small incentive in the chance we might see a March swallow. We managed, through the swirling grey gloom, to make out sand martins being whisked along in the gusts – but no swallows.

To me, swallows are one of those markers of the seasons; the first swallow means the coming of spring. The return of their swooping flights over the fields round the wood remind me of Easters spent in Spain, watching the acrobatic agility of the birds as they dive and glide round Moorish ruins, seeming to revel in the spring warmth.

Swallows (Latin name Hirundo rustica) travel from their wintering grounds in South Africa to spend spring and summer here in the British Isles. Their song as they soar above or sit chattering on fences and wires is the sound of sunshine; those times I have watched as they swooped low, feeding around me, are treasured experiences locked in my memory. The swallow is a distinctive and beautiful bird, with shiny blue-black back, red throat and forehead, and a dark blue band above a white breast. When swooping low to feed, it shows its tiny beak but wide gape, and it’s possible to catch the impression of white oval dots on each feather of the deeply forked tail – but you have to be quick – blink and the swallow is gone again. Most characteristic of all are the long streamers on the edges of the tail which emphasise the elegance of the swallows flight. DH Lawrence captures their movement through the evening air: ‘Look up, and you see things flying/ Between the day and the night;/ Swallows with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together.’ I read the poem hoping soon to see the swallows and the bats DH Lawrence goes on to describe (I think he captures the bats flight perfectly too, but I do not share his horror of the species).

Swallow numbers are declining in Britain. It is thought this is due to the deterioration of their feeding habitat both in their breeding and wintering grounds – they feed almost exclusively on flying insects – and on a decrease in available nesting sites. As farm buildings are modernised, and buildings that were once a little tumbled-down are renovated, little thought is given to replacing the ledges on which the swallow could build its shallow half-cup nest – remiss given that folklore asserts a building with a swallow nest in it will not be struck by lightning…

Swallows tend to pair for life. Their cup nests are made of mud mixed with straw and are cosily lined, by the female, with feathers. She usually lays four to five eggs in late April to May and the young fledge around three weeks later. She may go on to have a second and even a third brood, with the young usually ready to make the journey back to South Africa in September. Today, the perilous, awe inspiring migration undertaken by these twenty gram birds is something we take as fact, but as recently as the 19th century, people were uncertain about where the swallows went over the winter. Aristotle, in his zoological writings, described how swallows disappeared in the autumn and reappeared in spring over water, extrapolating the argument that they dived down into the mud to hibernate over winter. A picture in the medieval work by Olaus Magnus shows fishermen pulling a net of sleeping swallows and fish from a frozen river and centuries later swallows were still believed to hibernate in the silt at the bottom of ponds. Back then, seeing the first swallow of the year was a good omen. I’m not sure about the good omen, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing that first swallow, that first swoop and turn in the air. And I’m looking forward to watching their threads stitching the skies once again. I’ve one day left to catch that March swallow, but March or April, whenever my swallow arrives, it will be a welcome sight.

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