Ten days later, after crossing the high desert and skirting the southern limit of the Sierra Nevada’s, they’re in
By the first of May, the flock has crossed the Bitterroot Mountains in western Montana and is about to enter southern Alberta near the town of Cardston, but they are beaten back by a late spring snowstorm. They retreat southward a hundred miles to the shelter of one of many isolated river valleys where flying insects are abundant.
As the warm south winds return, the flock cruises high above the central
On the twelfth day of May they fly high across the
Again, a few pairs stay behind to feed, build their nests and raise their young, but some go on. They are the pathfinders, legends among their kind, extending the range of their species beyond what the bird books proclaim as the limit.
Within a few days, they’re crossing the scraggly, black-spruce taiga country, following that sparse forest north along the
And so they arrive each year – the scouts around Victoria Day and the rest of the flock about the first of June. There follows a flurry of mud-finding, mud-carrying, nest-building and feeding.
Each year, when “my” swallows return to their birthplace, I feel a mix of awe and humility. Certainly, it is a great privilege to have these amazing birds nest on my house. Their adventurous and dangerous lives make those of mere humans seem pretty tame by comparison. They travel farther in a few weeks than I could walk in a couple of years. They fly with a degree of skill that the best fighter pilot would envy. A human-being with a multi-billion dollar GPS system at his disposal could navigate no better than my swallows, and no atmospheric scientist can predict the weather and winds as well as they can.
But their adventurous lives are short and often brutal. Starvation and hypothermia are constant companions. Sometimes they collide with cars or power lines or fall prey to a falcon. Sometimes their tiny hearts just capitulate, overcome by a life of constant activity with little time for rest.
When they arrive at their summer residence overlooking the mouth of the
But there are successes too. Most years, more swallows leave than had arrived a couple of months previously.
In late August, after waiting several days for the last of the fledglings to take wing, they will sit in rows on the cable-TV wire over our driveway, chattering excitedly and encouraging their young for the great adventure ahead.
Then, one morning, they’re gone.
Photo: Cliff Swallows winter in the southern United States, Mexico or Central America, and some spend their summers beyond the arctic circle.