Spring's birds fly in

PUBLISHED: 15:52 03 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:45 20 February 2013

Swallow

Swallow

Natalie Boxshall, RSPB volunteer, on the arrival of the birds of spring

As the spring has truly sprung into action the mix of birds we have in our gardens here in Shropshire is changing the migrant birds are arriving from Africa and the Mediterranean, and what a journey they have been on.

Take swallows, for instance. Who doesnt just love the swooping, undulating flight of swallows catching insects on the wing as the evenings become lighter and warmer? But what a battle they have been through just to reach their summer breeding grounds.

They set off from Sub-Saharan Africa, where they spend the winter and fly across the Sahara, and then up through Spain and Morocco. They fly 200 miles a day, at speeds of 17 to 22 miles per hour and their migration will take them on a journey of around 10,000 miles. It is a thoroughly impressive migration for such a small bird.

Swallows leave their winter territories in February and the front-runners (or front-fliers) reach us in March, and they do not put on much weight before migrating, so still have to feed in-flight on their journey north.

The males tend to arrive first. Selecting a nest site is often the number one priority so the race is on to find the best site around. The barn swallow, as the name suggests, typically nests in accessible buildings, such as barns and stables.

When the females arrive, the males sing and dance over the site, displaying their choice of location and the competition is fierce for top-notch real estate. Success is thought to be linked to the length of their tail streamers the longer the feathers the more attractive they are to the female.

When they have paired up, the swallows build their nests together out of mud and a lining of feathers and grasses. Typically, the nests will be used all summer for potentially two or three broods of up to eight eggs each time. Some nests (with a bit of refurbishment of the interiors) are even re-used year after year, and in one recorded case, a nest was re-used for 50 years.

Other migrants appearing in our skies are the chiffchaffs often the first migrant bird to arrive. Chiffchaffs generally spend their winter in southern Europe and North Africa. They too, have a long journey, and arrive at the beginning of March, when the weather can be still quite brisk and blustery.

Being the first of the migrant arrivals, and having an instantly recognisable chiff chaff call, means that their song (for which they are named) is inextricably associated with the arrival of spring and they have a reputation for being tough and hardy, as they are able to withstand the early March temperatures.

Like the swallow, the males also return to their summer breeding grounds two to three weeks before the females, to re-establish their territories and work on attracting a female as soon as they start to arrive. Again, the competition is fierce, so the contest for mates is uppermost in their minds after their long journeys.

So, keep your eyes peeled for the appearance of these amazing athletes, and keep your ears pricked for the chattering of the swallows and call of the chiffchaff, as that truly means spring is here!

The RSPB speaks out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. Nature is amazing help us keep it that way.
For as little as 3 a month, you can help us create more nature reserves, give more school children the chance to learn about nature first-hand, and to research the problems that are facing birds and wildlife. Log on to
www.rspb.org.uk or call us on 0121 616 6850 to find out more or to join us.

Interested in encouraging swallows to nest near you?

To help them to nest in a garage or outhouse:

Make a small opening, minimum 50 mm high and 70 mm wide, under the garage or barn eaves or leave a window or door open
Fix a nest platform where you would like them to nest, high in the building, out of the reach of cats
Make a platform from four flat pieces of wood, or by fixing a sawdust and cement or
papier-mch cup to a wooden backing plate
Put a plastic bag below the nest to catch droppings
Block off sites where you dont want the birds to nest, for example by attaching polythene to a beam, then to the roof and back to the beam again
If the weather becomes very hot, place an old carpet or blanket on the outside of the roof above the nest and soak with water regularly. Just a couple of buckets of bathwater on such fabric will take several hours to dry and helps keep the temperature down inside

To find out whats happening near you, visit our new local pages: www.rspb.org.uk/Shropshire

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