Every year I delight in the merry twitter and flashing flight of the welcome swallows, especially in the city centre where they fly about the Parliament lawns all summer.
But after pausing to watch them in flight there in mid-February alarm bells started to ring – I couldn’t recall seeing swallows on my home turf of the Waterworks Reserve after their initial arrival in the first days of September.
For as long as I can recall swallows have always built their mud-cup nests on the beams of one of the BBQ huts in the reserve and this year both the adults and their young seemed to be absent at the height of summer.
The young birds in previous years were always seen perched on the barbed wire fence on the southern-most reservoir after leaving the nest, noisily demanding food from their parents before being taught to hunt for flying insect food themselves.
I’ve always marvelled at how the swallows of BBQ site No.2 are prepared to tolerate the noise and disturbance of folk enjoying get-togethers, party balloons and the smell of sizzling snags and freshly opened stubbies of beer wafting through the air.
In turn, BBQuers have tolerated the swallow family, coming and going with first mud to build the nest, then food for the young. And, I must say, leaving their calling card on the concrete floor next to the wooden tables below.
My passion, and field of study, is the urban and suburban environment, that space where the human and natural world come together in time and place.
BBQ site No.2 is symbolic, a metaphor, where parallel lives meet to each’s mutual benefit. The BBQ huts provide shelter for not just revellers in the reserve but creatures of the wild. And in return for being allowed to share this space, the swallows snap up all the flying insects, including mosquitos, that could spoil the day.
In sixteen years of visiting the reserve, I couldn’t recall the nest ever being destroyed, or the swallows and their young harmed in any way.
That was until I returned from the reserve one beautiful summer evening and suddenly realised this year the swallows had somehow escaped my radar.
At the first opportunity next day I visited the BBQ site, fearing that my concern about the swallows would be confirmed. A family were already in the process of cooking their lunch, but they didn’t object to me invading their space to check on the swallow nest.
“Oh, there’s two little hungry babies in there,” said the mother as her husband turned over a steak. “You can see their yellow beaks thrust out of the top of the nest as soon as mum and dad arrive.”
The mum and dad and their two children had not only noticed the nest but some additional features added during its construction. The nest was lined with duck down – the white feathers discarded by two feral ducks living close to the hut.
I looked for the parents and sure enough, within minutes, they swept into the hut and perched on the edge of the nest momentarily, jabbing insects into two yellow-gaped beaks. And then the swallows were off, on another insect-hunting foray over the twin reservoirs’ still waters.