Sundowners with the Barn Swallows

Sundowners with the Barn Swallows

Between October and March, a gorgeous spectacle happens in KZN: thousands of barn swallows swooping and feasting at sunset. Here’s what it’s like to view their murmurations from Mount Moreland.

“The swallows like to have a perpetual summer and they’re here in Mount Moreland during our summer months. Every evening is different as they put on their show in the skies.”

Angie Wilken is the visionary behind the barn swallow viewing site in KZN’s Mount Moreland – a small residential area inside a conservancy, north of Durban. We joined her and a gathering of like-minded, chilled out folk and made ourselves comfortable at the well-kept, terraced, grassy viewing site just before sunset.

Sundowners with a view at the barn swallows viewing site. Photo by Kelly Robertson.
Armed with camping chairs, sundowner drinks and binoculars, we relaxed in the most beautiful, peaceful setting with views of the farmlands, marshes and sugar cane fields spilling out in front of us. Angie opens the site to the public at around 17:30 daily in the summer months, and viewers wanting to enjoy the spectacle trickle down slowly, setting up picnic blankets, chairs and sundowner snacks. We joined the tranquil setting on a Saturday evening and the winged European holiday-makers came out in their numbers to entertain us.

Relaxation time, taking in the views waiting for the swallows to arrive. Photo by Kelly Robertson.
These barn swallows chase summer all year round, and we are just a tad jealous of the pretty birds’ lifestyle. They choose the marshland area just below Mount Moreland as their favourite South African holiday destination, soaking up the last of the day’s rays and munching on insects in the skies, before heading to bed in the reeds below.

The Barn Swallows could be seen clearly with or without binoculars. Photo by Kelly Robertson.

The barn swallows show

The evening we visited, we sat admiring the landscape and feeling the anticipation growing amongst the seasoned barn swallow watchers around us. As part of the first timers there we didn’t know what to expect. The sun was making its way to bed, dropping beyond the hill in the direction of Verulam and the skies were quiet and clear. Suddenly, completely without warning, a flock of swallows swooped in, dotting the skies and making us all drop our drinks and grasp for the binoculars. It was around 18:40 and they had arrived. Angie went around from group to group announcing them and offering the use of her binoculars for those without who wanted to keep sentry.

Angie Wilkins points out the first arriving swallows and chats to visitors about the spectacle. Photo by Kelly Robertson.
Just as suddenly as those first few had arrived, the masses made their entry. There were thousands of them, swooping, fast and dark against the orange sunset backdrop. It was incredible to watch, with or without binoculars. They speckled the heavens in a happy, frantic swarm as they ate their dinner above the marshes and readied themselves for bed.

The barn swallows put on a real show for us at Mount Moreland. Photo by Kelly Robertson.
Angie told us that they breed in Europe when they are there for the Northern Hemisphere summertime but they holiday here in South Africa. They’ve clearly got their priorities spot on. They don’t build nests here in SA as they don’t need to house any eggs or chicks, so they simply snuggle down and sleep on the reeds in the Mount Moreland marshlands. We could hear them chattering and tweeting in their multitudes – a lovely sound. Angie said, “we call this ‘Bedtime Stories Time’ as they tweet while they settle to sleep.”

Dotting the sunset skies, the barn swallows catching their dinner before bedtime. Photo by Kelly Robertson.
After a good half-hour of show time, the sun disappeared and the skies were clear and quiet again, all swallows hidden from our sight, as if they had never been there at all. It had been a very special natural show to witness and a sundowner session we’ll be back for again.Angie updates the Barn Swallows website daily, about the sightings. After our evening’s viewing she wrote, “a thrilling experience for many spectators that came to see the evening display, and many commented that it was the best display they had ever seen.”

Information boards at the entrance.

Need to Know:

The barn swallows visit Mount Moreland from late October to March each year. Keep an eye on the website for the best viewing times and other info.

Price: There’s a R10 conservation and entrance per to visitor.
Directions: 31°05.2E 29°38.7S – At the Umdloti/Verulam N2 off ramp, turn towards Verulam. Go under 1km and turn right at the white pillar marked ‘Umdloti Estate, Mount Moreland.’ Follow the road and the signs to Mount Moreland / Swallow View site.

Originally published on the Getaway Blog ,  16 February, 2015