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

Less than an ounce, far to fly

Walking across the field by the Palm House today, the swallows and martins still made their presence known, swooping and diving for late afternoon insects, despite the falling temperatures and gales of the past few days.  You’d think they would have got the message by now: it’s over, time to head south for the warmth and the sun.

This morning in The Guardian, Mark Cocker writing from Norfolk of last week’s storms in the Country Diary, also notes the incongruity of the swallows as the season turns:

It was hard to square the swallows with this place. Three or four of them swooped low across the river Yare, and were almost blown back with the force of the opposing airstream. Somehow they picked out narrow fissures in that cold bluff of wind, and slowly reached the other side. They then arced down over the fields, flying almost sideways, as if resting on one wing, using the left briefly as a flail to paddle against the blast. By the time I’d turned for home the sun had gone. Rain started pounding down in diagonal sheets. Against the collar of my coat, which I raised to protect my glasses, it made a brittle sound like snapping twigs. When I got home I was completely soaked, cold trickles of water running down my shins. I thought finally of those blue birds. They weigh about 22g (less than 1oz), which works out roughly at one gram of wing muscle and sinew and hollow bone for every 450km of their forthcoming journey.

Less than an ounce!  Coincidentally, Stephen Moss in the same newspaper’s Birdwatch was fascinated, too, by the mystery of migration, focussing in this case on wheatears:

The wheatear is one of more than a dozen kinds of migrant songbird, including flycatchers, chats and warblers, which pass through our parish at this time of year. They don’t hang around for long: once they have built up their energy reserves – in some cases doubling their weight – they will leave under cover of darkness, taking advantage of following winds and clear skies to help them on their way.

They navigate by means of the Earth’s magnetic field, the position of the Moon and stars, and natural landmarks such as rivers. But however much I learn about their incredible journeys, I remain in awe: how can a bird weighing less than an ounce travel so many thousands of miles, especially when, like this young wheatear in front of me, it has never done the trip before?

Of all the writers who contribute to Country Diary, I most appreciate Paul Evans, whose missives usually concern the countryside around Wenlock Edge.  Last week’s was an outstanding piece, beginning with autumnal apple falls and the impending storm, before concluding with a powerful sense of the strangeness  of a land where ‘mile after mile, village after village, there was no one working in the fields or gardens or walking the byways, only traffic on the roads…’

When ripe apples fall and no one picks them up, then this is a strange land. Chiff-chaff, riff-raff, mis-hap, go-back, this was the last day the chiff-chaff called from Windmill Hill. Summer was being blown like straw from a lorry-load of bales and the chiff-chaff, clinging to an ash tree, waited for the coast to clear and the wind to die down before striking out on his southern journey. There was a storm coming and the air was electric. Rags of cloud, agitated and spectre-grey, churned around the sky, leaving a bright blue eye-patch overhead. Far hills were misted out when a band of swallows flipped in as fast as peas off a spoon from The Wrekin in the north. Half a wingbeat above ground and catastrophe if they touched anything, the swallows slipped by under the wind and death’s radar.

A pocketful of hazelnuts lay on the path. Each nut had been hollowed out through a neat hole cut into its shell. This gave the empty nuts the feel of artefacts – painstakingly crafted using skills passed down over millennia. These were made like gifts, precious beautiful things, the work of dormice. In the dark, up in the arching hazel boughs, the dormice ran their invisible paths collecting nuts, cutting through and hollowing out, feasting on their harvest and dropping these empty shells in the same place. In daylight they would be asleep somewhere in the trees, wound up in their tails inside a nest of dry grass, deep in their dreams. What did these ginger elfin rodents of the woods dream? Did they imagine this land, where no one seemed to stir?

Mile after mile, village after village, there was no one working in the fields or gardens or walking the byways, only traffic on the roads. Where was everyone? The chiff-chaff was leaving, ripe apples had fallen from a tree on to the roadside and no one was going to pick them up. What a strange land this was.