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The Blue Swallows of the BRC

by | Autumn 2023, Community, Print Articles

The Blue Swallow is not only threatened by habitat change; climate change is also a likely challenge.

The Buddhist Retreat Centre at Ixopo is a special place. Of course, most people associate the BRC as a font of Buddhist teachings and practice. For myself, the BRC played a watershed role in my life some 35 years ago at a time of personal introspection. My involvement there included running a birding retreat, which led to a chance reconnection with a wonderful woman from university days, leading to marriage and a lifelong partnership.

Birds have been a pillar of my existence from innocent pre-teen days, becoming both a passion and remunerative work, with jobs centred on birds as a researcher, conservationist and birder. After nearly 60 years of birds and birding, the BRC represents to me a Kohinoor birding gem, being host to one of South Africa’s rarest and most iconic birds. This is the Blue Swallow, its essence captured in the image above.

My early visits to the BRC were followed by a hiatus of nearly 30 years. But there is always an option for change, and I recently had the gift of a return to the BRC to run a birding retreat. It was a chance to relive the Blue Swallows zipping to and fro close above the grass, their deep royal blue colour capriciously evident in reflected sun, fragile and vulnerable. This return was a chance to infect other people with an understanding of the rewards of birding in a frenetic, tense and aggressive world.

My reintroduction to the BRC was accompanied by speculations of expectation. All too often in South Africa, our lives are negatively affected by diminution and decay of the physical aspects of our lives; it can and does erode us emotionally. Repeatedly, when we revisit familiar sites from our past, we see developments that rob our pleasure of rediscovery. It is a familiar refrain – ‘The place is not what it used to be’. 

A further element to my anticipation was that some, 30 years ago, my wife and I took part in a rewilding programme to plant indigenous trees at the BRC, a long-term strategy to regenerate a mist-belt forest patch on the slopes facing the accommodation. Previously planted to wattle, these slopes were planted by many people over many sessions and years. How had the programme worked?  It was with anticipation I drove into the leafy green driveway of the BRC, to emerge into the upper garden. Three decades ago, this garden area was open and grassy and edged by small trees. First impressions – the development of a broad canopy of shade thrown by now massive trees.

And then a Knysna Turaco called and I smiled. The Knysna Turaco is a gorgeous denizen of mature forest; it was absent or a rare visitor thirty years ago and so its presence in the upper garden was a powerful message that the rewilding had worked. I could experience the fruits of those efforts to recreate a forest patch. Things had changed for the better – the last time I had such a sense of renewal was a revisit to the eastern shores of Isimangaliso Nature Reserve at Lake St Lucia after an absence of 20 years, where I witnessed the changes brought by removal of alien pines and creation of new tourism facilities; delivering a wonderful experience of natural surroundings.

I was very keen to reconnect with the Blue Swallows – I had an etched memory of seeing no fewer than four males perched close to one of the breeding holes at the BRC. Blue Swallows have a highly specialised ecology, feeding over temperate grasslands adjacent to mist-belt forests over a narrow band of altitude. It is a highly range-restricted species, with a small area of natural occurrence, which increases the threat of change compared to more widely distributed species. Its natural range is a prime area for commercial forestry and within the last few decades, loss of this habitat has limited its availability. Blue Swallows do not adapt to any other grasslands; it is temperate mist-belt region grasslands or nothing. To add to the long-term survival woes of this species, they breed in sinkholes or old aardvark burrows; in other words, their nesting sites are comparatively rare. The need for rare nesting sites within a highly specialised and localised habitat makes them even more vulnerable. As an acquaintance once said: “With some rare species with specialised habits, you just want to give them a kick sometimes, to make changes and make lives easier for themselves.” And the threat to Blue Swallows is very real. In the last 15 years, the last few Blue Swallows in the Kaapsehoop area of Mpumalanga have disappeared, probably forever. The future of the Blue Swallow in South Africa depends on the mist-belt refuge areas within KwaZulu-Natal.

What can be done? Over the years, the BRC staff have deepened and renovated three existing holes and dug a brand-new hole, the last now in use as a breeding site. Every year, Mdu clears out the burrow entrances to allow access. The BRC has now been officially proclaimed as a private nature reserve, giving a greater security into the future. So, helping hands have given resilience to the local Blue Swallows, making changes where the Blue Swallows cannot.

But the Blue Swallow is not only threatened by habitat change. Climate change is likely to be a challenge. When the chicks hatch, there is a critical window of three to four weeks whilst the chicks grow to adulthood. On a daily basis, the adults need to find flying insects to provision the chicks. Too little rain – or the late arrival of summer rain – and the insect flush of abundance associated with summer rainfall might be too lean for chick-rearing. Low rainfall and delayed summer rain are typical of El Nino conditions, when drier to drought conditions prevail. In recent years, with normal rainfall totals, the early summer has often been dry, so that, although the annual rainfall may be normal because of high late rains, it may too late for successful chick-rearing. There is also a risk associated with too much rain. Remember this is the mist-belt and too much rain may result in the adults being unable to find sufficient flying insects, because cold and wet conditions mean insects are not flying. And so rain which is too little, too late or too much, are all threats to successful breeding. Swallows are not long-lived in general and most species, including Blue Swallow, probably do not live on average more than, say, four to five years. Imagine, then, the impact of three consecutive years of no recruitment through lack of breeding success.

Blue Swallows winter in Uganda and elsewhere in central/east Africa. There are breeding populations in the highlands of Zimbabwe, Eswatini and bigger numbers on the Nyika plateau of Malawi and further north. But the reality is that this species may become extinct in South Africa within our lifetimes. This would be the first breeding bird species to be lost in South Africa since African Skimmers stopped breeding at Lake St Lucia. This would be a bigger loss, because the Skimmers were few in number and perhaps occasional breeders as opposed to an entire breeding population, as is the case with the Blue Swallow.

During the BRC birding weekend, we took a walk early on the first day to view this special bird. Knowing where the nest-hole was situated, we positioned ourselves on the hill above the nest hole without disturbing them. Many of the participants on the weekend were new birders and any species was new to them. But I believe that all appreciated the mystique of this species, as the pair swept up and down the grassy slopes, the male showing his ‘wire-tail’ streamers, the female with her straight-edged tail. They are chunkier than the common Black Saw-wing, which is similar because, in most lighting conditions, the Blue Swallow appears black rather than royal blue. The Black Saw-wing has a deeply forked tail, which, with a good view, separates the species easily, in addition to being smaller and more lightly built.

Later that weekend, we visited the regenerated forest, being rewarded with a clear view of an Olive Bush-shrike – it is seldom seen although not rare. Other forest species were the Knysna Turaco, Blue-mantled Flycatcher, Green-backed Camaroptera and Emerald Cuckoo, all of which were absent before rewilding. It was a positive return to the BRC, meeting expectations.

On reflection, we need to work harder to provide resilience for Blue Swallows, which are hampered by in-built limitations. Humans can change. On a grand scale, we must fight for a better planet, whilst at a local and immediate level, we should strive for smaller but critical goals like conservation of Blue Swallows. The BRC’s commitment to – and custodianship of – the Blue Swallow and rewilding are such local examples, embedded in an embracing Buddhist-driven philosophy of mindfulness towards the planet.

Aldo Berruti began birding in his youth; this evolved into a career as a research ornithologist, attaining a MSc and PhD. After 2O years, including work on albatrosses at Marion Island, waterbirds at Lake St Lucia and seabirds of the Western Cape, Aldo changed to conservation, becoming the first Director of BirdLife South Africa from 1996 until 2004. His boyhood enthusiasm for birds persists and he loves sharing birds with people. He lives in Underberg with his wife Sharron. His guiding business focused on the iconic Sani Pass until Covid 19 wiped out tourism. He started Birding with Aldoa successful series of 13 online birding courses aimed at all levels of birding from beginner to specialist. Go to www.birdingwithaldo.com for a full description of courses.

Photo credits: The Flack’s Photogoraphy
Richard Flack is a South African award-winning bird and wildlife photographer.
Email: [email protected]    Website: www.theflacks.co.za

There are only an estimated 40 pairs of Blue Swallows left in South Africa and only 1 000 pairs worldwide (possibly less), which makes them critically endangered. Almost all the Blue Swallows left in South Africa are found on private or communally-owned land. The Buddhist Retreat Centre is one of the farms helping to preserve them and, in recognition of the work it does in protecting the Blue Swallows and their habitat, the centre was awarded Custodianship of the Blue Swallows and recently proclaimed private nature reserve. This would not have been possible without Steve McKean, who coordinates the Blue Swallow Monitoring Project – a partnership between Birdlife South Africa, Conservation Outcomes and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. He has returned to Ixopo regularly over the last few years to monitor the Blue Swallows during their breeding season. The mist belt grasslands, where the Blue Swallows make their home, are also endangered, with only approximately two per cent of their original extent currently protected. The Blue Swallows are supremely adapted to thrive in mist belt grasslands, as their feathers repel water better than those of other birds, enabling them to deal with the very moist conditions that this habitat provides. They are also the lowest flying of the hirundine, which allows them to hawk insects just above the ground and prevents them competing with similar species for food. The male birds are immediately recognisable by their long tail streamers and metallic blue colour. Mdu Zikode, the BRC’s Induna, who is known as the ‘father’ of the Blue Swallows, helps Steve to monitor the nest sites.

Chrisi van Loon