The two summers of the Hirondelle

Common Swallow, Lower Hardres, August 2015. Image © Copyright 2017

The arrival of Swallows in Britain has long been associated with the coming of summer: one Swallow my not a summer make, but when we see a small flock darting through the air, we know the warmer weather is coming. This week, commencing 24 April 2017, Swallows have been spotted along the Valley Road in Barham.

We may be pleased to see them, but their appearance is all the more delightful when we consider the extraordinary journey that Swallows make to get here. Most of those that visit Britain for the summer have passed the previous few months in sunny South Africa. Every year, having judged when the time is right, they set off in flight up to the northern hemisphere, flying either on an eastern route over the pyramids of the Nile Valley, or up a western route, skirting the Sahara and crossing the Mediterranean into Spain, and on upwards into Britain: a journey of nearly 6,000 miles. They travel in daylight at speeds of up to 35mph, covering some 200 miles a day, feeding on the wing on a diet of flies, aphids and beetles and adjusting their height according to which of those creatures they see in the air around them. The route is long, stormy and hazardous, and many birds die of exhaustion or starvation on the way.

Those Swallows that make it here to Britain spend a few idyllic months in temperate climes and safety, delighting us with rapid, darting flight through azure skies. Then, at the first signs of autumn’s fading light, they head off south again to seek perpetual sun.

Back in South Africa, Swallows receive a cheery welcome. Just as we regard them as a sign of warmer weather coming to the northern hemisphere, so do the people of South Africa down in the southern hemisphere. Every year, flying from south to north and back again, the Swallow brings two summers.

*In parts of Africa the Swallow is known by its French name L’Hirondelle.

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