It is getting to that time when one starts to keep an extra sharp eye out for the first migrants. I remember where I see my first Swallow each year, it is always a joyous sight, even over a less than scenic stretch of the M25 near Heathrow. Last year my first was infact of a pair, twittering and swooping over the much more fitting setting of Jane Austen’s House in Chawton. All things considered despite being so widespread across the world, the humble Barn Swallow has to be my favourite bird. The delightful twittering song, the flash of blue as it skims past, the amazing ability to drink on the wing, immortalised by that amazing photograph by Stephen Dalton which graces the cover of the Complete Mike Oldfield album. The touch of the exotic flitting past the friesians!
It is fascinating how folklore had it that Swallows hibernated in ponds and caves in Britain. Reading between the lines, I believe that after his brother ‘Gibraltar’ Jack reported seeing Swallows passing, Gilbert White realised the truth about migration, but his deferential nature meant he was reluctant to challenge the prevailing accepted (absurd!) theory!
Since we have known just how long a journey it undertakes (British Swallows typically go all the way to the Johannesberg area of South Africa!) writers like Oscar Wilde imagined the exotic sights and company the little fliers keep. Indeed does any other bird keep company with as many other species on its travels around the globe as Hirundo rustica?? It is the little Swallow in Wilde’s magical Happy Prince that has for me the most tear jerking line in all literature, ‘you are blind now so I will stay with you always’ . I always choke, and it was an amazing test of emotional genetics to see how my daughters would react as I read it aloud too them. A collective banshee like wail of sorrow! Like father, like daughters!
Just as their return holds so much promise, their departure heralding the end of summer has a powerful melancholic effect, as does the autumn song of the Robin. John Keats knew this too, ending his sublimely evocative ‘Ode to Autumn’ ‘and now with treble soft the redbreast whistles from the garden croft, and gathering Swallows twitter in the skies’
But no use getting sad before they arrive. I’ll leave the last word to Alfred Lord Tennyson..Hope they grace a Brook near you real soon….
I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,
Among my skimming swallows;
I make the netted sunbeam dance
Against my sandy shallows.