Big thank you from

Swallows prepare for the great journey south

by Paul Cormacain

ARE you still seeing swallows any time you are in the country?

I have been watching them virtually every day, and watching the tendency for the birds to form into bigger and bigger flocks.

With the end of summer, (what summer?), many folk get the urge to travel south in search of sun and heat, and of course they are only following the trend of swallows who have been doing the same thing for thousands of years. Now that the swallows have finished with the breeding season, they are getting the urge to head south.

But "to begin at the beginning ", as Dylan Thomas sagely opened Under Mills Wood, let us start with the arrival of the swallow in this country.

There seems to be an annual variation in the arrival of this bird each year, more dependent on the weather conditions of the flight than on the weather on arrival.

In some favourable seasons, the bird has been reported as arriving as early as late February. Even for birds to be sighted during the first few weeks of March is unusual, but April is more the normal arrival time.

Some expects think the first week or so in April is still too early.

When the early birds arrive, they do not immediately head for their final destination! Instead, they seek out a spot where the food supply is best, and partake of a few insect feasts! So if you see one of these early birds you will be able to observe them flying to and fro over marshland and meadow, especially those places where they are most likely to feed! Early on in the year the insects are all lying low, hibernating or avoiding predators.

Once the food supply has become more general and secure, which only the passage of time, and heat, can achieve, the birds then head for a more definite site.

Most adult swallows tend to go back to the spot where they bred the previous year, and are quite well known for the habit of being faithful to their nesting spot. Indeed it was at one place in Norfolk, England, that a bird was ringed over a half century ago. Sixteen years later, the bird was found near the same place, which tells us something of the faithfulness of a swallow to its breeding place, and also tells us something of how long lived the bird can be. The general rule of thumb with small birds is that they only last a few years in the wild. Sixteen years is more than a few years!

Throughout the day the swallows are occupied in their endless search for flies, and you can see them skimming quite low. Sometimes over the surface of water they can get so close to the water that they dip their tail feathers into the water. That is usually when they are picking up a creature off the surface.

Later on, when there is an insect hatching and the air is full of the creatures, the swallow tends to fly at a height.

The birds find it easy to catch the insects, one reason being there is such a glut of them, and another reason being that they are such agile birds.

Flies and small beetles constitute the major food requirements of the swallows. But the birds can be more adventurous and have been known to tackle much larger prey. Moths and butterflies can be caught on the wing, and consumed.

I am sure you must all be familiar with the nest of the swallow! They take up abode, in cow 'sheds, in barns, in outhouses, and at times in old decrepit houses. Then there are irregular reports of swallows building a nest in a tree. Then there was the report of a pair of swallows building a nest in an old fishing g boat in Scotland, and at high water the nest was less than a metre from the water. Also in Scotland, a pair of swallows nested in a bedroom, an occupied lady's bedroom! Strange birds, these Scottish swallows

The normal nest is made from mud and dry grass, is saucer shaped, and the mud is picked up by the birds from boggy land or the perimeters of water.

I have seen them utilise puddles of water, as well as using river side and lake side mud. The nest is usually built on a joist or rafter feathers are then used as the final lining. Before houses were as common as they are now, the swallow would take to a cave, find itself a ledge and nest there. In some parts of the world where houses are not so common as they are here, the swallow will use cliff and cave ledges as a number one site.

But now the birds are thinking about returning south. Like the humans they like the idea of the sun. In the past I have seen them flying over the Mediterranean, and I think that all European birds live in winter Africa. Seeing them in Tunisia and Libya, I felt that the birds were on the move. Further south in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria, I could not be sure if the birds had ceased their southern movement or not.

In Egypt, and down the east coast of Africa, it seemed that the birds were for moving on. But the swallows I saw in South Africa had definitely come to the end of their journey for the year.

Unlike the Arctic terns they had no further flying south to do. The humans who got to South Africa usually went no further either.

Coming Events

Saturday 11th Sunday 12th September European Heritage Open Days at Moneypenny's Lock and House, details from Oxford Island 3832 2205.

Saturday 18th, Sunday 19th September - Castle Espie is hosting a Green Living Fair for the sixth consecutive year. Magic, well worth a visit. Call Espie for more details, 9187 4146.

Sunday 26th September - Harvest Home, a celebration of the harvest at Tannaghmor Gardens, details from Museum Services on 3834 1635

Monday 27th September - Lisburn RSPB start the new season with Birds of the County Down, with Ian Jackson, contact 4062 6125 for more details.

Saturday 2nd October - Lisburn RSPB have a trip to Ramore Head and Bann Estuary, more from 9266 1982

Saturday 16th October - RSPB Members' Day at the Greenmount Campus. Talk to the RSPB for more information

Ulster Star