In fast-paced, troubled times I increasingly look for certainties, the rituals and rhythms of life that tell you all is well with the world.
Being a nature lover, my certainties are generally geared to the seasons and there is nothing as certain, or reassuring, as the arrival of the welcome swallows on my patch in spring.
Over the years – 17 in fact – I have always timed them for the first weekend of September. The first sight of their erratic, joyous flight brings with it the vision of summer, even if more often than not snow lingers on the summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington.
I had high hopes of a bumper swallow spring when one of my correspondents David Kernke, the owner of the Shene historic home at Pontville, phoned to say that swallows had arrived there in mid-August. I counted down the days from that moment expecting at any time to see the swallows further south at the Waterworks Reserve. I waited in vain, and the swallows were still not in my neighbourhood past their normal arrival date.
Migratory birds of many species usually arrive on friendly, warm winds blowing in from the north and this year I noted that the normal swallow arrival time had coincided with a cold snap with snow-laden westerly and south-westerly winds.
In the past I might have simply put down the swallows’ late arrival to unfavourable weather but in these uncertain times of declining bird populations the arrival of spring and its certainly has been marked by a growing anxiety about how Tasmanian birds are faring during the winter months on the mainland.
Numbers of the migratory birds are showing marked declines across the world. Among them are the world’s swallow species. The barn swallows which breed in the United States and Canada are arriving in lesser number from their wintering grounds in South America, and there is also a marked fall in the number of European swallows whose trans-continental flights link northern Europe with the far tip of the African continent. The European swallows’ cousins, the house martin and the sand martin, are also falling to arrive in the numbers of old.
Ornithologists are still seeking the reasons for the decline but two factors are thought to be in play regarding the European species at least: land clearance which results in less flying-insect prey and increasing global temperatures, which are leading to desertification and drought in Africa.
So far I haven’t seen evidence of dramatic declines in Australian swallow and martin species but our swallows and other migratory birds cannot be divorced from the factors that are affecting their number in other parts of the world.
On a more positive note, my anxious wait for the swallows ended within the first week of September. A merry twitter across the twin lakes of the Waterworks Reserves put my mind at rest, at least until next year.
My book on kunanyi/Mt Wellington, The Shy Mountain, is being launched by Charles Wooley at the Hobart Bookshop on Wednesday, September 20th. All welcome.