16 July 2016
A summer mist has blown in from the sea, sending out tongues of swirling cloud and visible air across the ground. Somewhere up there is the warm summer sun, but for days now it has been obscured by cloud, rain, and wind. It appeared to be lifting around lunchtime, but the slight rise in temperature brought the fog pouring in across Start Point and up the valley, brought the keening of the fog horn protesting the death of another summer day that never was.
But the sea mist has also encouraged the swallows to come out early. Usually it is dusk before they begin to swirl, swoop and dive across the lawn, catching hapless mosquitoes and other insects as they emerge into the early gloaming and into the shadow left behing by the retreating sun. They move with extraordinary speed and accuracy, skimming across the surface of the lawn, so close to the blades of grass I swear I can see them move, as if to hide or shy away from this attack. But the grass itself is of no interest to these carnivores, only the fresh meat of the hundreds of insects they can find here at this time of day. They are astounding flyers, leaving me open-mouthed at the absolute accuracy of their flight. They eat on the wing all day long in summer, rarely settling, flying, it’s believed, about 600 miles a day. When it rains they scoop up the raindrops whilst in flight, and can also preen during flight, using the falling rain to bathe, then swooping upwards to shake off the rain, or skimming the surface of river and lake just enough to splash sufficient water for bathing purposes.
There is a precision here that is almost supra-natural, at least in human terms. Humans are so ungainly and imprecise by comparison, even the highly honed neurotic bodies of athletes. And yet they are promiscuous birds, mating at will with whoever takes their momentary fancy, so any anthropomorphising of their breath-taking precision seems somehow misplaced.
Yesterday I watched gulls dance across the surface of a ruffled sea, sailing close just above the water, hesitating for a moment and then dipping their beaks in just enough to take the minnows that seemed to be in profusion. The moment of hesitation allowed their bodies to drop just a little and lose momentum just enough to perform their fishing motion. They will do this tirelessly, working the same area of the shore over and over, as long as the schools of fish remain. And perhaps bizarrely, they will do this alone. The site of massed and squabbling gulls is as familiar to urban dwellers and farmers as it is to those who live by the sea. But here this fishing is a solitary activity, and not because no other gull had discovered this particular lode. I watched several gulls engaged in this painstaking act, but apart from one another as if content, for once, to share the temporary profusion. Perhaps too there is an understanding that competition never marries with precision – that everyone pouncing on the same piece of water is going to be counter-productive rather than hunger-satisfying. Gulls will fight over an accessible prey, but not now, not here. At least this year I haven’t witnessed the mass stranding of these schools of minnow. Last year on several occasions the strand line was full of dead and dying fish, mysteriously washed up, deserted by their natural drive to be alive, it seems. There was no visible perturbation on the sea’s already ruffed surface from these tiny fish, unlike the times when schools of mackerel also come near to shore, causing the surface to boil with immense anger for minutes as a time.