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And they’re off

Outdoor Living

ANNUAL TRECK  Adult cuckoos have already departed for sunnier climes, and the swallows will soon follow.

Two of our most familiar summer visitors are taking to the skies

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Here we are, eating into August as if we couldn’t get through it fast enough. Who’d have thought it? And with it comes a changing of the seasons.
James looked at the leaden sky and squinted through drizzling rain. ‘There’ll be a day or two yet, but it sometimes feels like the sun will never shine again.’
I reminded him of those almost unbearably long and humid days we endured, and of the difficulty we had in functioning on even the most basic level. ‘Give me a day like this, when I can move and breathe.’
A gathering family of swallows flew low over the lake, gleaning flies above the reeds. Yesterday there might have been 20, today 30. In a couple of weeks they’ll be there in much greater numbers until one day they’re a swarm many thousand strong. They’d stay if they could but must obey whatever unwritten code it is that lies within them. We hate to see them go, but how we love to welcome them home!
One of our summer visitors has already made it’s retreat back to sunnier climes. The cuckoo never stays long, arriving in April and departing in August, leaving behind one of the greatest mysteries of Irish bird life.
As we know, the female cuckoo lays her eggs in the nests of smaller birds, with most that breed in this land choosing to entrust the care of their young to a pair of meadow pipits, while a smaller number choose to have their offspring fostered by reed buntings or robins. In recent times scientists have discovered that individual cuckoos like to use the same foster species over and again, rather than switch and swap through the season.
But to the point! Most cuckoo eggs are laid between late April and the middle of June and raised by birds that neither look nor sound like their natural parents. The adult cuckoos, their breeding season completed, leave our island in August, while their fledgling offspring are still gaining strength enough for the journey they too must make.
It is probably fair to say that this year’s young cuckoos have not once laid eyes upon their natural parents, and likely not communicated with them by any means. The question, then, is this: How do they know they are cuckoos at all, and not some kind of genetically misaligned meadow pipit or another freak of nature?
And how do they know, once September arrives, that they too must fly south as far as Central Africa and the Congo? Perhaps it is just an instinct to follow the sun, a desire to keep it directly over their backs. It must be a powerful force. Our young cuckoos, perhaps banding together for the first time, arrive at Ireland’s southern shore where they get to view the ocean. With no further land in sight they launch themselves fearlessly over the waves and fly, fly, fly. Do some perish along the way? Undoubtedly. Yet the survivors keep going and eventually reach mainland Europe where they are able to feed and regain their strength.
The sun moves further to the south, and the birds must follow. By now they are joined by continental cuckoos, and together they find themselves facing the Mediterranean. That is the easy part of the journey. The greatest test lies ahead, in the form of the Sahara Desert with its 1,200 kilometres of torrid heat and aridity.
Recent studies show that this part of the journey will be made in one leg. Really, these small creatures never cease to amaze us. While we are unable to move more than a few steps without recourse to the microwave, the freezer, supermarket shelves and the like, leaving an indelible ecological footprint in our wake, cuckoos and swallows fill up with flies and away they go, living lives that are perfectly sustainable and in harmony with the world around them.
Today our resident swallow pair brought just one fledgling from their nest in the shed. What happened to the other three I had seen peeking over the rim of their nest? They likely found their wings a little too early and fluttered within reach of these wretched cats that haunt the place.
The lone survivor sits between its parents on an overhead wire. If the weather is kind there will yet be a third brood.