Getting jittery about swallows

The first swallows of summer should be on their way by now. Some really early birds might even have arrived down south already. But down south doesn’t count. For it to be official, the first swallow has to be sighted from our house—or from the Moor above.

The earliest official arrival so far came about ten years back, on my birthday, 2nd April. I’d already seen a couple of birds patrolling above a reservoir a few miles away, but, as I say, those don’t count. I was opening the gate, on my way out for a birthday pint, when a lone swallow swept out of nowhere across the front lawn and Fosbury flopped over the hedge. What a birthday present!

Swallows in garden
Swallows hunting for insects beneath our sycamore

I find it astonishing that the same small birds which will soon be gracing the airways above the local fields and moors spent our winter months in southernmost Africa. They are as equally at home flying above lions and wildebeest as they soon will be above my friend’s Aberdeen Angus. They know the Sahara. They’ve crossed the Mediterranean and the English Channel. They make the very idea of national boundaries seem absurd—which it is, when you think about it.

I’m starting to get jittery. Starlings and greenfinches glimpsed out the corner of my eye have already been briefly mistaken for record-breaking Hirundines. I need to mellow. Goodness knows what I’ll be like by mid-March. A nervous wreck, I should imagine.

Will I see my first swallow in March this year? Scientists reckon swallows are adjusting the timing of their migration to make the most of an extended breeding season in the northern hemisphere. Climate change, and all that. The record was almost equalled last year. On 4th April, Jen and I were climbing the steep final slope to the trig point on the Moor, when I heard a familiar burbling twitter high above and behind me, and swung round to see the silhouette of a swallow heading west into the lowering sun. I punched the air, hissing “Yessss!”, then had to explain to a bemused Jen what the hell I was doing.

I’ll be fifty this time round. We’ll be off to Italy to celebrate. Which means that, unless the record is indeed broken, I’m likely to miss the first swallow this year. My first—albeit unofficial—swallow is likely to be skimming low above a canal in Venice. But at least there should be something to look forward to when we get home: swallows… and wheatears.

Don’t get me started on wheatears.

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