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Where have the Mount Moreland swallows gone to roost?

The 35-hectare wetland, dubbed one of KwaZulu-Natal's most awe-inspiring natural phenomena, was the roosting site for an estimated 5 000 000 barn swallows.

One of the North Coast’s most popular tourist attractions, the Lake Victoria Barn Swallow viewing site in Mount Moreland has shut its doors 13 years after it was established.

The 35-hectare wetland, dubbed one of KwaZulu-Natal’s most awe-inspiring natural phenomena, was the roosting site for an estimated 5 000 000 barn swallows.

From as far back as the 1970’s the reedbeds surrounding the small settlement of Mount Moreland (near King Shaka International Airport), played stage to the spectacular arrival of millions of barn swallows, which roosted in the Phragmites reedbeds.

The reedbeds are supported by wetlands locally known as Lake Victoria and Froggy Pond.

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These wetlands have served as a stopover for the swallows en route to other parts of South Africa and as a staging point before their migration back to Europe and Asia, where they breed.

Every evening from mid-October to mid-April, millions of these tiny birds gather for about half an hour before sunset and fly in vast numbers over the Lake Victoria wetlands. As dusk falls, the swallows drop down in the reeds and are gone … until dusk the next day.

The wetland is the largest roost site for the barn swallows during their summer migration to South Africa. The round trip from Europe can be over 12,000 kilometres which is no mean feat for a bird weighing an average of 18 grams.

However, three seasons of poor to no show has left the Mount Moreland Conservancy with no choice but to close the viewing site that was opened in November 2006.

It was through the formation of the conservancy that the barn swallows were drawn into the spotlight.

In the 1990s, the conservancy began an annual event called “The return of the swallows” and over years of trial and error it became more recognised and supported.

By 2005, the number of swallow watchers had noticeably increased and there was a craving for more knowledge.

Chairperson of the Mount Moreland Conservancy, Angie Wilken’s vision to develop a formal barn swallow viewing site at Mount Moreland was welcomed and a partnership was formed between landowners Tongaat Hulett, Airports Company South Africa (ACSA), Birdlife SA and the Mount Moreland Conservancy.

“The swallows have found other estuaries and while we cannot establish the exact cause of their disappearance the change in their habitat may be to blame. The erection of a massive cell phone tower right next to their habitat, the spraying of toxic pesticides from nearby sugarcane farmland which seep into the wetland and harms the biodiversity and changes in climate patterns may have been contributing factors,” said Wilken.

Wilken said the area is now surrounded by dead trees and the area once rich with a host of local flora and fauna looks depleted.

In 2007 the Lake Victoria wetland was declared an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International and Birdlife SA as it hosts a roost of over one percent of the world’s migratory barn swallows.

According to Wilken this is the only IBA listed area in the region.

Through the efforts of the conservancy, the Airports Company South Africa installed a dedicated radar system (a first in SA) that is used to monitor the movements of the swallow flock to prevent possible collisions with aircraft.

No impacts have occurred and there have been only three instances where aircraft were made to divert due to the close proximity of the flock.

“Ecosystems need to be protected and conserved and maybe if their habitat recovers, the swallows will return,” Wilken said.
The swallows, which migrate as far north as Finland, move to Africa during the European winter.

While bird experts have remained perplexed and have speculated that the departure of the birds could be related to noisy aircraft, plane fumes and the close proximity to the airport, ACSA manager of Corporate Affairs, Colin Naidoo does not believe this to be the case as the airport has been in operation for the past nine years and said he was not aware of any negative impacts on the birds caused by aircraft noise.

“We have been co-existing with the barn swallows for a number of years now and I do not believe their disappearance is related to the airport. Other contributing factors need to looked at such as changes in weather patterns and habitat,” Naidoo said.

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