NATURE NOTES - Will swallows make a summer?

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WELL it looks like the reedbed enhancement works over at Pennington Flash is paying dividends – a bittern has been seen on a number of occasions ‘inspecting’ what we did to make it better for him/her!

Let’s hope that in the future we get them settling down and nesting there (despite what the books say about the size of reedbed they need to breed – one good point is that bitterns have probably not read this!)

The sunshine and warming during the days of late has brought in some of our summer visitors with both sand martins and swallows turning up. The night time drops into minus figures is not helping the start of the bird breeding season though.

The swallow is perhaps the best known of all our migrant bird species. Flocks of swallows make a welcome return to our shores in late spring, having flown all the way from southern Africa. They then spend the summer here, raising two or three broods, and then flock together for the return journey.

In Europe swallows breed as far north as the Arctic Circle.

In flight, the swallow is really graceful. Its effortless twisting, turning, climbing and diving in search of food taken on the wing is an absolute delight to watch. This flight is often interrupted by a brief stall to catch an insect, which has nearly — but not quite — escaped without notice. The long tail comes into play and is used to good effect to accomplish the intricate manoeuvre. Swallows usually return to the same spot to breed year after year. Young birds, breeding for the first time, usually settle close to the nest site where they were raised. The male is usually the first bird of the pair to arrive back from Africa. If his Mrs has survived the journeys, she will usually arrive a few days later and they will build a new nest together, this usually takes them both just over a week to complete.

Swallows nest usually in open buildings such as barns and garages. With barn conversions

and old buildings being knocked down, there are fewer places to nest. This has had a major impact on swallow numbers in the UK and the British Trust for Ornithology produced these facts:

• During the 1960s and 1970s there was a decline in swallow numbers in the south-west of Britain amounting to some 75%.

•During the early 80s, there was a decline of around 50% in south-eastern England, possibly associated with reductions in cattle numbers (fewer flies!)

• By 1988-1991, the period of the last BTO Breeding Atlas, there were 570,000 pairs of Swallows in Britain (with a further 250,000 in Ireland).

By then, the biggest concentrations were in areas of eastern England, Shropshire, Dorset and Somerset.

•More recently, a decline of nearly 20% has taken place in eastern England, one of the key areas for breeding Swallows.