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The departure of the swallows.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 11 September 2013
The swallows have gone. I did not see them go. I am inexplicably regretful about that.

I am not a twitcher or an ornithological expert. I was far too busy thinking about ponies as a child to take any interest in birds, although I do remember the larks singing on the wing as we rode out on the wide Lambourn downs. Then I went to London and spent most of my time in the dodgy bit of Westbourne Grove, before it became a hedge-fund playground, and in the darker corners of Soho. No birds there, except for some grumpy pigeons outside St Anne’s church.

The bird thing is new, and happened only when I got to Scotland. The first year I noticed the swallows arriving, I felt as if someone had sent me some great cosmic gift. I was oddly overcome by a child-like sense of wonder. These tiny, delicate creatures had flown all the way from Africa, to my old shed. Every part of their lives seemed slightly miraculous. Not only did they make that great journey, over thousands of miles, but when they got here, they had the talent to make nests of the most exquisite, precise construction. Muscle, navigation, and engineering skills; it seemed too much for one bird.

The swallows' low-flying training groundThe swallows' low-flying training ground
I began to become fascinated by their daily rhythms and their dedicated programme. After the arrival of their young, they would fly about each morning gathering food. They also posted guard: if they perceived any threat, they would do excellent diversionary tactics, screaming away in the opposite direction, calling wildly, to draw whatever predator they feared.

When the fledglings were ready for action, the parents would bring them out and start the flying lessons. At first, they kept very close to the nest. Short, educational journeys were essayed. Each week, they would go a little further, until the young birds were ready for serious training. Then they would go out into the open hayfield. It is a long green stretch of open ground, in the shape of a shallow bowl, with sloping banks on each side. It was here, in this perfect environment, that the adult swallows taught their growing chicks the art of low flying. They would skim the earth, making sharp manoeuvres where the ground banked upwards. As soon as the hay was cut, the manoeuvres could become more precise, as the contours of the earth were revealed. They made me think of Spitfires, in that ironically dazzling summer of the Battle of Britain.

Then, as August came to its end, they would begin the serious fitness work. They would fly very fast and very long, for hours and hours, clearly doing distance training. Each year, when I watched this, I would marvel afresh at their sheer physicality, their dogged determination, their excellent work ethic. I would also feel the faint flutter of melancholy, because I knew that soon they would be gone.

Last summer, there was a tremendous muster the night before they left. The quarrelling gang of swifts from my sister’s house came roaring up for a last hurrah with their avian cousins before the great trek began. I knew this meant that they were off, so I could make my farewells and wish them good journey.

The view south from the shed where they nest. I presume this is the direction in which they will have flownThe view south from the shed where they nest. I presume this is the direction in which they will have flown

This year, I’ve been preoccupied. I have the new work with HorseBack UK, the new mare to school, one book to write and at least two secret projects. I hardly know what day of the week it is, so this year I did not have the time to map the swallow timetable.

This is all a little bit nuts, I do admit. But I love those birds. I am used to the glorious, joyful trilling of their daily song. It is the soundtrack to my day. And now there is – silence. And some strange part of me is properly sad that I did not get to wave them off.

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