Suffolk wildlife: Watch swallows build their nests

PUBLISHED: 15:28 11 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:48 12 May 2020

Swallows fly 10,000km to Suffolk to breed each year, building nests in suitable sites such as barns. This bird was spotted in Martlesham. Photo: iwitness

Swallows fly 10,000km to Suffolk to breed each year, building nests in suitable sites such as barns. This bird was spotted in Martlesham. Photo: iwitness

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Just how far do swallows and swifts fly to breed in Suffolk’s barns and buildings? Nature writer Matt Gaw explains on a visit to his aunt’s home in south Suffolk to watch summer visitors building nests and raising their young.

Young swallows, hunkered down in a barn at Woodbridge, await a meal from their parents. Photo: iwitnessYoung swallows, hunkered down in a barn at Woodbridge, await a meal from their parents. Photo: iwitness

I am visiting my aunt to see her new house, an old but recently converted flint-built barn on the edge of a south Suffolk village. The weather has changed in the past couple of days and we are sitting in her garden drinking tea, looking out over a shallow valley filled to the brim with the yellow light of rape flowers, its depths traced by the faintest pencil line of dark water. As we talk, two swallows flash under the archway at the side of the house to perch on the weathervane. They sit with their backs to us, their folded wings and tail streamers resembling a bridegroom kneeling at the altar.

Chris says they only arrived yesterday, fresh from a 10,000km flight from South Africa. One moment the sky was empty and then it was full of the beeping chatter of birds swooping and looping after flies and insects that drifted like dust in the evening air. She offers to show me where she thinks they might be nesting and takes me down to the cartlodge at the rear of the house.

While the barns may have been transformed, clothed in glass, insulated, painted and smoothed into modern homes, the cartlodge has been left largely untouched. It is, in effect, an open-fronted lean-to, with its few rafters and rib-like wooden beams still exposed. We walk into it slowly, through the piles of things waiting to be sorted from the move, boxes, lamps, pictures and tools. Chris points up, past where camping chairs balance across rafters.

Her finger keeps moving. One, two, three, four – the nests are everywhere. They bubble like strange resin out of beam joints, mushroom between brick-work and joists. A barnacle crust of high-rimmed mud and saliva cups. Chris is clearly delighted. More proud than she was of the en suite bathroom, the new Aga, or the view from the living room. She says she is just pleased they are returning. They lived here first, after all.

A swallow photographed just outside Ipswich on a summer evening puts on a spectacular display. Photo: iwitnessA swallow photographed just outside Ipswich on a summer evening puts on a spectacular display. Photo: iwitness

Join Matt Gaw on a visit to beautiful Knettishall Heath.

It’s almost two weeks later when I return. My aunt is out with her dogs, but she texted to say I’m welcome to pop round whenever I want to watch the nests. I perch on a crumbling wall close to the entrance of the cartlodge. I can see two swallows on a telephone wire above me and another on the wing. I try and follow her movements with my binoculars but she is too fast. She is an angular slash against the blue, orca patterned. A blur of glossy, blue-black back, white chest and brick-dust red throat.

The swallow flickers out of sight and I turn my attention to the nests. I’ve heard swallow nests described as scruffy. I guess they do look rough-and-ready when compared to the woven delicacy of some songbirds. The nest of a swallow, jammed between wood and stone, reminds me of the crude hand-built pottery I made as a child. But there is a beauty in these beak-raised cups, not only in the artifice, but in the labour.

Each nest requires an average of 1,300 trips to gather pellets of mud, with construction falling mainly to the female. The male, on average, only carries out a quarter of the work. Some do even less. A Danish study found that the most attractive males, those with the longest tails, were especially work-shy. The graft that each nest represents means they are often re-used for up to 15 years. Swallows, when it comes down to it, are a proper farmland bird. Patch it, mend it, make-do.

Out of all the nests in the cartlodge there is one in the furthest darkest corner, which seems more built up than the rest. Re-fortified. Its mortar-hard walls a slightly different colour, where new bobbles of mud have been laid on top of old. A strata of mud and memory. There are other signs this nest is in use. A hessian cover, draped by my aunt’s husband Peter over the bonnet of his Land Rover, is freckled with fag-burn-like droppings.

There is a volley of bird chatter, dolphin-like clicks and a swallow navigates through the rafters, skimming between roof and wall. She fusses, fiddles and then turns, until I can see hardly any of her. There is just a hint of her head’s roundness, a darker hump against the mud. I expect her to come and go, but she looks settled. I wonder if she is already on eggs, the first brood, incubated inside a fragile speckled white shell. By the time this piece comes out, hopefully her young will have hatched and taken to air on flick-blade wings. Perhaps then, as the swallow calls are joined by the screams of swifts, a second brood could be in the offing.

Yet amid the hope, the joy at seeing the world is still turning, the nests – particularly the empty ones – are a reminder of change too. I remember while growing up how the fascia boards of my suburban home were splatted with the hardened shells of a fellow passerine, the house martin, the walls below the nests guano-dashed. Yet it’s been years since I’ve seen them there. In fact, I almost doubt my memory. How quickly our baseline experience of nature, our expectation for what each season brings, changes.

The house martin’s gradual decline has seen it re-classified as amber on the UK’s Conservation List. The swallow is, perhaps, faring better, although, its numbers have gone down too. Populations commonly fluctuate with the weather, but climatic changes in the swallows’ African wintering grounds means birds are returning in poor condition and laying fewer eggs. Changes to farming practices have also led to fewer insects for swallows to feed on.

How we live is also probably a factor. The spaces swallows rely on are disappearing with developments that pay little heed to the wants of wildlife. In fact, the increasing distance between us and swallows is even present in its name. The swallow is now commonly known as the barn swallow. In the previous century it was known as the chimney swallow. Before that, the house swallow.

I’m putting my binoculars away when I hear a noise from the other side of the cartlodge. A scratch, a scrabble and then a swallow’s shout. Another nest-repair is being carried out. One more muddy-beaked returnee. One more hope.

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