The swallows and their babies


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Back in May, I became aware that the swallows we had seen flying around, doing their finest acrobatics above us and filling the air with their high-pitched liquid tunes, had begun to build a nest in the workshop. How exciting! In the eight years we have lived here, no swallows have nested in our outbuildings before, apart from a couple of unsuccessful attempts in the field shelter out in the meadow a few years ago.

Each year, their arrival from Africa ushers in the long, heady days of summer and I love seeing them fly high and low above the slate and tin rooftops of the smallholding. They usually nest in the neighbour’s barns on the other side of the boundary wall so we are used to having them around us but this year, the quality of their presence was different, closer and more palpable, immediate, intimate. Like they were tugging at me to notice them.

And notice them, I did… a pair began to gather on the telephone wire that stretches from the house to the wooden pole at the top of the garden. Always side by side, they got to know each other, twittering and chattering up there. Preening together too, nibbling feathers into place to keep their smart tuxedo suits glossy and clean. Two sweethearts courting, bonding. Every so often, with other swallows nearby, the male would, a tad aggressively, defend his chosen territory against intruders and see them off. Their graceful flights against the blue, cloudless skies seemed to express their love of life, flying untethered and free as they do.

It was when I spotted the couple fly low above the ponds that I wondered if they had started to build their nest nearby, using mud from the drying-out edges of our ponds. As I was putting away the chickens’ corn one evening, my gaze was drawn to the rafters under the workshop roof, and there, right at the top, was a half-finished cup of grey-brown clay. Followed days and days of busy construction with mud pellets added in layers, some with hay and grass for added strength. It was fascinating seeing the structure progress towards completion.

Seeing the nest was the point when I felt a story was being played out in front of me and I wasn’t going to miss it. Bubbles of excitement, tinged with a little apprehension I must admit, formed in me every time I thought of the next stage: feathers in the finished nest, eggs, incubation, chicks... I can’t tell you how much I was rooting for them, for their successful brood and for future generations of swallows born here. As usual, I was torn between wanting to help them and letting them just get on with it, trusting that if they had chosen this place, then they had everything they needed for it. The suspense was both thrilling and unnerving. Plenty could still go wrong, something that my mind reminded me at every opportunity! One of our hens was broody at that time and had taken to plucking some of her downy grey-white chest feathers to add to her “nest” in the laying box. One day I picked up a few of those and put them on a shelf in the workshop for the swallows to find. I couldn’t resist! I knew they were ready to line the nest and swallows do prefer white feathers for that.

Each day, I watched how the story unfolded, taking records of each stage. Just over two weeks after first spotting the swallows’ nest building activity, I saw a white feather poking out of one side of the little cup and my heart skipped a beat! Curiosity got the better of me and, so as not to disturb them, when neither male or female were around, Peter propped up a tall ladder and I fetched the little mirror with an extendable arm. I then carefully, nervously climbed the metal steps and got close enough to have a quick peek inside their cosy nest: the mirror positioned over the cup of dried earth revealed four white eggs with red speckles resting on a soft bed of light-coloured feathers. I waited to be down from the ladder and on firm ground to do a little celebratory dance!

It was the beginning of June by the time this new chapter began and the female started to sit on the nest day after day. The male flew around by himself, occasionally singing his shimmering song alone on the telephone wire. Waiting, as I was, for chicks to be born. Incubation took two weeks and around Midsummer’s Day at the end of June, four chicks hatched, sending both parents into a feeding frenzy, coming and going through both the little hole in the wall and the open door of the workshop, from dawn to dusk.

On the first day in July, our neighbour Paul came to ring the chicks. They were found to be in very good condition, bright and well feathered. I felt pride for the adult swallows who have done a cracking job at feeding them, evidently finding plenty of food for their babies to thrive. It was so lovely to see their little faces poking out of the top of the nest, more and more each day as they got bigger.

Last weekend, they fledged. They flew out of the nest onto the nearby beam then spread their wings a bit further by flying around in the workshop, exploring this new territory, learning the ropes, preparing for life in the big world. Do they know how much further they are going to have to spread their wings? And how much bigger their world is about to become?

Yesterday was the first day they spent out of the workshop. They were back roosting on their beam at bedtime, all four siblings neatly huddled together. The parents are still around and this morning, I saw all six of them fly together, high above the building then a low swoop in the yard. My heart sang with joy! Good luck, baby swallows!

In a few weeks’ time, they will all get ready to make their epic journey to Africa. Young and old will answer the call of migration and take to the air to spend the winter in warmer climes. Isn’t that an amazing feat? A bird weighing only a few grams flying thousands of miles across land and sea. It certainly is a marvel of nature that we, humans, for all our developed knowledge and “superior” intelligence, do not yet fully understand.

Without taking away from my swallows’ success story, may I take this opportunity to let you know, dear readers, about a little migration of our own? As you opened this blog post, you will have noticed some changes to the website: new logo, new font, new colours, new layout… A project to revitalise our presence on the web has been maturing since the spring and is nearly ready to hatch. As part of this exciting revamp, about which I will talk more next time, the blog will change to a newsletter with added features and offerings. I hope you will be happy to continue hearing from Rural and Rustic (you will be given the opportunity to say next time) and stay on the newsletter email list. I am currently working on the migration to a new platform and the next communication you will receive will be the newly fledged newsletter. It is called “Moments” and I am very much looking forward to sending it out into the world by sharing it with you all.

Bye for now xx