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Discover the Swallow

A closer look at British Wildlife

Join Rebecca as she recounts the arrival of the Swallowsthrough her words and beautiful artwork.

On the 15th of April at about 5pm, I was walking the dog along the beach. The waves were choppy and the clouds looked threatening but my local patch on the Moray coast was whirring with activity. One positive thing about the lockdown is I’ve spent a lot more time watching the same patch. Characters have come and gone like a soap opera – although the long-tailed ducks have moved on, groups of ringed plovers and knot have taken their place. On the afternoon in April I was admiring a turnstone through the binoculars when two blue boomerangs zipped past me. Swallows! My first of the year. They were gone as soon as they’d appeared but that was when I could safely say that, despite the gloomy afternoon, it was officially spring.       

With their rapid flight, stubby bills and narrow wings, swallows can sometimes look similar to swifts, house martins and sand martins. However, swallows have a much longer forked tail than these other species – its sharp points are often called streamers. Swallows also have a dark red neck patch and iridescent blue back. Unlike many birds, males and females are virtually identical to each other.

Swallows are renowned for their impressive migrations – arriving in Britain in April and returning to Africa in September. Before migration was studied properly, it was believed that swallows spent the winter buried in mud at the bottoms of lakes and rivers!

European swallows mostly spend the winter season south of the Sahara desert, but British swallows have been known to travel even further south to Botswana and South Africa. Usually the males arrive first, and together with the females they build a cosy nest cup from compacted mud, grass and feathers. As well as access to damp mud, they need cool, shadowy ledges in a barn or stable – out of the reach of cats!

It’s thought that humans have had a beneficial impact on swallows overall. As the birds nest in manmade buildings, it’s possible that populations used to be far smaller before we began farming and keeping livestock. Back then, swallows were dependent on naturally occurring nesting sites such as caves. Nowadays swallow numbers often fluctuate because they are heavily dependent on weather conditions. While they need rain to gather wet mud for their nests, too much of it makes insects harder to find. Also, hotter weather dries out their water sources, so there is a fine balance to be struck.

Anyone who has tried to photograph swallows soon learns to appreciate just how busy these birds are. While occasionally pausing on overhead wires or the edge of their nests, swallows spend most of the day ricocheting through the air as they snatch up flying insects. It is not uncommon for them to have two or sometimes even three broods each year so there’s really no time to waste. After my pioneer pair on the beach I started to see more and more – they slotted themselves into the sky alongside bulky-bodied gulls and cormorants. Even after flying six thousand miles to be here, there’s plenty of work to be done. 

Barn Swallow (Rebecca Gibson, watercolour and ink)
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