The Swallows arrived here late this year, the first one being spotted at the end of May. They came in dribs and drabs, until the air around the farmyard was filled with their noisy chatter.
Every barn has at least two mud and moss cups glued to the beams, perennial nests that lie empty all winter, waiting to be repaired and filled with chicks. There is even a nest directly above the desk in the farm office, and inevitably any papers left underneath soon end up splattered with droppings.
On sunny days the birds fly high, swooping and soaring with their distinctive forked tails backlit by the sun. Some alight on the weather vane, keeping lookout and alerting the others to the presence of the farm cat with a loud, indignant ‘Sifflit, Sifflit’ call.
When it is overcast they skim low over the fields and garden, long streamer tail feathers trailing as they snatch insects on the wing. As dusk draws in they perch along the telephone wires, excitedly twittering and whirring away. They are an everyday presence, as common to us as blue tits and sparrows, their song part of the soundtrack of my summer. It is easy to forget just how amazing they are.
This morning I headed into one of the barns, in search of tools for a gardening job. A blur of feathers shot out of the door over my head. Startled by my unexpected arrival, the adult swallows had escaped buttwo juveniles were left flitting and fluttering around the barn. I stepped back from the doorway, leaving plenty of space for them to exit but they settled back up on a beam and looked down at me. They won’t be here for much longer, I thought. Soon it will be time for them to leave, and to start their long migration to the Sub Saharan wintering grounds.
The adults usually begin the southward journey in mid August, travelling in short bursts towards their destination. Some juveniles may have already set out on their very first trip. Before them lie many obstacles. First they must make it to the south coast of England, before heading across the channel and into France. Then they cross the Pyrenees and enter Spain. Heading ever southward, they cross the straight of Gibraltar and begin their venture over the vast continent of Africa. Most will skirt along the west coast, across the western edge of the Sahara and eventually arrive in South Africa. Some may head east and travel down the nile. Others may brave the broad expanse of the Sahara itself. Starvation, exhaustion and storms will take their toll. Those who leave late may end up overwintering in Italy, southern France, Spain or North Africa.
So the swallows that nest here on this little farm in South Wales may travel more than 8,000 miles, all the way to the Cape of Good Hope. A journey which, Google maps reliably informs me, will take 190 hours if I travelled by car. I imagine it would probably take a bit longer, taking into account border checks, passport control, ‘rest stops’ and breakdowns.
Not only do these remarkable birds do it once, they will make that self same journey in reverse come Spring. This time it may take as little as 5 weeks to return, coming back to the same nest in the same barn that they used last year. It is hard to comprehend that something so small can travel such a long way, safely, under its own steam.