It's always a treat to see swallows in the garden
Early in September, the swallows were already gathering in our valley, sitting on the telephone wires like crotchets on a stave. There must have been about 50 of them, twittering in that high-pitched way that no other bird matches. We've had a pair nesting in the woodshed again and they raised two broods this summer, two young birds from the first hatch, three from the second.
But that second brood was quite late getting into the air. The parents zoomed in and out of the woodshed, showing the way, curling up and over the trees on the boundary, calling, checking back on the young, still in the nest. One young bird got as far as the top of the stable door and perched there for a while. Then it took off, flapping furiously, and got as far as the television aerial on the chimney, where the parents joined it.
But, as has been said again and again, it seems scarcely believable that a bird as young and inexperienced as that can survive a migration as lengthy and exhausting as the one swallows make every year. It's not surprising that early naturalists supposed they must overwinter in this country, hiding themselves away much as hedgehogs hibernate during the coldest months.
Gilbert White, the 18th-century naturalist who wrote The Natural History of Selborne, returned to the topic time and again. Though he had a brother living in Gibraltar, who gave him information about the migration of birds, White still suspected that some swallows might stay in Britain during the winter, and could be discovered in their hibernacula if only he were clever enough to find them.
"Some stragglers stay behind a long while," he wrote to Thomas Pennant on 28 February 1769, "and do never, there is the greatest reason to believe, leave this island." A friend of his had seen swallows at Merton College, Oxford as late as the last week in December.
The annual hibernation of his pet tortoise, Timothy, always prompted White to start thinking again about the mystery of swallows and their disappearance. The high banks of Selborne Hangers seemed a possible retreat. So did the waters at the bottom of local lakes and millponds, over which he watched them flying late in the season. If anyone was pulling down an old wall or draining a pond, he would be there, hoping to find the birds, lurking like bats or newts, in the crevices or half-frozen mud.
With us, the swallows arrived on April 14. But when, exactly, did they go? They stopped using the woodshed as a base some weeks ago. I had already begun to wonder how all seven of the family could have crowded into the same nest. I never poke my head in when they are there - not wanting to alarm them or get in their way - so could never be sure how they arranged themselves for the night.
I thought they must have left on their migration when I no longer saw them swooping in and out of the woodshed door. Their precision is wonderful. Here in the valley, I could watch the parents approaching the nest on a line as straight as a ruler, down over the trees, straight in through the door, without ever putting on the brakes. They fly incredibly fast and it's reckoned they can cover 200 miles a day on their long migratory journeys.
But then, one evening, more recently, I saw what I thought were bats coursing over the garden. They have the same incredibly rapid manner of flying as the swallows, and are as acrobatic in their sharp curves and changes of course.
But when one of the shapes came in on a dive very close to the top of my head, I saw the forked tail and knew these had to be swallows. So where were they roosting? Or were these not the same birds that had recently nested in our woodshed, but some others, taking over the hunting grounds?
They are brave birds, as well as beautiful ones. Watching one day from the window of the hut where I'm supposed to work, I saw a jay flicker down from a tree onto the grass bank underneath. Immediately one of the swallows emerged from the woodshed and started to harry it, diving down at incredible speed on to the jay, then pulling out of the dive just when you thought it was going to hit the ground. As we instinctively duck when we think something is going to hit us, so the jay, crouched on the grass pulled its head sharply down into its neck each time the swallow made a pass.
Eventually, the jay took off and flew up into a rowan tree, where the swallow couldn't follow it. But it didn't come back into the garden. The bully hadn't won. Hurrah!