There will be no fractious encounters with border guards, no razor wire fences to negotiate, no trains to scramble aboard and in all probability, for these migrants, few people who will even monitor their eventual arrival, thousands of miles across the globe. Furthermore, these migrants are travelling south across Europe rather than north and they will make their way across continents and seas, entirely under their own steam. However, in a similar vein to the sad fortunes of so many of those masses of displaced people currently ‘swarming’ into Europe, many of them will fail to complete their journey and will instead surrender their lives to the vicissitudes of the weather.
No more than a week ago, hordes of them were swarming across our skies, snatching frantically, beaks full of insect life, as they fuelled up for their marathon journeys, pausing to perch in rows upon the overhead wires, roosting in their hundreds and thousands in reed beds, perhaps gathering their strength or waiting for the word, the signal, to which instinctively they must respond. “It is time to move!” One day they were there in their serried ranks, the next, they were gone, heading south, responding to natural urges and perhaps to the collective instinct that will drive them on their headlong and hazardous journey south across Europe and thence to Africa from where ironically, hail some of those human travellers.
Just days ago, a visit on my part to the shed in which this summer one pair of swallows have produced two broods of youngsters, provoked extremely angry vocal responses from the parent birds, their ‘pink, pink, pink’ protestations, ringing in my ears, demonstrating just how protective of their young parent swallows are. Now my entry is marked by silence.
Swallows are I suppose, ‘economic migrants’ as they make that perilous journey twice every year of their lives, northwards in the spring, southwards in the autumn, journeys I guess, countless generations of their kind have been undertaking for thousands of years, ever since the ice that once enveloped this landscape, retreated. They make their amazing journeys in part to capitalise upon the insect life that is literally the stuff of life for the swallows of this world, which flourish here during the summer months. Because of our northern latitude, they also have eons of daylight in which to hunt down those flying beasties in order to nourish successive broods of young.
For the last of those broods, the challenge they are suddenly obliged to face as summer fades and hints of autumn begin to pervade a cooling landscape, are immense, as Instincts impel them to journey south. The last of this year’s crop of youngsters have only been flying for a matter of a few short weeks, even days perhaps. Now they must, if they are to stand any chance of surviving, launch themselves on that journey into the unknown. Initially, it is not too hazardous as they make their way through England towards the English Channel, the first of the physical hazards they will encounter.
Some, instinctively, will cross that first stretch of water at its narrowest point, a crossing of a mere twenty miles. Despite its relative shortness, high winds – this of course, is the time of the autumn equinox – can make this crossing a daunting prospect and is perhaps the first real threat to their very existence. Some may therefore baulk at the crossing of such a body of water and attempt a rapid return to terra firma. But eventually, they must grasp that nettle and cross the channel to continue their journey into France.
Carefully staging this early part of their journey means that they are able to maintain body condition by continuing to feast upon the still relatively abundant insect life. However, worsening weather may well reduce the availability of flying insects. Thus, weight loss can be critical. Having crossed that first obstacle, the Channel, an overland flight across France follows. On average it takes between three and five days for them to travel the length of France. Especially for birds following a westerly rout however, the Pyrenees mountain range represents their next significant challenge. Mountainous terrain, as we know only too well can offer extreme weather conditions and in particular, thunderstorms can exacerbate the risks to life and fragile limb.
For birds following a more central or easterly route, another significant hazard awaits them. The risks currently being run by some of the human migrants in making the sea crossing across the Mediterranean are dreadful to say the least. For the travelling masses of birds however, there still exists in the human settlements around the Mediterranean, a legacy of killing, in which folk literally shoot as many migrant birds out of the sky as they can. It is an old tradition and one which apparently, dies hard!
And of course, the Mediterranean is the next substantial hurdle to be crossed. Those staying on a westerly course, have only an eight mile crossing to negotiate at the western mouth of the Med at Gibraltar, to reach North Africa. Further east however, much more substantial trans-sea crossings face them with as much as three hundred miles of sea to cross.
Having made landfall, the survivors of the journey now find they face another considerable hazard in the shape of Eleonora’s Falcons, raptors which are especially programmed to take advantage of the vast numbers of migrant birds making this crossing. These fast flying raptors even delay their breeding season until the autumn in order to capitalise on the autumn migration, especially of swallows.
Otherwise, the migrants now find themselves in a land of relative plenty with abundant insect life available. However, this short lived bonanza is merely a prelude to what is the biggest obstacle of all, the vast and uncompromising Sahara Desert, all one thousand miles of it and sadly the graveyard of so many such travellers.
Those that successfully negotiate the Sahara, are able to enjoy a relatively hazard free passage through the savannah immediately south of the unforgiving sands, a landscape of semi-desert and open woodland, before then having to contend with the stormy rainforests of tropical Africa. Many now veer eastwards in order to avoid this hazardous area which is subject to violent tropical storms. And so the survivors of this amazing and extremely perilous journey, finally arrive in South Arica, having survived an odyssey extending to some six thousand miles. For those members of the later broods, what an introduction to life as a swallow this will have been!
And within a few short months, instinct will drive them to repeat this madcap adventure again in reverse! Survival rates can be poor, especially in late broods. Statistically, only one of a brood can expect to make a successful return and only one of the parent birds too, In the case of say two broods in a season therefore, only three birds out of say twelve can expect to complete that cycle!
There are still swallows around but by and large our skies are rapidly emptying. The dashing, athletic summer birds are all but gone and we are surely the poorer for their absence. And yet, as they stream south towards Africa, there are those, also set on a southerly course, which will in a way, with their cackling voices and ordered skeins, fill the void. As the swallows depart, so the first of the immigrant pink-footed geese signal their arrival from the Arctic. But that is another story!