Wednesday 28 September 2016

Country Matters: Home again, a Kerry swallow

Joe Kennedy

Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30

The Dingle peninsula is Ireland's most westerly point
The Dingle peninsula is Ireland's most westerly point

The Dingle peninsula is Ireland's most westerly point.

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Thrusting out into the Atlantic, majestic hills soar over vast bowls of unspoiled valleys, glistening mountain streams tumble down to lakes and soft golden beaches stretch for miles.

The Automobile Association-Reader's Digest illustrated guide thus paints the scene for the motorist with flourishing brush strokes.

On to Castlegregory, then, at the neck of a sandy peninsula dividing the bays of Tralee and Brandon, a resort whose lovely beaches are tucked beneath Beenoskee mountain. To the west lies Lough Gill, "filled with trout" and home to some wintering Bewick's swans.

Kerry folk are proud to make fine claims for their environmental treasures, but last week there was one very visible visitor to this place, a returning traveller, the first swallow, "God Almighty's bow and arrow".

One Kerry bird, of course, does not make a summer. "Una golondrina no pace verano", as Cervantes put it. Or, this part of Kerry being a Gaeltacht, might be heard "No h-ionann puth gaoite agus stoirm".

By now further compatriots may have arrived. In The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame's seminal work, the swallows discuss their return to the "house of the perfect eaves". Year after year, they return to their old homes in outhouses, sheds, cow byres, porches and boat houses, which causes discomfort to one man protective of his spick-and-span fishing vessel!.

New homes may be built of mud and grass but old nests are used year after year, from some of which the mummified remains of last year's late chicks from last year are unceremoniously dumped.

Swallows have returned from their sunshine breaks in sub-Saharan Africa to Europe via the Straits of Gibraltar. Thousands of other species have been making the journey also, especially the big ones such as vultures, eagles, buzzards, kites and storks, in groups. These have been the focus of enthusiastic birders stationed at vantage points such as Punta Camarinal and Punta Carnero on either side of Tarita at the tip of Adalucia.

Swallows travel high at night for safety, as their four-week journey can be hazardous. There used be a belief, before migration was fully understood, that the birds overwintered by plunging into mud at the bottom of ponds and lakes, remaining there in a torpid state until springtime.

In the 18th Century, Dr Johnson had been a firm believer that the birds "certainly sleep all winter, throwing themselves under water". This fantasy lasted for some until 1907 with the playwright Strinberg still promoting it.

In the 1830s, a Cork naturalist, Rev F O Morris, wrote about "our swallows" returning from being "absent for the greater part of the year and it is with us they build their dwellings and rear their young".

Many centuries earlier, a Greek poet, Anacreon, wrote about the gentle swallow coming and going. But much later, Aristotle reverted to the hiding theory in his "History of Animals" despite earlier reaffirming belief in migration. All that mud-burying might have been prompted by the birds' keenness to dip into ponds during summer evenings of frantic insect-chasing.

Just watch them. They certainly seem to enjoy it.

Sunday Independent

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