The Miracle


The Miracle

On Monday of last week, the 11th of March, I received a call from a friend of mine with the joyful news that he had just seen the first Swallows of spring near Fermoy bridge.

Thursday, 21 March 2013
9:00 AM GMT

On Monday of last week, the 11th of March, I received a call from a friend of mine with the joyful news that he had just seen the first Swallows of spring near Fermoy bridge, twittering and swooping with the excitement of being back where they were born.

My friend always records the first sighting of these birds every year and this is the earliest that he has ever seen them. He described them very well, with their dull, brown colour and white rumps; it is very likely that they were sand martins. How these little birds revel in their freedom to be back once more over our rivers and fields.

Can you picture in your minds eye the journey they have made, across the burning desert of the Sahara, over the Straits of Gibraltar with its great rock rising from the sea, on over the green-vineyards of France, and the finally, with the scent of home in their nostrils, back to their place of birth. The epic journey could have taken more than two weeks, one night the swallow might have rested on the mud hut of a Zulu warrior, another in an lonely oasis and perhaps found a night’s sleep on a white minaret on top of a Moroccan mosque.

But, even while he rested, that call deep inside him was there, that call like that of the salmon who must return to the stream that he was born in, it calls the swallow forever northwards. In the weeks ahead you will see many of these little birds making their joyful return. That little creature that you see, swooping and soaring over the river, that has conquered mountain peaks and arid deserts, that brave little bird weighs barely half an ounce, surely its journey is a miracle.

The name, sand martin seems to have replaced the earlier name of sand swallow, derived from their habit boring holes in river banks to make their communal nests. In more recent times, they have taken to nesting in disused gravel quarries, but every year they return to make their nests in the same stretch of sandy river-bank at South Cregg.

The sand martin is the only one of the Swallow family that builds its nest away from human habitation, the great English poet, John Clare described them as being; The hermit hunter of the lonely glen. The scientific name of the sand martin, riperia comes from the Latin word, ripa, meaning riverbank, its Irish name, gabhlan gainimh translates directly as sand martin, the Irish word, gabhlan refers to something that is forked and refers to its distinguishing forked tail.

In the decade of the 1990s severe droughts in their African Winter quarters decimated their population and has led to a big drop in the numbers visiting our shores. Sand martins feed mainly on small flies, although they have sometimes been seen catching mayflies. As children going to school, all of us read the little story by Padraig Pearse, Eonin na Nean, Eonin was a little boy who was very sick and who knew that he was not long for this world.

Outside the cottage where he lived with his mother, he loved to watch the swallows wheeling around the blue sky above him. In his imagination he speaks with the birds, they tell him the most wondrous stories. He longs to be with them in that beautiful place where it is always Summer, the story’s ending tells of the mothers sad vigil over her dying child as he awaits the return of the swallows, but in her heart of hearts, she knows that her little boy will not be there when the swallows come back.

And, as we welcome back the first swallows of the summer to our Blackwater Valley, do take the time to stop and stare at these little miracles of mother nature who are so welcome among us.

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