August Gathering

August 13, 2019

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but August is not my favourite month, in fact it’s one of my least favourite – mainly because it promises so much (at least for those of us raised in the part of the country where autumn doesn’t start until September) and delivers very little, other than torrential rain and the existential dread that comes with the words ‘Back to School’ in every shop. Since my last post, I have endured two more soakings on the bike (and only escaped another one by getting a lift to the station) and our utility room was home to enough pairs of soggy socks and gloves to make it smell as if the Swamp Thing had taken up residence there, or was at least using it as a laundry.

swallow on fence

This week, though, we’ve had a pause in the weather and that has been enough to trigger the best bit of August: the point when all the young swallows seem to emerge at once and start practising their flying. My photos cannot even start to do it justice but yesterday and today the air has been filled with trainee swallows and it’s just glorious (except for the one that learned the hard way about windows just outside my study). Every so often a gang of them will come pouring past the window, or start gathering on the wires, and they seem to be chasing each other around as much as the insects they’re supposed to be eating. Today they mastered landing in the very tips of the birch tree branches, where they bounce gently up and down until another swallow comes along and bounces them off to go zooming round the garden once more.

swallows on birch

It’s not just the swallows, either. At this time of year the hedgerows are full of learner birds and I’m often having to brake as I head down the hill on my bike to let a flustered blackbird or thrush get headway in front of me. We’ve got tiny little willow warblers, gangs of swallows, great tits and coal tits, and a juvenile wagtail that was stamping around outside our front door looking for insects. It’s a time to celebrate all of them, but especially swallows because it won’t be long before they’re gone for the winter and then summer really will have fled.

swallow on wire

Peak Swallow

August 25, 2017

If there’s one thing we’ve missed since we moved to the new house, it’s been having a whole shed just for the swallows which meant a ringside seat when the various broods fledged and – having mastered the whole swooping-out-of-the-window trick – started practising their flying around the yard. Indeed, having resident swallows is a great way of marking the passage of the seasons: from the cheery moment when the first one arrives back from Africa, chattering busily about its journey, to the sudden silence when you realise that they have gone, and they didn’t even say goodbye.

trainee swallows

Trainee swallows on the roof below our bedroom window. Paving beyond demonstrates our relaxed gardening approach …

So we were pleased when we looked out of the window the other morning and discovered not one but dozens of swallows, some still clearly novice flyers, swooping round our garden and perching all over the roof of the house. At one point there were well over 30 all lined up on the wires, and it’s been very distracting trying to work with a bird zooming past my study window at warp speed approximately every 30 seconds.

Not having hosted their nests in our own garden means we can’t feel quite such a sense of proprietorial pride in these birds but, as the other half pointed out, at least our somewhat relaxed attitude to gardening means there’s plenty of insect life around for them to hoover up. Plus there’s the fact that I ride so slowly up the hill that I’ve usually gathered my own personal cloud of flies by the time I get to the house (and if the swallows were to learn that and start greeting my approach by swooping round my head for a free snack, how cool would that be?).

swallow food

We have various plans for the garden, from a greenhouse to a sitooterie* but so far they have not quite extended to building a swallow shed, especially as both the neighbouring farms feature steadings with plenty of swallow habitat. Still, if a corner of the garden somewhere proves hospitable to hirundines (house martins are also welcome, and possibly easier to accommodate), then that will be a massive plus. Meanwhile, we shall continue to enjoy any birds who grace us with their presence, however fleeting.

* The place in the garden where you can sit oot, obviously

Springing up

April 18, 2016

Working away at the kitchen table this morning I was interrupted by a familiar and very cheering noise

Yup, the swallows – or rather swallow – was back, sitting on the wire, chattering away, wondering where everybody else was. I’d seen one briefly yesterday on my way back from the litter pick (which went fine, by the way; someone came to my rescue and helped out with the teas) but nothing in our yard until just now. It’s always a little sobering how many we send off at the end of the year, and how few come back in the spring but hopefully this is just the harbinger and won’t be quite so lonely by the end of the week*

Other signs of spring are somewhat less welcome. Like the crunching noise underfoot that indicated I’d just unwarily stepped on a snail (I’m no fan of snails, but I prefer to give them flying lessons than completely flattening them).

Oh, and time to start weeding the cobbles again. Long since, in fact


*Indeed, cycling down for the paper, I happened across a chap I often stop and talk to – he’s a birdwatcher too and we normally exchange sightings of there’s anything to report. Naturally I told him about my swallow and as I encountered him on the way back he started waving madly and pointing up at the sky where there were four swallows. It’s moments like this that really make my day …

Hello Stranger

April 17, 2015

Operation stupidbusy continues unabated, not helped by my inability to say no to stuff, but I did ‘have’ to ride down to Papershop Village for the paper this morning.* And as I got back on my bike I heard a familiar, scolding chattering and looked up to see a swallow perched on the wire above, back from Africa. Although there were none in our front yard when I returned, the other half soon called me out to greet the first of our returned swallows. Welcome back, guys, there’s midgies here already, and it was only snowing last week…

We may have to recreate our anti-cat defences on the window of the swallow shed, though. The new neighbour has a cat, apparently, and as soon as she manages to catch it, she will be bringing it here. It doesn’t sound as if it’s much of an indoor moggy…

* There’s lots of reasons for doing things by bike, like burning off cake, saving the planet etc. And sometimes, simply the excuse to get outside of a sunny spring morning before chaining yourself to a laptop for the rest of what is promising to be a gorgeous day.

Peak Bird

August 28, 2014

starlings on a wire

There was another batch of trainee swallows outside our window this morning, making use of a break in the rain and joining a pair of warblers happily gleaning insects in the huge fennel plant by our front door, the spotted flycatcher hawking for insects off the roof of the shed, and the wagtails stomping up and down the guttering – not to mention the usual chaffinches and great tits, a scruffy pack of sparrows that loiter in the village, a squadron of starlings that spend a peripatetic life among the farms between here and papershop village, the jackdaws that live in the ruined cottage, a mess of pipits in the hedgerow (I think they’re pipits, but they never stay still long enough for me to confirm) – everything but (thank God) ASBO Buzzard, which seems to have called off its campaign of harrassment for the year. At this time of year, I cycle with a bow-wave of birds fleeing before me in feathery panic, from a tiny wren that barely gained enough height and speed to clear my front wheel to the murder of rooks beating slowly away from the scene of some crime on the road. We may not actually be at peak bird (the tens of thousands of geese and swans that descend for the winter probably outnumber – and definitely outweigh – our summer migrants) but it certainly feels like there’s an abundance now, before the swallows leave and the predators and the weather take their toll.

I even watched a peregrine being harassed from pillar to post by a gang of small birds that seemed entirely fearless. If anything, it was the peregrine that was in fear (and I can testify that being flown at even by something much smaller than you is not to be lightly dismissed) for it had left its lunch – a half-plucked pigeon – on the tarmac.

pile of pigeon feathers

When I came back, birds, peregrine and pigeon had gone, with only a pile of feathers remaining. Make that peak bird minus one.

Welcome Home…

April 20, 2014

We’ve been wondering when ‘our’ swallows would reappear after the winter. I’ve seen them swooping overhead when out on the bike, sometimes quite close to home, but there’s been no twittering presence on the wire outside the house – and no rapid darting in and out of the window of the swallow shed. Despite always sending many freshly minted swallows off to Africa in the autumn, such is the mortality rate that there’s no guarantee any of them will return, so this time of year is always tinged with a little anxiety.

So we were pleased when – sitting outside on the bench enjoying a cup of tea and a shared Easter egg with a visitor this afternoon – he suddenly clapped his hand to his head and looked up ruefully at the swallow perched on the wire strategically placed above his seat. The swallow soon shot off to check out the nesting sites within the shed, where we hope it will soon be joined by many others. And our visitor? He’s gone off to get himself a lottery ticket while his luck holds

They Never Say Goodbye

September 2, 2013

It’s that time of the year when I find myself anxiously monitoring the skies and the telegraph wires for the continued presence of swallows and martins. They’re still here, just (although thinking about it we didn’t see many on our walk this evening) but the time is getting short as the evenings are getting shorter. Last week I was down at the river south of Bigtown and the place was packed full of flitting swallows and sand martins, filling up with flying insects as fast as they could manage. An amazing sight, but one with a touch of melancholy too. They come up here for our long light summer evenings and plentiful supply of midges and with both beginning to diminish it will only take a few cold nights and a good north wind to blow them all south again, taking the summer with them.

And meanwhile, I’ve already heard the first geese calling as they fly in. Bah. Time to light the fire and get the Rayburn man in, and knuckle down for winter

Many Happy Returns

April 15, 2013

Well, the weekend brought the return of our south westerly winds, which meant a relief from the recent cold weather, but (into every life a little rain must fall) came at the price of actually quite a lot of rain – there was a good foot and a half of water raging over the ford yesterday afternoon, thanks for asking. Given that we’ve had, amazingly, practically no rain at all since the epic snows, this has come as a bit of a blow. We were getting quite used to the idea of being able to walk around in something other than wellies, but more fool us.

The milder mornings had also brought another old friend, the wakey wakey bird, to be cheery outside my window at oh God do you really have to o’clock but – although twitter has been full of people announcing the arrival of theirs – no sign of any swallows. Until this morning when, peering out the window to see if it had stopped raining yet, the other half announced that he had seen one flying out of the window of the swallow shed. And there it was whizzing around in the sky, hopefully hoovering up the first of many beakfuls of midgies…

For Those in Peril from the Skies

July 26, 2012

Sitting out last evening we were joined – briefly – by the cat, or rather she deigned to come over to be stroked, sharpen her claws on the bench, and make sure we weren’t eating anything interesting. Then her attention was caught by the sight of a swallow swooping in through the window of the swallow shed, where the second broods are busy making a squawking racket, and the rival delights of Swallow TV drew her over. She does love to sit on the windowsill and watch them flying around inside but the swallows aren’t quite as keen and have taken to making their displeasure known in an extremely vocal manner so the cat has taken on a bit of a hunted air in recent weeks, keeping one nervous eye on the sky. Even so, it was a lovely evening, the baby swallow racket was soooo tempting, it was getting dark so maybe the swallows wouldn’t fly, if she kept a low profile and didn’t look too much like a cat they wouldn’t attack. And besides they’re only birds it wouldn’t be that …


… frightening. Wrong. Cue enraged mama swallow, and cat bolting for the safety of the car. Perhaps I’m going to have to make her a cap too.

Anyway, we’re off to face a different kind of peril tomorrow – down to That London to see if we can get our bikes across town without being squashed or getting lost or possibly interned for the duration for daring to use one of the Zil Lanes without authorisation. That should give me something different to blog about – and possibly make the risk of aerial attack seem utterly trivial by comparison. If we’re spared…

Thin in the Air

May 8, 2012

So, our swallows came back last month – but not that many of them. At the end of last year’s swallow breeding season we must have had well over a dozen swallows bombing around – when it came to clearing out the shed when they had departed there were three or four active nests, and each pair produces at least two broods. I know the attrition rate for migrating swallows is pretty steep, but every year that we’ve been here we’ve had more swallows nesting than we’ve had the year before. So it was rather sad to see just three of them swooping round the yard and in and out of the window of the shed these past couple of weeks. Could we really have lost so many swallows between September and April? Had they all met with some disaster further south?

At the same time, we’ve also had a good two weeks of freak north-easterly winds which have brought with them all manner of strange spring weather: sitting-out-at-the-pub temperatures followed by frost, hail followed by more hail, actual dryness followed by torrential rain … everything’s been completely upside down. Then yesterday, with the bank holiday-ish weekend (it’s never quite clear if you haven’t a proper job and live in Scotland what’s a bank holiday and what isn’t), normal service was resumed along with the traditionally damp Bank Holiday Monday and, this morning, the resumption of the south-westerly prevailing wind and the pattern of sunshine-and-showers that passes for a nice day in these parts.

And, perhaps carried in on those south-westerlies, a few more swallows have arrived to join our lonely crew. We’re hoping the rest have been similarly merely delayed: waiting for their left luggage or just making a leisurely journey of it, holed up somewhere a little warmer if such a place can be found.

It made me wonder – are we the only people whose swallows were missing, presumed gone? Are yours all back? Or have you, perhaps, got some extra swallows round your way, looking a bit confused and twittering away in a gentle Scottish accent and wondering where all the midgies were?

Send them this way if you have…