Country diary: the swifts are long gone, and the swallows too

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Across the sands of Traeth Bach, rearing above the Aber Ia peninsula, Yr Wyddfa – the topmost peak of Snowdon – donned its habitual cloud cap. Arctic blasts of air wuthered across my evening perch on sea-wall rocks. A neap tide ran fiercely. Waders left off from feeding along its margins and scudded before the flood to roosts among the myriad of muddy inlets of Traeth Las. Oystercatchers, brilliant orange Pinocchio beaks and pied plumage catching the light, piped away upriver. The ice-polished crown of Ynys Gifftan reflected the sun dipping beneath the spreading cloudof an incoming front. I shivered, packed my rucksack, and turned for home.

By the level crossing, I ducked into a thicket that made me think of Hardy’s “wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward” (The Voice), and plucked one of its heavy crop of purple fruits, biting through the skin’s bloom into bracingly bitter pale green flesh. I’ll go down there again soon with a bag and, rather than waiting for the first frost, will put the sloes in the freezer to make a winter favourite, sloe gin. But winter’s still months away. Now is the cusp of autumn, the air swarming with insects and the flutter-and-glide of house martins in pursuit of them.

The swifts departed weeks ago, heading for Africa. I remember crawling through low caves in limestone cliffs at Mirleft on Morocco’s Atlantic coast with these strange members of the Apodidae – close relatives of the hummingbirds – shrieking through alongside.

Next went the swallows, driven from Welsh coasts by gales before they’d even gathered on the wires. With their brilliant colours and graceful flight, these are the birds of summer I miss most. By now they’ll be streaming through the Pyrenean passes. Once, dropping down to the Ariege valley from the Pays de Sault, I saw them as a dark innumerable flow, at first below and then above, by Tarascon, where I was heading. Dr Johnson’s 1768 speculation – not founded on empirical observation – was that they “conglobulate” before plunging together, joined at claw and beak, beneath the surface of rivers to hibernate in mud at the bottom. It becomes almost plausible when they disappear as quickly and entirely as they did this year.

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