Terence Blacker: An absence of swallows does not a summer make

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The Independent Online

It is probably not a sign of emotional or psychological health to find that you can be brought low by a small event in the kingdom of birds. But it has happened to me, out in East Anglia, and frankly I have found it all rather startling.

It is probably not a sign of emotional or psychological health to find that you can be brought low by a small event in the kingdom of birds. But it has happened to me, out in East Anglia, and frankly I have found it all rather startling.

I am not a twitcher; my identification skills and understanding of bird behaviour are only slightly above average. Yet, right now, birdy things have assumed an odd importance in my life. It's a time of change, and they offer a reminder that, beyond the excitements, disappointments and sadnesses of everyday human life, another reality rolls on.

It is difficult, when writing of these things, to avoid becoming Scoop's William Boot, one's prose being sucked self-parodically into the plashy fens where, feather-footed, passes the questing vole ­ but what the hell?

House-martins wheel around the house, chattering as they build their nests beneath the guttering. A blue tit family is being raised in the hole of the stable door, enacting over a few days a frantic, accelerated version of parenthood ­ scolding, feeding, fretting, rushing backwards and forwards until one day, quite suddenly, the nest is empty and it is all over. In the garden outside, a gang of greenfinches and chaffinches, tits ­ coal, blue, great and occasionally long-tailed ­ are on the bird-feeders, scattered now and then by a manic, bullying great spotted woodpecker.

Birdsong is not only all around at this time of the year but, every spring and summer, seems to come from precisely the same locations. In the wood 200 metres to the north, a chiff-chaff, sings relentlessly (sometimes, too relentlessly) competing with a cuckoo and with the regulars ­ green woodpeckers and a family of kestrels, hunting over the field. To the south, a skylark sings over a barley field while a yellowhammer takes up its normal position in hedgerow nearby. Year after year, it goes on.

But this summer, in one important area, it doesn't. The woodshed below the office where I work has for years been a nesting spot for a pair of swallows. By now, they would normally be dashing in and out, building their nest. In a month's time, their sharp double alarm call would be heard every time I stepped out of the house. Then at the end of the summer, they would begin to relax, chattering easily on the telegraph wires before leaving in September.

Not this year. In this part of Suffolk, swallows have become so rare that an Independent Save-the-Swallow campaign would be justified. Until now, though, swallow abandonment had seemed like something that happened to other people. Where are they? There's not exactly silence in the woodshed, because a robin is bringing up its family there, but, without wishing to be snobbish, it is frankly not the same.

Of course, there are still adventures. Last week, I went on a midnight search for nightingales. There were rumours that one had been singing in a churchyard nearby but, after skulking around the silent, shadowy tombs for a while, I made my way to a nearby plashy fen. There I stood for an hour or so, while all around me nightingales ­ four of them, maybe more ­ sang their hectic, astonishing song . A roe deer was barking nearby and, were it not for the distant hum of traffic, the place seemed as exotic and throbbing with sounds of the night as a waterhole in Africa. The midges and mosquitos were on an equatorial scale, too ­ it's going to be a bumper year for them, at least ­ and, days later, I still have bites on neck and hands to remind me of that night.

Of course, night outings are fine now and then, but it is the everyday company of the swallows in the woodshed that I find I miss most. Their absence seems like an omen or some kind of inexplicable judgement.

terblacker@aol.com

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