One of the great joys of my life is to welcome back the first house martin on its return from Africa. I saw my first this year on April 8th.
This anonymous little bird, no more than a few grams in weight, flitting on the warm air rising above the tarmac beside my home, had flown back to the place where it was born. I don’t know if it was happy to be here: I do know I was happy to see it.
A house martin is about as tough a creature as can be found. The journey probably takes it over jungles, seas, mountains and deserts: thousands of miles through all sorts of weathers. I say probably because where they go in autumn after leaving here is a mystery. Though you can hardly miss them in summer, in Africa they are almost unknown.
Only recently have tracking devices become small enough to fit to such a tiny creature without dragging it down. Even so, the technology isn’t perfect. The most likely guess is that they spend much of the time on the wing high above the rain-forests, out of sight and out of mind.
According to the British Trust for Ornithology, my little house martin is bang on time for its arrival date here in the West Midlands. It’ll find an especially rich breeding ground, with a river and lakes nearby to provide lots of mud for a nest, which it will build beneath the high sheltered beams of a nearby hotel, and a fertile, largely untended flood plain over which it will hunt for insects. If it’s lucky it’ll raise two or even three broods, which will extend a lineage that goes back maybe hundreds of years.
Because things go in cycles its arrival reminds me also of its departure, when it will line up with many others on the telephone wires, all eager to head off for the south. That’ll be sometime in October, a long time away but also quite soon, and inexorably linked to its arrival.