The chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler are not easily distinguished from one another, except, as discovered by the curate of Selbourne, Gilbert White, at the end of the 18thcentury, by their respective songs.
To the casual
One summer, when he was “
“Return, blithe maidens; with you bring along
Free, native humour, all the charms of song,
The feeling heart, and unaffected ease,
Each nameless grace, and ev’ry power to please.”
Somewhere in his wonderful mind the Miss Batties became swallows, luminescent chattering acrobats of the air that light up the summer before evaporating into winter’s ether.
A recent meeting with a fellow farmer in Staffordshire elicited further conversation about swallows and their relative the house martin. We were stood in a long meadow containing an elegant series of large ponds, overlooked by his father’s house. The eaves contained perhaps 20 empty, broken house martin nests, while overhead flew a single pair of chittering swallows hawking insects and dipping to drink from the water surface. My colleague looked at them wistfully, commenting that only a few years ago there would have been “clouds of them”.
His move from dairy farming to a stockless arable rotation might partly explain their reduced numbers, but his meadow and the pieces of water remained. “It is probably not your fault”, I said supportively, “in Egypt there are reckoned to be more than 700km of fine mist nets capturing migrant songbirds and swallows by the million.” One estimate of this shocking annihilation, by a German television company, (for the lack of a more accurate source), puts the number of birds killed annually in Egypt alone, at up to 140 million a year. People up and down the country are waking to this startling loss. A swelling sadness suggests that more must be done to stop the murderously unsustainable and highly illegal harvesting of these populations.