Post storm, the sky still leaden and the streets reeking of that just-rained-earth smell so particular to South Africa, we watched hundreds of swallows duck and dive in a display of abandon, on the banks of Lake Victoria (not that Lake Victoria, another one, but more about that later). I fall in love.
We are just outside Durban overlooking a wetland in Mount Moreland conservancy where barn swallows from all across Europe overnight in a series of reed beds, coming in to roost at sundown in their thousands…
Mount Moreland is one the largest barn swallow roosting sites in South Africa.
The place where the swallows come to rest every evening is awash with Phragmites australis reeds, the natural habitat of these tiny, yet beautiful, birds who seek perpetual summer by leaving Europe to come to Africa for the warm months.
The barn swallow (probably called this for its propensity to build its nests in chimneys, barns and out-houses in Europe), although not endangered, has an incredible story.
The fork tailed bird with a metallic blue upper chest and head, dark chestnut forehead and throat, and white to buff underparts weighs in at 18 grams. Yet every year, each of them flies as much as 12 000 kilometres in search of summer.
They are one of the world’s smallest migratory birds leaving the northern hemisphere every August or September and flocking south to Africa and South Africa, where they stay until April, before heading north again.
Their flight is known as the Great Migration.
It is at once incredible and hazardous. If they leave too late or are caught in an early cold snap, their numbers are easily wiped out. This journey takes as long as a month of daily flight – sometimes as much as 400 kilometres a day – over the sea or desert where coming in to land is impossible.
Those who are too old, too young, or did not build up enough fat reserves, will not make it.
The barn swallow eats and drinks on the wing, flying thousands of kilometres across the globe. Their pursuit of summer means that in many countries they herald the rain, arriving just as the spring showers begin. As a result, they are also known as the ‘rain bird’.
By November, and again in April when they prepare to leave, there are as many as 3 million swallows at Lake Victoria, Mount Moreland, of an evening.
It’s hard to imagine that in the city best known for its beaches and water sports there is an important wetland, just a couple of kilometres inland from the crashing waves of Umdloti. I’d never heard of Mount Moreland, yet it is a semi-rural hamlet overlooking a 3.6 hectare wetland, famous for its barn swallows.
Mount Moreland lies directly on the flight path of King Shaka Airport.
I later learn that the reason the planes remain just far enough away not to disturb the swallows high-spirited dusk displays is due to a DeTect Merlin Bird Detection Radar System monitoring the swallows’ movements and allowing for peaceful coexistence of planes and birds.
If it weren’t for a dedicated group of people who, determined to protect the precious wetland by spending over a year contributing to the Environmental Impact Assessment meetings held by Acsa, the swallows may have found their roosting site inundated.
The residents of Mount Moreland had enjoyed the antics of the barn swallows for years until the airport threatened the birds’ roosting spot. One of the group, had even made a study of the blue swallows, recording their movements over 15 years, enough to gain the findings a place in a scientific paper.
As the airport loomed, so it became vital to share the wetland with others in a more constructive way, in order to protect the birds. Mount Moreland was officially established and a terraced viewing site made its appearance overlooking the reeds. The conservancy is now an IBA (International Birding Area).
It did not take long for people to find out about the swallows. Today people visit every evening between November and April to watch the spectacle. It’s a magnificent show. For the swallows come home against a sky graced by the setting sun, filling the air with their song.
Of course the weather has to play along. As we sadly learn…
We’re thankful for the rain and wind that mean that the usual sultry, sticky weather does not interfere with our enjoyment of Durban. But we’re limited to which days we can view the swallows and, in our case, the weather works against us.
We’ve picked a night where there is no rain, as advised, but the wind is rough. It buffets their tiny bodies across the sky at such a rate that we have no sooner caught sight of them and pointed them out, than they are blown away from us, coming to land on the other side of the wetland, away from us.
Only one or two dart directly above our picnic area, as we demurely sip on wine, whilst the wind whips up the edges of our blanket.
Despite this, the evening is a success. For the beauty of the sunset, the panoramic views and the delight of the wind whipping our hair, whilst we laugh and share stories on the banks overlooking the reeds, make it memorable. Mount Moreland without the swallows is beautiful. The swallows are merely the icing on the cake.
Yet for those people who do make it here on a balmy Durban evening, thousands of swallows return home against the orange of the sunset to hover above the reed bed, before dropping, almost as one, to overnight in the leaves of the reeds.
The barn swallow roost at Mount Moreland is the largest roost in KwaZulu Natal, if not in South Africa. There are actually two roosts, one to the north of Mount Moreland and one to the south. The hill on which you sit overlooks the southern wetland, known as Lake Victoria barn swallow roost.
The viewing site is open every day during swallow season, weather permitting.
Contact: Angie Wilken on +27 (0)31 568-1557. Directions are also available here.
Take with you: binoculars, comfortable chairs or a picnic blanket, something to keep you warm, mozzie repellent, a camera, and a good picnic.
Where to Stay: Visit Umdloti Accommodation on SA-Venues.com for a large selection of overnight options.