Swallows Hatch their First Brood

We built our house back in 1995, moving in on Christmas Eve of that year.  It wasn’t furnished, or even finished and I’m sure the thought police in Trading Standards or Building Control would have thrown us in jail had they discovered us sleeping on a mattress surrounded by paint pots, plaster and trestles. There was also a very strong smell of new radiators, fuel oil and, of course solvents. But even so, it was a hell of a lot warmer than the 1960s caravan out there in the farmyard. Now I don’t know whether it was the fresh preservatives in the new wood, but it took a year or two for swallows to find our barn and build their nests there. Perhaps more remarkably it took them until 2009 to pluck up courage to nest in the veranda at the front of the house. There was an exploratory mission in 2008, with a few scraps of straw and some mud, but they didn’t feel secure enough to finish the job. I don’t know: maybe a cat scared them off. But as I said, they did eventually arrive by the front door the following year where they successfully raised no less than three broods of three, four and four youngsters. Even better, they sited their nest just outside a window; so I was able to set up a camera. It took me a while to set up a tripod and get the exposure right (I’m an old-fashioned photographer: I like to get exposure and depth-of-field problems sorted out at the time; I don’t like doing such things later, in Photoshop). After a few days I mastered the technical problems and the two pictures I show here are, I think, quite good.

swallows' nest preparation

Building the nest from hay, straw and mud from the pond.

Swallows in front verandah

The first successful brood, shortly before fledging.

We were both hugely excited by our new lodgers and any visitors to the farm would be frog-marched round to the front door to have a look at the young family, who seemed to get used to their inquisitive neighbours quite quickly. I even managed to cook a few barbeques on the veranda, when it was wet. That was fun. I did it at the opposite end from the nest, and it didn’t seem to deter the parents, who swooped through the smoke to feed their growing brood every two or so minutes.

That was in 2009; in the following year there were also three broods, but then something very strange happened. As usual, all the swallows left us in autumn for their winter homes in Africa. So far as I can remember, November wasn’t too bad. But in December the cold struck and as if they knew something our weather forecasters didn’t , two wrens took up residence in the abandoned swallows’ nest. They even erected two mud and moss ‘screens’ across the nest’s wide gap below the roof. Then they moved in and lo and behold, the weather cracked. It was the coldest December on record and I was forced to bring the sheep down to the barn and off our more exposed land on the open fen. Meanwhile Mr and Mrs Wren spent warm, snug nights in their converted nest. I managed to get a picture of it in March, after they’d decided to move out, for their usual nesting place in a Pyrocantha (Fire Thorn) trained against a wall, a few yards away. I’m afraid when I took the picture it was in the middle of lambing and I didn’t have time to fiddle around with tripods, so the  focus is a bit wobbly. But it gives a good idea of

Wrens' modification

Wrens’ major rebuild of the swallows nest.


…a good idea of  a Wren rebuild of a nest. Wren (Sir Christopher, that is) rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral. Geddit?

But I digress.

After the wrens moved out the drought really struck. March and April were very dry. We set a tub of water in the front garden as the pond had long dried-up and we knew the swallows would need water to repair or rebuild their nest when they returned in late April (usually around the 25th).  They didn’t raise an early brood in May and June and only managed two smaller ones later in the year.  All in all, it was rather disappointing.

This year, only four swallows returned in the spring (normally we expect 3-5 pairs in the barn), but thankfully the pair that nest in the veranda were one of them. I don’t know whether it was their stressful time in Africa, but this year they’ve been far more shy. We’ve had to keep the curtain drawn, so I haven’t been able to take any photos. And I certainly haven’t lit the barbecue, not that the weather has been warm enough. But the good news is, they’ve just raised a brood of four, which have all fledged and flown. And Mrs swallow is laying more eggs. Now the air above the front garden is like a permanent aerobatic display. To be quite honest, I think I’ll be watching my swallows while the rest of the nation is glued to their television sets during the Olympics. Oh dear, am I going to be sued by Trading Standards for using the O word, like that poor butcher and his sausage rings? Honestly, I think the world’s gone mad. The corporate world has become far too powerful and greedy. Surely, can’t we learn a lesson from the swallows and the wrens – live and let live?

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