Natural Living - Safe Journey

Natural Living – Safe Journey

by Ruth Lawrence

The skies are a buzz this time of year with stunning spectacles of swallows migrating, and murmurations of starlings making magnificent patterns high above. Ruth Lawrence reveals their wandering ways.

Common Tern

This summer, I’ve watched swallows soar and hunt from high on the downs, alongside rivers to the fields outside the window almost every day and now that they’ve gone I feel their absence keenly.

Nothing marks the start of Autumn more than their disappearance to warmer climates. Their time in this country has seen them raise at least one brood, sometimes two and perhaps even a third. Watching them dive and wheel in early evening has been one of summer’s greatest pleasures and now I imagine them halfway to their winter grounds in South Africa and Namibia. It takes them three weeks to cover about two hundred miles a day; they fly in daylight and roost in huge flocks in regular stopover spots in reed beds. They fly low and hunt on the wing; I picture those same individuals I saw swooping after their prey now diving across a very different landscape, following the sun.


One species escape is another species destination; starlings are now appearing after their summer spent breeding in Eastern Europe, although this bird is known as a partial migrant. The starlings that breed in this country tend to stay here and so the extra ones we see here in winter have come here to avoid that freezing Eastern European weather. They mostly travel at night, taking advantage of the cooler air and so they lose less energy from flapping and less water through evaporation. Predators are also less likely after dark. Passage migrants such as black terns use the UK like a service station, stopping off here on a long journey south or north, taking a few weeks in spring and autumn to rest and eat before moving on. While the swallows consider our winters too cold, fieldfares, redwings and bewicks and whooper swans find our winters mild and migrate here from the north and east in search of easier food and better weather.

Even some robins migrate; although most don’t move more than a few kilometres, some, mostly females, leave the UK for as far afield as Spain or Portugal before winter arrives. Although winter sees the disappearance and arrival of different species, it helps to maintain a connection with absent birds to know where they go during the darker months. It’s simple to keep track of any species using information online; I recently discovered a site based in South Africa which details the gathering flocks of swallows that winter there, perhaps containing some of the very same birds that filled my summer with the whirring of small blue black wings in sunlight.