Something for the weekend: The miracle of migration
One of the great joys of living in the country, here on the Somerset Levels, is the constant soundtrack provided by the swallows nesting in next door's barn. They are here for about five months, from mid-April until mid-September. Sometime in early October, I finally realise that I can no longer hear them - by which time the broods raised here in my home village are well on their way to their African winter-quarters.
Sometimes I catch up with them again, as happened a couple of years ago, when I was lucky enough to spend February in Botswana's Okavango Delta, where many of 'our' swallows spend the winter. But usually I face months of deprivation, before the sound of a happy twittering, sometime in April, makes me look up to see that they have returned safely to our shores.
So imagine my surprise when, earlier this week, I was driving back into my village when I noticed birds swooping low over the rhyne (Somerset word for water-filled ditch) next to the road. Surely they couldn't be... but they were! More than 60 swallows: busily feeding on tiny insects while their backs were warmed by the autumn sun.
As they moved on, so did I; but there they were again, this time perched on a pair of telegraph wires like notes on a musical stave (I know that's a cliché but that's what they look like...) I took a closer look: most were juvenile birds, with short, stubby tails, rather than the long, elegant plumes of the adults. There was also a single house martin amongst them, looking slightly confused, as well he might.
Given the fact that the village swallows headed off almost a month ago, and that we have had strong easterly winds all week, I suspect that this particular flock of swallows came from Scandinavia. Having travelled across the North Sea they were busy refuelling in a Somerset field, before flying away to the south.
From here they will pass over the south coast, cross the Channel, and then journey right across Europe, over the Mediterranean Sea (probably via Gibraltar to avoid a long sea crossing), then fly across the desert and down into sub-Saharan Africa. Having spent our winter flying around the legs of elephants and other big game of the African savannah, they will finally head back north to breed - often returning to the very same place where they were born.
It's another cliché to talk about the miracle of migration - but when I see birds like these swallows, or the wheatear which dropped in one morning a few weeks ago, I really am filled with a mixture of joy and admiration. In a world where we take global air travel for granted, we should all take a moment to acknowledge the extraordinary journeys of these delightful little birds.
Stephen Moss is a series producer at the BBC Natural History Unit and author, with a special interest in British wildlife. His latest series, Birds Britannia, will be shown on BBC Four from Monday 1 November.