By Kevin Collins
Just beside the bridge in Lisronagh, there’s a small cottage and every year, I see my first Swallow on a wire beside the cottage. This year a single Swallow was sitting on the wire on 12th April (my earliest was 27th March 2010 at Knocklofty) . What is it about Swallows in particular that people get excited about? Spring migrants such as Sand Martins, Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers arrive without people taking too much notice. Is it because Swallows associate with humans more, nesting in sheds and garages where people meet them every day?
The Swallows were certainly late this year. Back in March we had a prolonged cold spell when the winds were either northerly or easterly. The temperatures were so low that the grass didn’t grow. Some Sand Martins arrived during this cold spell and I felt sorry for them, flying through the snow flakes, looking for insects over the quarry in Cahir. Many of these early migrants must have perished. And when the Swallows did arrive, the numbers of insects in the air must have been very much reduced, after the very cold spring.
If you think about it, this unseasonal cold weather acts like an evolutionary pressure. The birds that arrive back from Africa early, should get the best territories, the best nest sites, the best mates, produce more young and pass on more of their genes. But there is always a risk. There is the chance that the weather will be inclement, and after a strenuous migration they can’t just turn around and head back to sunny Spain for a few weeks until things improve. And so it balances out, if you’re lucky the weather will be good and, if the weather is bad you die!
But remember that these are really tough little creatures. When they leave our shores in the autumn, they fly all the way to South Africa. On 15th August 1998 the Munster Ringing group ringed about 250 Swallows near Mooncoin, on the bank of the Suir. One of the Swallows, a juvenile, whose ring number was H427634 was retrapped on 17th March 1999 in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, South Africa. This was a staggering 9,623 kilometres from where we last handled it.
Can you imagine the different habitats and sights and sounds these little creatures experience during February and March. They are flying over the savannah of southern Africa, then the tropical jungle of the Congo, then across the Sahara desert, stopping at an oasis for the night, then across the straits of Gibralter, through Spain and over the Pyrenees, through France and across the sea to Ireland and then to their chosen spot in Co. Tipperary. We are definitely justified in celebrating the sight of our first Swallow each year.
Note. BirdWatch Ireland has organized a bus trip to the Burren in Co. Clare on Sunday May 12th. The bus will pick up passengers in Clonmel at 9am and in Cashel at 9.30am. Places on the bus must be booked through Jane Coman at 067-31741 or 086-8112478.