Swallows on the Cape, in Spain and in Coventry
Updated: Apr 28, 2018
I'm always a little expectant at this time of year as it's when our first swallows arrive back from Africa so it was uplifting as always to spot the first one a couple of days ago, its familiar little dart shape speeding high across the miserable grey sky we've got so used to this spring. It was five days later than last year and four days later than average.
There were clouds of swallows flying around the farm on the Cape in South Africa where we were enjoying a coffee under the little veranda of the shop a couple of years ago. It was February and hundreds of them were also perched in rows on the telephone wires nearby, just as they do here in September, twittering and excitable, perhaps already sensing their imminent migration back to Europe. But they were moulting and so looked unlike I'd ever seen them before with great tufts of white down sprouting from their wings and mantles, like the toy swallows the RSPB sell but with the stuffing falling out. Apart from that the scene could have been England in September, perhaps without the troupe of baboons that suddenly invaded the farm, bounding over the fences and driving the tethered farm dog into a ferocious rage.
And this journey they make twice a year is truly staggering. I found it tiring enough to fly it in a plane - thirteen and a half hours of leg-cramping tedium. And it's not just the distance they have to cover, it's the blinding, searing expanse of the Sahara that really must take it out of them. Satellite photos taken in the 70s and now of the Sahel region show just how far the great desert is expanding south, so this journey isn't getting any easier either.
We also came across huge numbers of swallows in southern Spain one March. Thousands had been held up by bad weather to the north and were skimming low over every field, garden and road. So many were they that it was no surprise that I found one that had been hit by a car and I was able to make some little measured watercolour drawings. Its underside was the soft hue of cumulus clouds, its back and wings a beautiful dark iron-blue and it's throat was the colour of ox-blood, with a little dab of the same hue on its forehead.
My greatest impression though was just how tiny and fragile it was, feeling almost weightless in my hand and I was in awe that such a slight thing could have flown so far, across the swamps of Botswana and over the canopy of the Congo jungle and across those scorching deserts. What had it seen below it? Had it hawked for mosquitoes around the legs of elephants and giraffes, or skimmed past prides of lions lazing under midday trees, perhaps looping back to pick up flies buzzing round their half-eaten prey? And this of course would have been its second such epic journey within seven months.
Long ago when I was about eleven years old I had a dental appointment early one April morning and I hadn't been looking forward to it. Drilling and filling completed, and feeling released, I walked to school right across Coventry (it's amazing how normal walking long distances was then for kids) and finally crossed over the railway bridge, climbed over the chain link fence and strolled across the playing field. It was a glorious fresh spring morning and the sun slanted through the avenue of budding limes making diamonds out of every dew-drop on the turf. Then I saw the dark shape of a single newly arrived swallow, a male with long tail streamers, twisting and turning low over the grass. I was mesmerised by his glorious liquid flight as he rose and dipped, sometimes switching back with a sudden flare of the wings to chase an insect, the tips of his primaries seeming to brush the dew-laden turf. It was the superb effortless brio of his flying that captured me as he flew around quite close, unafraid and only slipping aside at the last second with the sun gleaming off the burnished dark sabres of his wings.
Since then I've always associated swallows with freedom and happiness and this year's first sighting brought the usual smile and little leap of the spirit that it does every April. They'll be here now through the plenty of Summer and soon I don't suppose I'll be giving them much of a second glance, but I know they'll be gone again in October and I know too that I'll miss them and ache once more for their return.