Snapping at swallows

A sunny early evening in July. I’m stretching my legs along the Carr Track after a frustrating day at my desk. It’s been a scorcher, but a cooling northerly breeze has picked up during the last hour, coaxing me outside.

The hayfields at the side of the track are already starting to recover after last week’s mowing. Across the valley, Heptonstall church scowls in harsh sidelight.

Out of nowhere, a swallow coasts past along the track, then flops over the drystone wall into the field. A second joins it, and a third. This is more like it. They head off low, alongside the wall, in search of insects sheltering from the breeze.

My dad’s otherwise well-behaved cocker spaniel would be going berserk by now. She’s spent many a happy hour chasing low-flying swallows across the fields, slinging a deaf ear to anyone who would spoil her fun. She’s never come remotely close to catching one, of course, but that’s not really the point.

A second flight of swallows appears from across the field. They join forces with the first, quartering back and forth, continuing to hug the ground.

I fix the telephoto lens to my camera, and make towards the corner of the field, where the swallows seem to be concentrating their efforts. They’re far too small and quick for autofocus to be of any use, so I click the lens into manual mode and select a fast shutter speed. I stand in the shade of a roadside rowan, firing off perhaps fifty shots—an exercise unthinkable before digital photography. The trick is to try to second-guess where individual swallows will be in a split-second’s time. Experience shows, if you wait for the bird to come fully into focus before releasing the shutter, it will already be too late. You just have to fire and hope.

With any luck, a couple of my shots will be more or less in focus. They’ll never win any prizes, but that’s not really the point.


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