As the summer drew to an end and the swallows began gathering along telephone wires in preparation for their long journey back to Africa, I worried that two late broods here at my house in Thixendale on the Yorkshire Wolds would not fledge in time for the off.
Swallows nest in my garden every summer
Swallows breed every year in a nest I put up for them in my front porch. This spring, on a day warm enough to prop the door open, I heard the male singing from my studio. I looked out to see him perch on the TV aerial of our house chirruping cheerfully, but for some reason, the pair chose not to nest here.
The swallows are late
Then, as I got back from a holiday away in August, a swallow flew out of my front porch. A pair had come here in my absence. They must have raised their first brood elsewhere and were now going for a second brood. A few days later I noticed a swallow whizzing in and out of our log store at the back of the house. I went out to investigate and discovered I was right – a second pair of swallows had nested there.
Swallows use my old storm lantern to nest in
This was a stroke of luck because this nest was actually an old storm lamp I had hung up especially for them. I often place nesting props in my garden at Fotherdale Farm because if birds do use them they make for perfect backdrops for my paintings. In the past, I managed to persuade a robin to nest in an old kettle and wagtails nesting in an old boot. This pair had inadvertently signed a new modeling contract with me. I set about putting up a hide so that I could watch and photograph them up close.
Swallows see off a sparrowhawk
But our contract nearly came to an abrupt end when on day a sparrowhawk zoomed into the garden. As it chased the sparrows around the bushes, I heard the parent swallows call out sharp warnings to their chicks. The chicks responded by hunkering down into their nest and remaining motionless. The adult pair mobbed the sparrowhawk and through the sheer force of their fury chased it out of the garden and down the adjacent field. As they rounded the corner to the front of the house they were joined by a second pair of swallows which by now were nesting on the back porch. All four birds saw this lethal bird of prey off together. It was quite extraordinary.
Swallow chicks hatch in storm lantern
A week later four tiny chicks hatched. It was fascinating to see the parents whoosh in to feed them and at the same time see all the chicks spring up out of the nest, opening their beaks wide with their bright orange gapes exposed as each called frantically to be the first to be fed. They grew fast. They needed to; the weather had turned and there was now a distinctly autumnal feel to the air. Meanwhile, I noticed more and more swallows gathering on the electric lines outside the gallery, getting ready to migrate. I couldn’t help but worry whether these chicks would make it. I watched them closely, willing them to grow. The parents flew in with food every few minutes, despite the fact that the weather was now windy with heavy showers.
Swallow chicks prepare for their long flights
I watched as their feathers grew in and they shed their down, beginning to look more like swallows as they did so. I watched the weather forecast carefully too. Fortunately, a ridge of high pressure was on its way at the beginning of September just when the chicks began stretching
and flapping their wings as they got ready for their first flight. The parents were on high alert now, knowing that their still-vulnerable chicks could fledge at any time.
Swallow chicks fledge
The chicks have now fledged, although they still come back to the nest at night. But as more and more swallows gather on the TV aerial and the wires around the house, I think they will be ready to join them when they all take flight and begin their long journey back to the southern hemisphere. As they undertake this remarkable journey, I will be sitting down to capture their earliest days in paint.