A Single Swallow

A Single Swallow

The swallows have long gone from the park fields; they no longer swoop and dive around me as I walk the dog there.  By now they are probably some where over the tropical forests of central Africa; by Christmas many will have reached South Africa.  The extraordinary journey that swallows make on their annual migration has fascinated me since, as a child growing up in a Cheshire village, I would see swallows gather in late August or September on telephone wires and I would know that summer was nearly over and I would marvel at the great journey they were about to make.

The swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson,
Touches the honey-slow river and turning
Returns to the hand stretched from under the eaves –
A boomerang of rejoicing shadow.

– Ted Hughes, from ‘Work and Play’

I suppose it was this unending fascination that led me, in a bookshop in the summer, to pick up and buy A Single Swallow: Following the migration from South Africa to South Wales by Horatio Clare.  I saved it for the end of summer, and finished reading it a couple of weeks ago.

When I finally settled down to read the book it was, at first, a disappointment.  This is not a book about swallows: it is, rather, a travel book in which swallows make only an occasional appearance.  But, as soon as I had adjusted to this mistake on my part, I found myself absorbed in Clare’s story of his journey north through Africa, swept along by Clare’s engagingly generous account of the characters he meets along the way.  For the strength of this book lies in Clare’s vivid portrayal of encounters with humans, rather than the birds he is ostensibly following.

Horatio Clare made the decision to follow the swallows’ route one summer’s morning in Wales when he saw swallows on the wires at his mother’s house. In a sense the journey will also replicate his father’s journey into exile, banned from South Africa in 1963, a student caught up in the anti-apartheid struggle.  After arming himself with visas and equipment to cover 14 countries in three months (his schedule defined to mimic the swallow’s own migratory timetable), Clare begins his journey  at the Cape of Good Hope, where the vast majority of Britain’s swallows pass our winter.

In his review of the book for The Guardian, the nature writer Mark Cocker observed a problem with Clare’s project; he wrote:

Swallows do not migrate in one vast observable swarm that can be tracked, nor do they take a single identifiable path between, say, Bloemfontein and the Welsh valleys. Rather, swallow migration, perhaps involving a fifth of a billion birds, is a diffuse, almost osmotic filtering of these tiny feather scraps from one continent to the other. You can intercept it, by standing in a single spot and letting parts of this delicate current of blue pass you by, but you cannot meaningfully replicate the journey yourself.

This is why, after seeking out swallows on a nature reserve at the Cape (where he sees ‘entire dark whirlwinds funneling down into the reeds’), swallows are only sighted infrequently and receive sparse mention once the journey north begins. The reader soon realises that he real subject of this book is Horatio Clare’s own experience. He would seem to be the single swallow of the title.

So, as Clare makes his way north through Namibia, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon – struggling with transportation, bureaucracy, and increasingly his own state of mind, encounters with swallows are fleeting – on power lines, streaming upriver, ‘whipping in swirling dives’, and at a desolate railway station in Cameroon, their ‘blue backs shining in the hazy sunlight like hardened silk’.

Mostly, when he tells those he meets why he is undertaking his arduous journey, people appear mystified, often unaware of the existence of swallows.  But the bird is known by some: in Zambia the swallow is nyankalema, ‘the bird that never gets tired’. In Niger, it is giri-giri and used in witchcraft: eviscerated and boiled to a paste, it affords protects from traffic accidents and plane crashes.

But the real story here is Horatio Clare: his journey by hire-car, bus, motorbike, canoe or on foot through jungle, and the  people he meets or travels with the way.  The vivid and personal accounts of these encounters and his own generous nature is what drives the book along and keeps you reading.  The account of the leg of his journey across Congo-Brazzaville – by crowded minibus and a Land Cruiser in an advanced state of dilapidation – to the river which will take him to Cameroon is truly gripping. When the road runs out at an isolated village, the passengers are required to cover the last stage of several hours on foot through the rain forest.  A young man also travelling on the Land Cruiser draws Horatio aside: ‘First ..we smoke some tabac congolais, to give us force’.

In Yaounde, he meets a Cameroonian rugby player, desperate to get a chance to play in Europe. Clare tries to help him, but fails.  In Nigeria he realises that he will not be able to cross Niger, where a civil war is in progress, except by air.  In Morocco he is fleeced by hash dealers in Casablanca, and falls helplessly in love with a beautiful British-Asian woman from Rochdale in Marrakech.

This is also the story of Clare’s interior journey, and his gradual unravelling until, reaching Spain exhausted in mind and body and close to mental breakdown, he hurls all his possessions, diary of his journey and passport included, into the sea. The single swallow returns to Britain where he badly needs the kindness and support of friends.

The swallows whose migration route Clare followed don’t require visas, they see no frontiers.  Clare’s account, by contrast, tells of a continent divided by unnatural borders defined by European colonisers, and torn by war and ethnic conflict.

This is the swallows’ route followed by Clare.  British swallows spend their winter in South Africa, having travelled south through western France, across the Pyrenees, down eastern Spain into Morocco, and across the Sahara. Migrating swallows will cover 200 miles a day, mainly during daylight, at speeds of 17-22 miles per hour.  They put on little weight before migrating, instead they travel by day at low altitudes and find food on the way. Despite accumulating some fat reserves before crossing large areas such as the Sahara Desert, they are vulnerable to starvation during these crossings. Migration is a hazardous time and many birds die from starvation, exhaustion and in storms.  The effort kills three-quarters of the birds before they reach full adulthood.

In recent years, a great deal of research has been conducted to uncover the secrets of the swallow’s annual journey, and thanks to the work of bird ringers, who fit an individual with a ring in the hope it will be recovered in some far flung place, their entire route from Britain to South Africa can now be pieced together.

The swallows remain around their breeding sites until the end of August, before gathering at places where they can roost safely at night – this is the time when we see flocks of swallows perched on telephone wires. They usually taking a month or so to reach the English Channel before proceeding down the west coast of France. When they reach the Pyrenees, instead of flying over the mountains they head eastwards along the northern rim before crossing the Mediterranean and the Sahara Desert.

The swallows pass through West Africa, and in Nigeria encounter their toughest hazard thus far. At one of their roosts near Ebok Boje, thousands of swallows are killed and eaten in an annual tradition. After Nigeria, less is known about the swallows’ route. They probably move east and south towards the great tropical forests of Central Africa until, after several weeks, they enter the more open country of Southern Africa. Finally after four months, as Christmas approaches in the north, they reach their destinations: wintering grounds in Botswana, Namibia or South Africa where they moult, feed, and regain weight.

Bird ringing began in UK in 1909 when people still had little knowledge of the scale and extent of bird migration.  But one swallow transformed our understanding. It is known only as B830, the identifier on the ring which John Masefield, a solicitor passionate about wildlife, slipped on to the leg of a swallow chick in its nest in the porch of his house in Cheadle, Staffordshire, on 6 May 1911.  That Staffordshire swallow flew off from Cheadle and ended up in a place no one at the time remotely expected.

Although it was assumed that they were going somewhere warmer for the winter, no one had any idea of how far into the African continent they penetrated until news arrived of John Masefield’s swallow, 18 months after he ringed it.  In a letter dated 27 December 1912 sent by Mr C H Ruddock, proprietor of the Grand Hotel, Utrecht, Natal, South Africa, he wrote:

Dear Sir, On December 23, a swallow was caught in the farmhouse of the farm Roodeyand, 18 miles from this town, with a metal label round its leg, with the words Witherby, High Holborn, London, and on the other side B830. The farmer, Mr J Mayer, took the label off and has it in his possession. As I am interested in birds of any sort and the migration of same, I shall be glad to know if you received this letter safely.

At a stroke this revealed that swallows breeding in the British Isles migrated to winter in South Africa, something which even today we marvel at: a tiny bird flying 6,000 miles down the whole length of the African continent. The story of John Masefield’s swallow is told in full in a book by Michael McCarthy, Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

– Sara Teasdale, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains

See also

The swifts are back!

The swifts are back! Each May around this time, they return from southern Africa to the avenue. The swifts are with us for just three months each summer, sweeping and screaming in the sky above these city streets.

Winter is spent in the Southern part of Africa. The birds cover large areas in the search for food and, incredibly, spend all their time on the wing, never landing. Unlike the osprey, Nimrod, whose migration has been electronically tracked, it has proved impossible so far to do the same for swifts – because they are virtually impossible to capture and tag and because several very similar local species makes study of swifts in southern Africa difficult. As a result little is known of their status as wintering birds.

Swifts are amongst the fastest flyers in the animal kingdom. Even the common swift (Apus apus) cruises at 5 to 14 m per second and is capable of 60 m per second for short bursts. In a single year the common swift can cover at least 200,000km. The swift does everything in the air, except breed. It feeds and drinks on the wing, preens and plays in the air. It sleeps, mates and collects nesting material on the wing. The wings are narrow but long which makes it a rapid and precise hunter of its targets such like flying insects and spiders.

Swifts return to the breeding places at approximately the same time each year: early May across most of Europe. It is faithful to its breeding place so that the pairs may breed together for many years. Swifts lay 2-3 eggs and breed and hatch the chicks together. On summer days they fly until dark, when the non breeders of a colony assemble and fly high in the sky to sleep on the wing. At the end of July the young will fly out, mostly right after sunset and will never come back to the nest. They need no exercises in flying and after a few moments they practice as well as the adults.

Nowadays they mostly breed in holes in walls or a free space under the eaves of houses. They will accept nest boxes too and don’t fear humans. When leaving the box, the swift doesn’t fly up into the air, but just jumps and falls a couple of metres until it has gained the necessary speed to fly.

The UK Swift population was estimated at 80,000 birds in 1990. They are thought to have decreased by 15% to 20% since. There’s just one Swift now for every 900 humans in the UK.

These amazing birds have shared our buildings with us ever since the Romans came to Britain. They still breed in our eaves and gables, but with increasing difficulty, as modern and renovated buildings exclude them.They are also being affected by modern farming practices in Africa, pesticide use and climate change. It is feared that if present trends continue swifts will vanish from the UK.

From Swifts by Ted Hughes

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialize at the tip of a long scream
Of needle . “Look! They’re back! Look! And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come