Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Weekly Nature Watch 22nd May 2020

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Way back in the nineteenth century, great crested grebes came very close to extinction in Britain and by 1860, their numbers were down to a mere forty-two pairs having previously been widely distributed. Their ‘crime’ was to be the possessors of fine plumage, especially the chestnut coloured frill of cheek feathers as well as the soft white body plumage, which were much in demand by Victorian milliners and dressmakers.

Accordingly, grebes were slaughtered willy-nilly just so that their feathers could adorn ladies’ hats and dresses! However, eventually a band of ladies got together determined to put an end to this deadly trade. They called themselves, the ‘Fur, Fin and Feather Folk’! In 1889, this transmogrified into the Society for the Protection of Birds which, in 1904, was given royal approval by Edward Vll and become the RSPB.

The activities of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk in the nineteenth century led to an Act of Parliament, the Bird Protection Act of 1867, to protect birds from this unnecessary slaughter and the effects were striking. 0n a reservoir at Tring in Hertfordshire in 1867, there was but a single pair of grebes but after the introduction of the act, there were seventy-five pairs by 1884!

Since then, such has become the universal interest in wildlife, and birds especially, that this organisation currently has over a million members and has established a range of reserves in different habitats throughout the UK to further its work of conservation. With such a large membership, the RSPB also is heeded by politicians thus ensuring that the conservation ethic is foremost in the minds of the decision makers. Although, in the present circumstances, access to its reserves is of course severely restricted, the valuable work continues unabated but without access to public funds such as donations at their reserves, charities like this are beginning to lose ground and are suffering financially.

Now, the great crested grebe flourishes once more albeit that it is a bird which largely restricts itself to lowland waters and is not a Highlander. I well remember watching a grebe in a lovely lowland lochan on a regular basis. I was able to see it from the high point of a sharply rising bank and was able to admire the bird’s amazing ability when it swam below the surface of what was a crystal-clear stretch of water. Grebes may be modest flyers, requiring quite long stretches of water to become airborne and are exceedingly clumsy on terra firma, a fact that earns them the sobriquet of ‘arsefoot’. Their feet are set back so far on their bodies that the nickname is indeed apposite. On land the birds are, to all intents and purposes, pretty helpless and are, however, at their very best when diving and pursuing small fish below the water’s surface - supreme sub-mariners. Such are their limitations on the ground that they usually build floating nests in reed beds close to the shore to which access is gained exclusively from the water itself. 

Because it spends so much of its time hunting fish under water, the great crested grebe is widely known as a ‘doucker’, a ‘crested doucker’ in East Lothian, a ‘horned doucker’ elsewhere and in the west of Ireland, a ‘greater loon’. At the time that they were being used by milliners and dress designers, a cotton cloth known as ‘grebe fur’ was manufactured.  The soft white body plumage of grebes had already become popular for trimmings on ladies’ dresses and hats and with the production of this artificial cotton material, the bird also became known as a ‘satin grebe’, although the cloth, initially imported from abroad, had nothing whatsoever to do with grebes!

Grebes are familiar on our local loch, arriving here in the early spring from the salt waters off the east coast, where they winter. But grebes have another claim to fame.  In 1914, also at Tring, Julian Huxley, the eminent scientist, made a study of their fascinating courtship behaviour which was to become a standard reference. There is repeatedly, much head shaking, which seems to be a part of any grebe relationship but when they are courting really earnestly, they put on a performance reminiscent of some watery ballet. Both birds initially dive in order to retrieve water weed which is then held in the beak as the two birds approach each other head on, heads wagging vigorously. They meet chest to chest and with frantic paddling rise until only their rear ends remain in the water. This is grebe courtship at its most intense.

With fishing currently suspended due to the onset of Covid-19, the grebes and many other waterfowl have the waters of the loch to themselves. Thus, they are totally undisturbed and able to get on with their lives without interference. As might be expected, the loch also has a burgeoning population of mallard and indeed in recent days, I have seen little posses of mallard sloping off to the surrounding fields doubtless with breeding intentions. There are also goosanders, tufted duck and a colony of Canada geese plus a motley collection of gulls.

The proliferation of Canada geese throughout Scotland is not necessarily welcome. They were introduced from Canada centuries ago to decorate newly designed estate lakes mostly in England but they subsequently went feral.  Their migratory instincts persuaded them to move northwards at the end of the summer to the Moray Firth for the moult and doubtless as they overflew parts of Scotland, they recognized opportunities to settle.  Consequently, their numbers have gradually grown and grown and it is said that four Canada geese can consume as much grass as a single sheep so, not surprisingly, they are pretty unpopular with farmers

The shoreline of the loch is fished by herons, the depths by ospreys, so there is always something on the move. Currently, the ospreys are sitting on eggs, and the males are doing most of the fishing to keep the sitting hens supplied with a constant supply of scaly food.  Although there are no fisher folk trying to lure trout from the waters with their remarkable collections of artificial flies, there are still the herons, ospreys and occasionally otters to keep the fish moving. However, the goldeneye that winter here have now departed for their breeding grounds north and east of here in Scandinavia and even as far away as northern Russia. The pink-feet have also gone, bound for Arctic regions.

Meanwhile, the grebes continue to display. Sometimes they will simply swim towards each other, shaking their heads and crowing before, breast to breast, they rear up again in the water. These submariners only take very small fish, which they pursue underwater with alacrity. Hence, they are not seen to pose any kind of threat to fisheries whereas the goosanders are disliked by the angling fraternity for taking young trout and salmon. They too exploit their diving ability to catch their fish beneath the water’s surface.

Until restrictions are lifted, all of these spectacular events will of course, go largely unnoticed. The loch these days is indeed a quiet place!

Weekly Nature Watch 15th May 2020

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I have been marveling at the athleticism of various monkeys during the ‘Primates’ series on TV. The way in which they climb trees is astonishing. They seem at times to take their lives in their hands yet never appear to make fatal mistakes. I have been watching tree climbers here too, with woodpeckers well to the fore and scaling trees with utter dexterity, using their almost prehensile tails to steady themselves and their well clawed feet to rush up and down the trunks.

As previously reported, we have two families of great spotted woodpeckers visiting us on a regular basis, one of them resident locally in our orchard, the other presumably living in nearby woodland. When I first came here many years ago, the area was dominated by green woodpeckers, their yaffling cries – like someone or something laughing – was to be heard in every quarter. However, since the great spotted woodpeckers arrived, there has been no yaffling. I had heard before that great spotted woodpeckers were not tolerant of the green woodpeckers and the silence seemed to confirm that.

However, the other day, there it was, loud and clear, the yaffling call of a green woodpecker. I had been aware of their presence locally but this one was in a location where I have not heard a green woodpecker in many long years. Perhaps they are re-colonising this area? I’m sure that the great spotted woodpeckers may have something to say about that. Curiously enough, the green woodpecker spends rather less time in trees than you may think and spends a lot of its time on the ground because it is said that nearly ninety per cent of its main source of food is ants. Indeed, a green woodpecker, when it sets up its territory, will certainly have small or large anthills within that area.

The two woodpeckers share one thing – the colour of red. In addition to its black and white body plumage, the great spotted variety has a bright red rump and in the case of the male, a prominent red flash on the nape of the neck. The young great spotted woodpeckers – known as redcaps – have red crowns and so their name is indeed appropriate. However, the green woodpecker shares the red tint by also having a prominent red cap but otherwise, as their name implies, the remainder of their plumage is green.

I have been amused by the antics of the great spotted woodpeckers. The last batch of nuts that I bought are split nuts and therefore a few of them come through the wire on the basket and end up on the floor. However, the woodpeckers are not averse to picking up these fallen nuts and flying off with them. They take them up into one of the damson trees in the orchard where there is a special, chosen place for them to hammer away at them and break them down. But on other occasions the woodpeckers fly in low and attach themselves – somewhat abruptly - to the bird-table pole.  Always remaining upright, they then proceed to climb the pole and are as adept at going up as going down.

The nuts falling from the feeder has also resulted in a pair of carrion crows sneaking in and very cautiously exploiting this easy to reach source of food.  The caution displayed by crows and their awareness that they are not universally very popular means that they sidle in to snatch the nuts and then hop rapidly away with their prize. Once at what they consider to be a safer distance, they set about the nuts with gusto, holding them down with their feet and shattering them into many pieces which are then devoured.

Meanwhile near-neighbours are entertaining nuthatches, birds, which during the past few years have been progressing further and further north no doubt in some way influenced by global warming. Like woodpeckers, nuthatches are very much at home in trees and spend a good deal of their time travelling head first down trees, the only birds in the world that do this. They manage this curious behaviour by relying on their comparatively large, well clawed feet and generally manoeuvre them in such a way as to ensure that one foot is above the other, the upper foot as a pivot and the lower one as a support.

Frustratingly, I have only once played host to a nuthatch, despite the generous offerings on my bird-table but my neighbours now seem to have them as regular visitors. When they nest, nuthatches use holes in deciduous trees and plaster mud around the edge just leaving room for entrance and exit. The mud sets really hard and even woodpeckers with their powerful beaks find nuthatch nests hard to access in their search for food in the shape of hatchlings. The nuthatches also line their nests with the bark of conifers.

One bird that I often do see and which in habit, at least, partially mimics the nuthatch, is the minuscule treecreeper.  This is a little nondescript brown bird, often also known as a tree mouse, that, like the nuthatch, spends its life exploring the bark of trees for insects. However, unlike the nuthatch you will not see the treecreeper heading head first down the tree. Rather do they start at the bottom and work their way up, round and round the tree exploring every nook and cranny of the tree bark as they progress.

The woodpeckers have a clear advantage in this respect however. The great spotted variety has an exceptionally long tongue which protrudes something like an inch and a half beyond the end of its beak. Furthermore, it is almost prehensile in its ability to explore tiny nooks and crannies for insect life. However, the green woodpecker goes one better. Its tongue reaches even further – as much as four inches - so it is able to explore all sorts of nooks and crannies for concealed ants.

The other day, we also had a flurry of swallows which ducked and dived like dancing dervishes where we normally see our own swallows zooming. But they were here one day and gone the next, and although a single one has arrived and sits on the overhead wires uttering that confiding conversation that certainly helps to endear swallows to me, we still await our own tribe of these delightful birds. A reader recently asked whether swallows, which have been denied access to old nests, will instead build elsewhere. The answer is yes.

The nuthatches and indeed the greater spotted woodpeckers, are locating themselves progressively further north as the years pass and I wonder if we might expect to see egrets in the not too distant future as they are also moving more northerly. The world is slowly changing with new and different birds turning up but one thing is constant. Elsewhere, the swifts have turned up and the ’devil screamers’ are suddenly muscling themselves bullishly around the chimney tops.  As, the poet, Ted Hughes, once wrote,

“They’ve made it again, which means the globe’s still working,

the Creation’s still waking refreshed, our summer’s still to come.”

 

Weekly Nature Watch 8th May 2020

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Knock on wood! That is exactly what the male great spotted woodpecker has been doing and furthermore, it has paid off.

A female has now joined him. Regular readers will recall that his mate of the last few years was taken by a sparrowhawk last year but as spring has progressed, his constant hammering out of the message that he is available, has earned a response. I therefore expect that as the year continues, we will once again be entertained by redcaps – young woodpeckers.

Let us hope that a sparrowhawk does not intervene again. As previously explained, we are visited by two families of woodpeckers and I assume that the new female is the offspring of the other pair which do not reside here in the garden but which fly in from a nearby woodland where presumably they are domiciled. They have also been increasing their visits to the feeding delights we offer - fat balls and peanuts.

The knocking on wood is the woodpecker’s version of sweet music, a resonant message that is a pronouncement that he is available and that he is claiming a territory in my orchard. Indeed, his message is loud and clear, as clear as the vocal message pronounced by a very loud wren also in the orchard and the sweet sound of a willow warbler that has set up home there. The world is buzzing with declarations and invitations as the birds prepare themselves for another breeding season.

The same message emanates from the throat of a cuckoo. That comic ‘cuc-koo’ call may defy the description of a song but that is exactly what it is, as much as the loud message of the wren or the silvery cadence of the willow warbler or indeed the rat-a-tat message of the woodpecker. Cuckoos are one of those birds which are suffering a serious decline but May is their time in this part of the world. They have travelled from Central Africa, which is where they winter, usually arriving here as May is blooming.  However, one has broken all known records by flying from its distant wintering ground to somewhere in Suffolk in a matter of just seven days.

Normally it is calculated that a cuckoo takes between two and three weeks to make that journey but this one, having taking advantage of following winds, is now a record breaker, its progress logged as the result of a tag that was fitted to it last year. The route, which takes it through Liberia and the Ivory Coast, carried it a distance of 4,677 miles which, in this case, was an astonishing daily mileage of nearly 700 miles a day!

The poets regularly regarded the cuckoo as the harbinger of spring and there are countless verses romanticizing it. William Wordsworth, in particular, wrote many epic verses on the subject, for example:

                                                Darling of the Spring:

                                                No bird, but an invisible thing –

                                                A voice, a mystery.

And further -                           

The cuckoo’s sovereign cry

                                                Fills all the hollows of the sky.

And yet everyone knows the cuckoo to be something of a villain, laying its eggs in the nests of other birds and paying no heed whatsoever to the nurturing of its young. When compared with the utter dedication of other birds in the rearing of their young, the cuckoo surely does not deserve Wordsworth’s accolade of ‘darling’! Throughout Europe, over a hundred different species of bird have been found to have been host to cuckoo eggs. However, the choice is more limited in each country. In Britain for instance, the hosts are generally limited to reed warblers, meadow pipits – the commonest host in Scotland – the dunnock and the robin.

Furthermore, the female cuckoo, which of course makes the choice of nests in which to lay her eggs, generally seeks out the same species as she herself was reared by as a youngster. The male – he of the curious voice – has absolutely no say in the matter! Thus once she has established herself after that long migratory journey, she will explore her territory for the nests of the birds she will use as hosts for her own eggs, noting the progress of her would-be foster parents so that she can select the right time when to deposit a single egg in each nest of her choice.

The cuckoo egg hatches before those of the host and the young cuckoo instinctively begins a further ‘dastardly’ action in tipping out the eggs of the host bird. The young cuckoo manoeuvres the eggs on to its hollowed out back and tips them overboard. Even the chicks, that manage to hatch are also tipped out in the same way.

The cuckoo is something of a figure of hate to many small birds and they will often mob a cuckoo when it flies nearby, at which point the cuckoo takes advantage of the situation and lays her egg in the now vacant nest.  The cuckoo has a further distraction up its wing in that its egg resembles that of the chosen host bird. In addition, the young cuckoo, now the only youngster in the nest, accordingly gets all the food brought by the host parents and grows and grows – like Topsy! I have often seen the spectacle of a huge young cuckoo, being fed by a minuscule foster parent with the foster parent perching on the youngster’s back in order to stuff caterpillars into the open gape of the young cuckoo’s mouth!

I have a clear memory of watching a starling, its beak full of wriggling insect life, hurtling towards the nest full of its own young, being almost hypnotized by the sight of a young cuckoo with its beak gaping open. The interior of young birds’ mouths is brightly coloured in order to encourage the parents to keep pushing food into it. The cuckoo’s mouth is particularly garish and on this occasion the starling was so drawn by that gape that it diverted from its original course and stuffed the food into the mouth of the young cuckoo.

Therefore, cuckoos are, to many small birds, not unlike coronavirus is to we humans – a deadly threat! Due to the regulations which now exist due to the virus, many of the usual activities at this time of the year, such as travel, are absolutely off the agenda. Travel, however, is very much on the cuckoo’s agenda for as soon as their dastardly deeds are done, they simply turn round and begin their four and a half thousand-mile return journey to Central Africa.  They certainly don’t wait to see if their progeny, reared by others, survive because they’ll be gone by the end of July.  Indeed, very much not the darling birds referred to by Wordsworth!

 

Weeky Nature Watch 1st May 2020

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The merry month of May is upon us and thus is it bluebell time again with that lovely hue carpeting our woodlands and the heady scent that goes with it. Sadly, I’m afraid it is something under the current lockdown that only a few will be able to experience but in the Highlands years ago, May Day would have been a signal that strange things were about to happen, as described in the following verse:-

The brock and the toad and the yellow yorling

Tak’ a drap of the devil’s blood ilka May morning.

For reasons best known to older generations of Highlanders, this was a signal for the persecution of the yellowhammer - the yellow yorling of the verse, sometimes also known as the yellow yite. Boys were encouraged to harass yellowhammers, to raid their nests, steal or destroy the eggs and generally act aggressively towards them. No specific reason was given for this particular hate campaign but apparently in the north of Scotland it was an act carried out with some enthusiasm.

It might well have been a practice here also although in much more recent times, for the cheery ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ refrain, once to be heard from just about every hedgerow in this airt, has now fallen totally silent in many parts. I blame the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides for the demise of the yellowhammer and another official report backs up what I am saying with the information that the world’s insect population is thought to have reduced by a quarter during the past three decades. A fact which, at worst, is surely an early warning of some kind of disaster. The causes thought to be the reason for this dramatic reduction are, habitat loss, pesticides, disease and climate change.

Such news should really be the cause of some considerable concern and may well account for the fall in farmland bird numbers, many of them depending upon insects and the seeds of weeds for their survival. We have developed a wide range of chemical weapons which are now arraigned against a whole range of ‘pests’ including the weeds upon which many birds, including the yellowhammer, feed extensively. As we develop and subject the natural world to various brands of chemical warfare, I sometimes think that too often we don’t stop to consider the consequences of our actions - short, medium or long term.

The antipathy in the north towards yellowhammers may well have emanated from the crazy scribbling markings on the eggs of the birds, which it appears were thought by some to be supernatural. It was believed that the name of a future lover could be deciphered from the scribblings! I’m hopeful that plans to plant wild flowers - many of them regarded as weeds - in various parts of our local countryside will soon be in hand and hopefully that will result in us being able to hear that familiar little ditty once again.

 Meanwhile, a spell of very acceptably dry and warm weather at least provided some relief from the dreaded coronavirus story. I was able to spend some time in my garden being serenaded by a whole host of birds and it made me think of people who do not enjoy the availability of a garden, let alone one which is very definitely the spring residence of so many birds.

The arrival of swallows in the vicinity is a further step towards summer and on the same day that their presence was confirmed, came the familiar down-the-scale cadence of a willow warbler. Indeed, one has settled in my garden and so I am being serenaded by this minuscule bird every morning, afternoon and evening. At one time, he was repeating that silvery verse five or six times every minute but occasionally he paused, presumably to change his perch and to feed on the insect life that clearly exists in my orchard.

From time to time, his little song was virtually eliminated by an even tinier bird, a jenny wren, whose volley of 56 notes issued in just over 5 seconds excludes almost everything else. The decibel count goes up every time this tiny bird sings but also prominent was a blackbird in full flow. Not many voices are sweeter and every passage evoked a response from another merle perched some yards away in a hedgerow which was particularly mellifluous. There were also a dunnock issuing his rapid, high pitched offering, greenfinches wheezing away, the stuttering songs of chaffinches and a goldfinch offering particularly sweet bursts of music. The ‘tea-cher’, ‘tea-cher’ call of a great tit was loudly pronounced and bluetits, by comparison with the great tit,  buzzed relatively quietly.

All the time, as a background of avian chatter, there were inevitably the interventions of house sparrows – ever present in this garden and as argumentative as ever, A short burst of the ‘cuck-coo-coo’ of a collared dove was marginally less tuneful as were the raucous cawing of a crow and the chuckling of a magpie. However so far, I have yet to hear the offerings of thrushes and the local robins are surprisingly silent. I suspect the female is already sitting on a clutch of eggs, for the male was certainly present picking up fragments of food from the lawn.

Of course May is a significant time for roe deer, for the month will at last see the production of this year’s next generation. Once the kids – usually twins but occasionally triplets - are dropped, the doe will visit each in turn in order to suckle and clean them and separated and well hidden in the vegetation, this is where those kids will stay for the first two weeks of their lives. It is during these two weeks that roe kids can be very vulnerable to people stumbling across them during woodland walks, although with people, by and large, staying at home due to the virus that danger should be lessened at this time.

Years ago, I received a call to say that a roe deer kid had been found and I went to see what I could do to help. The finders were a group of children, who had been so entranced by their discovery, that they had stroked the animal which instinctively would have frozen on the spot rather than run away. When I got there, she was in a cardboard box in someone’s kitchen! Having been stroked so enthusiastically she would, in any case, have been rejected by her mother so I reluctantly took her home and reared her. She stayed with us for some ten years and was utterly tame feasting on rich tea biscuits and strawberry jam sandwiches at any opportunity!

If you do manage to indulge in some woodland walking in these next few weeks and you should come across a young roe deer kid, it is vital that you do not touch it. Leaving a human scent on a roe kid is a death sentence, so please leave well alone! These are strange times in which we live. We have to deny ourselves the pleasure of strolling through woodland at a time when the bluebells provide a luscious carpet of blue not to mention that delicious perfume. Perhaps many of us will miss that May-time treat this year but if we all survive, it will be worth it at the end of the day. Keep safe.

The Windows update prank can easily trick someone when opened in full screen. It looks and acts like a real install page.

Weekly Nature Watch 24th April 2020

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Despite the fact that I have already seen my first swallow of the year, I know well enough that it is not summer … yet! The bird which has just completed that remarkable six-thousand-mile journey from South Africa, didn’t linger for long and was clearly not one of our local birds. It was perched on an overhead wire and at my approach returned to the air and very directly took off northwards. Last seen, it had disappeared over a distant wood and still heading inexorably north. Its summer home is clearly not here but further north.

The journey made each and every year by swallows is one of the miracles of bird migration, a miracle that the great naturalist of the eighteenth century from Sittingbourne, the Reverend Gilbert White, didn’t believe in. He thought the very concept of bird migration to be fanciful, yet on an analysis, his theory, which presumed that having fallen into a torpor, swallows hibernated either at the bottom of ponds or in the chimney pots, was even more fanciful! Now of course, we know that swallows do indeed make that six-thousand-mile journey, not just once but twice a year!

White was not alone in disbelieving that widescale migration was a fact of life. The Ancient Greeks at least had a notion that they flew off in the autumn and returned in the spring but they didn’t know where they went to. However, wise men, such as Aristotle and Pliny, were also convinced that swallows spent the winter in a kind of stupor tucked up in rock crevices. The theory of these and other birds falling into a trance-like state was given credence by observations of swallows huddling together in cold weather conditions as a way of saving energy and finding birds in this state during cold spells in May, doubtless added to the theory of hibernation.

The theory was further confused by the spectacle in the autumn of birds roosting overnight in reed beds before moving on before or at first light during migration. I suppose that the concept of birds flying thousands of miles on migratory flights would have seemed unlikely in the eighteenth or even the early nineteenth century when world-wide travel was a matter for explorers not ordinary people. In addition, fishermen periodically pulled up nets full of dead swallows when fishing, allegedly, also further proof that swallows hibernated at the bottom of the sea!

By later in the nineteenth century, travel across the world was at last becoming more widespread and travellers reported seeing masses of swallows off the coast of Western Africa. However, these birds were known not to breed in such places during the winter months and slowly but surely the reality of migration began to dawn.  In addition, there were reports of swallows having been seen making major sea crossings and Gilbert White’s own brother, living at the time in Andalusia, had witnessed swallows flying over the Straits of Gibraltar.

Even with such available evidence, the concept of birds, such as swallows and weighing just a few grams each, flying such vast distances was difficult to comprehend but confirmation of this began to emerge towards the end of the nineteenth century when bird ringing was first practiced. Now the miracle of bird migration was properly exposed and that miracle was suddenly realised to be true!

As may be understood, the greatest hazard migrating swallows encounter is the immense Sahara Desert, a stretch of approximately 1,200 miles. To tackle this crucial and daunting leg of their journey, swallows must feed and increase the amount of fat in their bodies by a third, packing in the maximum amount of energy prior to setting out on their marathon flight. Swallows moving north at this time of the year therefore feast upon the plentiful insect life of Central Africa but even so, many swallows fail to complete their trans-desert leg of the journey. I understand that more swallows than any other species perish in the desert. The crossing normally takes between two and three days, with few if any opportunities to feed during their challenging desert crossing.

However, almost as hazardous are mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees and the Alps, where they may encounter extremely hostile weather conditions – another energy sapping episode. Nothing saps the energy like a combination of wind, rain and snow. Especially as they feed exclusively on the wing and often at very low altitudes, swallows on migration much prefer to fly into headwinds or crosswinds but without the benefit of tail winds.  Eddies of a following wind can, at worst, cause them to stall.

Low temperatures can also be disastrous in terms of finding sufficient insect life on which to feed as they travel. Therefore, the hazards experienced on these journeys are considerable, so why do they do it? The answer lies in the plentiful insect life that is waiting for them in these islands and across Europe during spring and summer.  This migration probably dates back to the last Ice Age during which the world’s tilt altered to throw the Northern Hemisphere into a prolonged cold spell. At the end of this, insect life returned and although we imagine that Africa is throbbing with insect life there is, of course, plenty of competition for that resource, whilst further north, opportunity knocks.

I regard the swallow as our true summer bird. What would a summer day be without the athletic flight of swallows, darting hither and hither at breakneck speed? Indeed, swallows and their cousins, house martins were the birds that lit a vital flame in me when I was a young boy. I was electrified by the skimming flight of these charming birds, fascinated not only by their dynamic flight but also by the chuntering conversations of the male swallows. This is surely one of the really charming, confiding sounds of summer.

The arrival of swallows seems to be happening earlier and earlier. Apparently, in the nineteenth century it was often June before the swallows arrived but now, they are often here at the end of April or the beginning of May, doubtless something that can in some ways be associated with global warming. It may be presumed that when they arrived later in the year, they would restrict themselves to two broods of youngsters in a season. With the earlier arrival, three broods have probably now become the norm.

As I write I have not encountered further swallows. I hear that they are well and truly on the way but thus far do not seem to be apparent this far north. I can hardly wait for them to arrive in numbers in this airt. Then my summer will start properly, inspired by the fleet footed swallows, cutting their way through the summer air with such verve and athleticism. They are as welcome as the flowers in May.

Despite the fact that I have already seen my first swallow of the year, I know well enough that it is not summer … yet! The bird which has just completed that remarkable six-thousand-mile journey from South Africa, didn’t linger for long and was clearly not one of our local birds. It was perched on an overhead wire and at my approach returned to the air and very directly took off northwards. Last seen, it had disappeared over a distant wood and still heading inexorably north. Its summer home is clearly not here but further north.

The journey made each and every year by swallows is one of the miracles of bird migration, a miracle that the great naturalist of the eighteenth century from Sittingbourne, the Reverend Gilbert White, didn’t believe in. He thought the very concept of bird migration to be fanciful, yet on an analysis, his theory, which presumed that having fallen into a torpor, swallows hibernated either at the bottom of ponds or in the chimney pots, was even more fanciful! Now of course, we know that swallows do indeed make that six-thousand-mile journey, not just once but twice a year!

White was not alone in disbelieving that widescale migration was a fact of life. The Ancient Greeks at least had a notion that they flew off in the autumn and returned in the spring but they didn’t know where they went to. However, wise men, such as Aristotle and Pliny, were also convinced that swallows spent the winter in a kind of stupor tucked up in rock crevices. The theory of these and other birds falling into a trance-like state was given credence by observations of swallows huddling together in cold weather conditions as a way of saving energy and finding birds in this state during cold spells in May, doubtless added to the theory of hibernation.

The theory was further confused by the spectacle in the autumn of birds roosting overnight in reed beds before moving on before or at first light during migration. I suppose that the concept of birds flying thousands of miles on migratory flights would have seemed unlikely in the eighteenth or even the early nineteenth century when world-wide travel was a matter for explorers not ordinary people. In addition, fishermen periodically pulled up nets full of dead swallows when fishing, allegedly, also further proof that swallows hibernated at the bottom of the sea!

By later in the nineteenth century, travel across the world was at last becoming more widespread and travellers reported seeing masses of swallows off the coast of Western Africa. However, these birds were known not to breed in such places during the winter months and slowly but surely the reality of migration began to dawn.  In addition, there were reports of swallows having been seen making major sea crossings and Gilbert White’s own brother, living at the time in Andalusia, had witnessed swallows flying over the Straits of Gibraltar.

Even with such available evidence, the concept of birds, such as swallows and weighing just a few grams each, flying such vast distances was difficult to comprehend but confirmation of this began to emerge towards the end of the nineteenth century when bird ringing was first practiced. Now the miracle of bird migration was properly exposed and that miracle was suddenly realised to be true!

As may be understood, the greatest hazard migrating swallows encounter is the immense Sahara Desert, a stretch of approximately 1,200 miles. To tackle this crucial and daunting leg of their journey, swallows must feed and increase the amount of fat in their bodies by a third, packing in the maximum amount of energy prior to setting out on their marathon flight. Swallows moving north at this time of the year therefore feast upon the plentiful insect life of Central Africa but even so, many swallows fail to complete their trans-desert leg of the journey. I understand that more swallows than any other species perish in the desert. The crossing normally takes between two and three days, with few if any opportunities to feed during their challenging desert crossing.

However, almost as hazardous are mountain ranges such as the Pyrenees and the Alps, where they may encounter extremely hostile weather conditions – another energy sapping episode. Nothing saps the energy like a combination of wind, rain and snow. Especially as they feed exclusively on the wing and often at very low altitudes, swallows on migration much prefer to fly into headwinds or crosswinds but without the benefit of tail winds.  Eddies of a following wind can, at worst, cause them to stall.

Low temperatures can also be disastrous in terms of finding sufficient insect life on which to feed as they travel. Therefore, the hazards experienced on these journeys are considerable, so why do they do it? The answer lies in the plentiful insect life that is waiting for them in these islands and across Europe during spring and summer.  This migration probably dates back to the last Ice Age during which the world’s tilt altered to throw the Northern Hemisphere into a prolonged cold spell. At the end of this, insect life returned and although we imagine that Africa is throbbing with insect life there is, of course, plenty of competition for that resource, whilst further north, opportunity knocks.

I regard the swallow as our true summer bird. What would a summer day be without the athletic flight of swallows, darting hither and hither at breakneck speed? Indeed, swallows and their cousins, house martins were the birds that lit a vital flame in me when I was a young boy. I was electrified by the skimming flight of these charming birds, fascinated not only by their dynamic flight but also by the chuntering conversations of the male swallows. This is surely one of the really charming, confiding sounds of summer.

The arrival of swallows seems to be happening earlier and earlier. Apparently, in the nineteenth century it was often June before the swallows arrived but now, they are often here at the end of April or the beginning of May, doubtless something that can in some ways be associated with global warming. It may be presumed that when they arrived later in the year, they would restrict themselves to two broods of youngsters in a season. With the earlier arrival, three broods have probably now become the norm.

As I write I have not encountered further swallows. I hear that they are well and truly on the way but thus far do not seem to be apparent this far north. I can hardly wait for them to arrive in numbers in this airt. Then my summer will start properly, inspired by the fleet footed swallows, cutting their way through the summer air with such verve and athleticism. They are as welcome as the flowers in May.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods