Friday, 4 June 2010

The Return of the Swallows; or, why I love the Internet

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

The swallows are here. I thought I saw them last night, spitfiring past my study window, but it was in the gloaming and they were moving so fast I could not be sure. Then, this morning, I took the dogs down to see the cows who have moved into the south-western meadow. They are particularly beautiful, in many shades of dun and cream, more like elegant French Charolais than British creatures, and they and the dogs like to do mute stare-offs, which makes me laugh. The sun was struggling to come out from a low sky, and I was looking up at the departing clouds when, suddenly, THERE THEY WERE. My swallows, at last, back from Africa.

They were so late this year that I feared they would not come. I had a horrible feeling that something terrible might have happened to them on the long journey home; Somali pirates or volcanic ash or any number of possible catastrophes. I have been getting reports of the swallows arriving in Angus and various places in the south, and each evening and morning I would scan the sky anxiously, more and more convinced that my pair had, for the first time in eight years, not found their way back.

I have always wondered why it is that they come to me. I suddenly realise that it is a wonderful product of the law of unintended consequences. There are plenty of other sheds on the compound, but everyone else is good and organised and shuts their doors at night. I, on the other hand, am flaky and rackety, and always forget to close the door. That must have been how they found their way in in the first place. Ever since that first magical year, when I looked up to see the original perfectly constructed mud nest, I have left the door open for them each spring. Inside the shed, there is a sloping wooden roof, with thick, sturdy rafters, and the birds build their beautiful home against the beams, tucked right up in the eaves. The nests are so brilliantly made that they never lose their shape or structure, but, interestingly, the swallows do not go back to the old nests, but make a new one every time. I cannot express the delight and fascination the whole thing gives me.

Which brings me onto the eighty-seventh reason I love the internet. I wanted to give you a picture, so off I went to the Google. There, on the first page, was this astonishing photograph:


That was the first delight, because it is such a glorious image. It was taken by a gentleman called Don Bartletti for the Los Angeles Times, and I have no idea how he captured such a shot, but it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. However, these are not normal swallows; these are cliff swallows. I had never even heard of a cliff swallow. (I admit, I am not well-versed in the world of birds.) Apparently, they live in North America, and winter in Venezuela and Argentina, in a tremendously chic way. (For some reason, spending the winter in Venezuela makes me think of cabin trunks and cloche hats and the golden age of steam. Absolutely no idea why.) There is a famous flock that returns every year to the Mission San Juan Capistrano, so regularly that you can set your watch by it. So, because my birds came back, and because I wanted to tell you about that, and because I needed a nice picture to go with, I ended up discovering something that until now had been quite unknown to me. Hurrah for the marvellous cliff swallows and the genius that is the world wide web for allowing me to find them.

My Day of Discovery was not over yet. I thought: since I have found such a lovely swallow picture, perhaps I should find a nice cow picture to go with it. I googled about again, and yet more hitherto unperceived information fell like bounty into my lap. Did you know that there are over eight hundred different breeds of cattle? Had you ever heard of the magnificent Hungarian Grey? I certainly had not. Look at the gloriousness:

Hungarian Grey by Csomor Laszlo

(Photograph by Csomor Laszlo.)

According to Wikipedia, they are 'robust, unpretentious, easy-calving and long-lived'. I love the idea of unpretentious cows. They are in high contrast, I suppose, to all those poncy cows with their flim-flammery and their fancy ways.

The clever Norwegians also have a great cow: the Norwegian Red. It is, apparently, noted for its hardiness. I have no information about its levels of pretentiousness:

Norwegian Red from Oklahoma State University

(Photograph, slightly oddly, from Oklahoma State University.)

I am also much taken by the Nelore, another breed of which I had never heard. They originated in India, over two thousand years ago, by the Sea of Bengal, and somehow two of them got on a ship in 1868 and were dropped off in Brazil, where they are now easily the most dominant cow in the country. I still don't quite understand how a cow which thrived in the Punjab and by the Ganges ended up being the top bovine in Brazil, and I expect I shall ponder that for most of the rest of the day.  Here they are, the beauties:

Nelore cattle, photographer unknown

I love ideas the most, but I also love facts. I have a craving to know stuff. Occasionally, in my more fanciful moments, I think if only I can know enough it will keep me safe.  This is why, for all the grumbling and grouching about how the interwebs are frying our poor fragile brains, I give thanks every day for the amazing prairies of the Net.


Bird update: just as I was finishing this post, my sister came to see me and we sat outside in the sun and talked of cabbages and kings (or similar). The swallows were dashing about overhead. And THEN the most wonderful thing happened. The crazy gang of swifts, which live down at my sister's house, and never come up here, flew over in a great roaring rush, and performed an antic dancing display. It was as if they were an official welcoming committee for their feathery cousins. The swallows joined in, and they all soared about at top speed, swooping so low that I could feel the beat of their wings fanning the air above me, and all the time singing their heads off. I never saw anything quite like it.


One more thing:

Thank you so much for the particularly lovely and thoughtful and kind comments of the last two days. You know sometimes I get behind and do not reply to them all, but I read them and love them and appreciate every one. There are some new readers this week, which always gives me a great sense of delight; welcome, welcome.

Have a very happy Friday.

Oh, and because it is Friday and the sun is shining, and it feels like the end of a very long and strange week, I can't leave you without this:


Don't you love how she does slightly wistful when she is ready for her close-up? Actually, she has just spotted a bumble bee and is wondering where it is going to land.


And this one, you may think, is practically smiling for the camera, but in fact she is looking at me like that because I have got her stick.


  1. We work in a converted barn, and the swallows have been here for a few weeks. They are beautiful, and have the most insane/innane song that they twitter as they sit outside my window. It makes me very happy indeed.

  2. I do wish we had swallows. However I get much happiness from the robin family (although he will insist on teaching his offspring to eat what I consider utterly non-nutritious chips and not worms and bugs and such) and the blackbirds and - just now and most unexpectedly whilst reading in the garden - the Mr Bumble-esque squirrel that nibbled at one or two discarded farmers' market strawberries, checked the tiny pot-grown oak tree for any hidden witner treasures, then had an inquisitive sniff at the fast-ripening strawberries in the pot; I simply said, quite quietly, 'leave them please' and off he trotted back to the japonica whence he came. It quite made up for my spending the afternoon with the utterly disagreeable practices of James Joyce concerning the saintly Sylvia Beach.

  3. Ah, so that's the source of the line I can't remember the source, or the rest, of, about swallows returning to Capistrano. So now I also know that, and that cows can be unpretentious, as well as almost noble. I tend to think of cows as fairly prosaic, but those are handsome beasts, who have shattered that view.

  4. Strange how the nature of cows is so different from that of bulls. Usually gender differences aren't so marked, even in humans. Cows graze peacefully, rarely attacking, whereas bulls are kept alone in a field with a ring in the nose. I rather like them for being untameable.

  5. Well it was kind of a strange week for me too Tania - a few nights ago I decided to find out if you were doing a workshop again this year at the Aboyne & Deeside Festival because I went for one day last year and was so inspired afterwards (we'll just gloss over the fact that my pen hasn't graced a page yet but I DID make a few entries in my online diary so it's a start .....). Anyway got nowhere on the A&B webpage so remembered you had a blog & googled you which brought me here.

    The entry that day mentioned the 'Horse Boy' film which I had only that day been writing about in my monthly newsletter to our databases at work (I work for the National Autistic Society) so that was a bit spooky.

    I then was enchanted with the pics of the dogs because since Christmas last year I have acquired a 7 year old black lab who has just been an absolute joy in our lives. He wasn't planned (I feel like I should be explaining something along the line of burst condoms or something at this point!) and it's too long a story to go into here but suffice to say it's all worked out ok and I'm so happy my 2 cats haven't had nervous breakdowns in the process!

    Today on one of our doggy walks I was feeling all mellow in the sun enjoying all the beautiful gardens blossoming and this tiny bird was singing its little heart out in one of them. Its exquisite colours amazed me and I vowed I'd go online later to see what it was. I wish I had a quid for every time I have one of these thoughts which generally disappears into the ether as the mundane things of life take over before I reach the computer.

    Well thanks to you I don't have to bother because it was a swallow as I discovered when I read your latest entry and saw the wonderful pic! So thanks - one more thing I can cross off the list!

    And I laughed out loud at the last pic - that is exactly the expression on Trooper's face when I get to his frisbee before he does! :D

  6. Love your post. Felt very serene reading this!

  7. Lauren - lovely to think of the swallows in your barn.

    Jo - very impressed with your squirrel whispering.

    Mona - I did always love a good cow (I live in Aberdeen Angus country) but I did have no idea there were no many extraordinary breeds out there.

    Vivien - so agree about the bulls. We had one called Charlie when I was little, and he was like a fairy tale beast to me. As children, we were not allowed anywhere near him because he was so big and wild, and he took on an almost mythical aspect in my mind.

    Marg - how lovely you have found the blog, and I so hope you do come to the workshop.

    Mystica - what a kind thing to say. Am so pleased.


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