The coming of summer has brought excitement down through the ages particularly in the celebration of Bealtaine with all its hopes, fears and superstitions.
In Irish music there are many odes to summer,” Thugamar féin an samhradh linn,””An samhradh ag filleadh ar Éirinn,”etc.
In the Chester Beatty library an ancient scroll from 1265 that April is the month for enjoying the countryside and picking flowers but that May is the month for courtly love.
The summer is extremely late in Cabragh, only now are we seeing the summer snowflake emerge and even the cuckoo flower, the host of the orange tip butterfly is nowhere yet to be seen.But one bird has always been the harbinger of summer in Ireland-the swallow. Every spring, without fail, swallows make an astounding journey from their winter quarters in South Africa. They travel nearly 5,000 miles in one month arriving here in April to nest and breed and to take advantage of our plentiful supply of insects. As the weather gradually warms up in spring, the flight paths that swallows take on their migration journey can be mapped right across Europe.
Food supply is the vital factor controlling both arrivals and departures. Swallows feed by catching insects on the wing and in good weather you can see them flying in low over the meadows and ponds of Cabragh. In cold, wet or windy weather, they gather in large flocks to concentrate often down wind of large bodies of water where insects may be hatching or in the lee of a wood or hedge where there is shelter. In Cabragh, the food is very good and is fully exploited by migrants arriving from the south. In winter, however, there are few if any flying insects and any swallows rash enough to remain would soon starve to death.
There are four species of fork-tailed, aerial feeding birds who come to Ireland for the summer months all which may be confused with one another. One, the black swift with its sickle shaped wings is not closely related to the swallow. The other two, the house martin and sand martin are members of the same family group.
The swallow has a longer and much more forked tail than the other species and the sleek burnished blue of its head, collar and back, rusty red chin and pale pinky brown undersides make it unmistakable. It is 19 cm from beak to tip of tail. The angle between rafters in a barn or shed is a favourite nesting place, providing a firm base of mud reinforced with dry grass. A lining of hairs and feathers makes a soft bed for the eggs.
The first swallows to arrive, the males, are quick to estsablish their nesting sites. Pairs are formed with aerial display flights, mutual preening and exploration of chosen site.The first clutch of four or five white eggs with reddish markings, laid fairly quickly, is incubated by the female and hatches after 14-15 days. The youngsters are fed for three weeks and then the adults set about raising a second brood. The young make themselves acquainted with the area in the hope they will return the following year to breed.
For centuries, it was believed that swallows hid themselves at the bottom of ponds throughout the winter. Even, Gilbert White, the renowned 18th century naturalist, did not dismiss the idea. Migration starts as early as July some years and is in full swing from mid-August to late September. An early cold snap in October may catch lingering swallows unaware. The swallows’ passage is leisurely-taking up to two months-the northward trip is much faster. Young birds find their way south by instinct, they do not have to be taught by their parents.
This bird, characteristic of summer days is one of nature’s wonders. In the human world we are forever trying to create a summer ambience and that sunny feel-good factor. Here in Cabragh the schools, long suffering in this eternal winter, are once again booking days of exploration and discovery, the scouts are having their camping sessions and badge events and parents are considering the Detective in the Wild summer camp option.
The Cabragh Wetlands Church Gate collection also occurs shortly contributing significantly to the upkeep of this wonderful facility, that continues to host hundreds of curious children, the citizen scientists of tomorrow.
Ring 0504 43879 for further details.
Slán go fóill.