House Martin Down

Monday, September 14, 2020 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


You can’t visit Welshpool without a stroll along its stretch of the Montgomery canal, eminently pleasant at the best of times but particularly so with the sun shining and summer in full flow. We chose to head north towards Buttington Cross, our route accompanied by strings of Mallard ducklings and shoals of Rudd. Darting across the canal’s surface meanwhile were all manner of hirundines with only the Swifts practising their brand of aerial acrobatics at higher altitudes. I’ve often wondered how young birds learn their flight skills, even more so when one’s choice of lifestyle requires such dexterity and agility. We were about to get a taster as to how difficult life on the wing can be.

Shortly after passing beneath one of the numerous bridges which crisscross this navigation there was a sudden commotion and splash from behind us. Emma turned first, just in time to spot a Sparrowhawk exiting stage right leaving a House Martin struggling frantically in the water. We could only surmise that a chase had ensued with the desperate martin crashing either out of sheer desperation or a costly mistake. Whatever the cause a rescue mission was clearly in urgent need and it looked like we were the people to mount it.
 
P1240693 - House Martin down

Now much like the incident off Southgate recently, there’s nothing in my repertoire or life experience to date which has really prepared me for how to fish a House Martin out of a canal. I tried a mental mind map of course, willing the bird to flap/paddle its way closer to our bank so that we could simply scoop it up. This, perhaps inevitably, resulted in it swimming in the opposite direction. Maybe if we could find a long stick we could prod it to safety? Good plan but finding something sturdy and at least three metres long proved about as easy as you’d expect. Our last resort was to throw a buoyancy aid (read stick) over to where the struggling bird was in the hope that it would be able to clamber out, dry and recover.
 
P1240696 - House Martin down

The throw by Emma’s dad was I have to say superb, landing within millimetres of its intended destination. All we could do now was watch with everything crossed but alas, there is to be no happy ending to this story. After struggling in the cold water the House Martin was all but exhausted and despite a few valiant strokes in the right direction, there just wasn’t enough left in the tank to reach safety.

I was in two minds as to whether or not I should share this tale but decided to for a couple of reasons. Firstly it goes to show that, much like us, birds don’t get it right all the time and mistakes do happen. Secondly it was interesting that this whole incident was initiated by a Sparrowhawk and, having looked at the area closer, there was evidence that this may be a repeat hunting technique. Feathers lined the canal towpath at roughly the same location suggesting that others may also have met a watery grave here having been funnelled beneath the same bridge. Perhaps the Sparrowhawk will return to retrieve its prey later? I couldn’t find any literature to back this hypothesis up but would love to hear from anyone else who has recorded similar behaviour.

After that slightly macabre encounter it was nice to stumble upon a family of Mute Swans, the parents accompanying a sizeable group of six cygnets. Unusually the adults didn’t seem to mind my presence (on past experience they tend to try and peck my feet for some reason) so I went in for a couple of portraits.
 
P1240700 - Mute Swan

P1240703 - Mute Swan

Our afternoon was spent on the Welshpool and Llanfair railway which was great fun and even managed to include a new year tick in the shape of Redstart. We saw at least three along the route as well as both Grey Wagtail and Dipper. Having not been able to make it up to our traditional mid-Wales haunts this year the former was a particularly welcome find.

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