Dead on time, the swallows returned to Hobart in the first few days of spring.
I always say to those anticipating the end of winter, swallows turn up during the first weekend of September; they arrived a little earlier this year, on Friday September 2 to be precise.
I only saw one bird, swooping and soaring in the Waterworks Valley to the south of the city but my spies said more were about. They were still absent, though, from my favourite place to view them – the Parliament Lawns where all summer they duck and dive, and weave through the oaks and elms.
During their long absence after they have migrated to the mainland we forget how graceful and elegant they are. The males carry a wash of saffron on their faces, and their wings and backs are an electric blue which shimmers in the soft spring sunlight. The breast is grey and the tail heavily forked.
It’s still a mystery where our swallows go in winter. They are believed to turn west after crossing Bass Strait before following the western side of the Great Dividing Range as they head somewhere north, possibly to northern New South Wales or southern Queensland.
Perhaps more than any other species, the swallows embody the great mystery and marvel of migration. The study of the mechanics of these great journeys still under way but it is known birds as a whole use the sun, the stars and the earth’s magnetic field to guide their way.
Some migratory birds also use physical landmarks, like rivers and mountains, to help them navigate. Pigeons in Britain are known to use major highways – clearly visible from the air – to help them return to home lofts and it could well be the same with swallows, returning to known nesting sites.
Although they once nested in caves, in more modern times swallows have taken advantage of man-made structures to attach their mud nests to these.
Swallows of various species are known world-wide and are deeply embedded in ancient culture. When the first British settlers arrived in Tasmania they brought the European folklore related to swallows with them. The pioneers thought the welcome swallows they saw – which are closely related and similar in appearance to the European swallow – returned to Britain in the Australian winter. It was not so far-fetched a notion because the Dutch settlers in South Africa where aware the swallows there made the journey to their homeland.
The extent of the European swallow’s lengthy migration was unravelled at about the time the first Australian colony in New South Wales was marked out. Previously it was believed swallows either hibernated in mud during the harshest winter months, or flew to the moon.
After seeing the first swallow of spring I spent all day searching for others, finally returning home disappointed.
An old English proverb says one swallow does not make a spring but on a sunny, warm day with the snows of recent weeks melting on kunanyi/Mt Wellington, I was happy to disagree.