The RSPB's Rupert Masefield looks forward to the first swallows of springtime ....

Right now, we could all do with something to look forward to. It hasn’t been an easy few weeks, and as we all adjust to the new reality of coronavirus, self-isolation and social distancing, taking solace in nature seems all the more important.

 Something I have been looking forward to for a long time now – all winter in fact – is the return of our swallows, martins, and (a little later) swifts from their winter in Africa. I say our, but of course, they spend less than half their time with us and have a frivolous disregard for international borders – displaying the kind of freedom I feel quite envious of, especially in the current circumstances.

Yesterday, as I sat at home in my new office (my bedroom), I realised it was about this time last year that I saw my first swallow of the season. I also realised I really needed to get out of this room and enjoy a bit of the spring sunshine coming through the window I could feel on my back. Later in the year I can see and hear swifts screaming through the air high above the terraced rooftops and gardens through this window, but it’s too early and I’ll have to wait another month or so to enjoy the vicarious delight of these supreme aerial acrobats. I’m not lucky enough to have swallows or house martins nesting within view of my bedroom window, but I was done looking forward to swallows returning, I decided, and I was going out to find one.

 Taking advantage of my one piece of permitted outdoor exercise a day, taking my 1-year-old daughter Edith with me I cycled to nearby Whitlingham Broad, next to the River Yare in Norwich. This is where I saw that early arrived swallow last year, and the most likely place within cycling distance to see one again this year. The water and reedy vegetation, some of it grazed by cattle, is the perfect breeding ground for the flying insects swallows feed on – catching them mid-flight in the gaping beaks, using their sensitive whiskers to gobble them up with pinpoint accuracy.

The roads were eerily quiet – just a few cars and vans trundled along the usually busy streets. A few other people were out walking or cycling, like me getting their daily exercise. We diligently avoided each other, saying hello and going on our separate ways.

When we got to Whitlingham the car park was deserted and the visitor centre closed, but there were a few people walking around the Broad. I kept going down the road a little way before ducking off onto a trail that took me through Whitlingham Marsh Local Nature Reserve. Riding through river meadows to the bank of the river I kept my eyes peeled and ears pricked for their joyful chirruping gurgling call. I spotted a peacock butterfly floating low over the grassy riverbank and cycled through a cloud of swallow-food (midges), but there was no sign of our first swallow of the year.

I wasn’t disappointed though, as we made our way home metaphorically empty-handed. That time we’d managed to snatch outdoors enjoying the spring sunshine and nature by the river (while avoiding other people I hasten to add) had left me feeling refreshed and uplifted. I was happy to keep looking forward to seeing my first swallow of the year on another day.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as they say. In fact, Wiktionary tells me, the full quote from Aristotle is "One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly, one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy."

He might well be right, but searching for swallows in the spring sunshine certainly put a spring in my step, and I’d urge anyone thinking of ways to safely and responsibly get exercise outdoors to think about combining it with some time enjoying the little things nature has to offer this spring.

If you’re inspired to look out for returning swallows, house martins, sand martins and (a bit later) swifts this spring/summer, but don’t feel sure about how to tell them apart, this accompanying blog post is for you:

Swallow, martin or swift? Which is it, what’s the difference?

Find out more about swallows and martins: rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/swallows-and-martins/

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