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Catching Swallows

I was out on the field late this afternoon watching the boys doing speed training when drops of water fell on my head in quick succession. My instinct was, of course, to look up and inspect the skies. It was hardly surprising that the clouds were dark and angry because it had already rained earlier, as a matter of fact.

What surprised me was that there were a handful of swallows hovering above the field this early in the year. I began to realize that I have been seeing them for a while; I just had not been paying attention to their being here. Now that I come to think about it, I even wonder if they left in the first place.

As everyone probably already knows, swallows are migratory birds. They spend the summer months in the temperate zone and then fly south for the winter months. Who knows where the swallows in Lipa originate from; albeit, I rather suspect they flew all the way from China, Korea or Japan.

They are sturdy athletes, these little birds. They care capable of flight for as long as twelve straight hours and they refuel mid-air as they travel. That means feeding on insects blown up into the skies during the course of their migration.

In certain cultures, the arrival of the migrating swallows is celebrated as a symbol of the changing of the seasons. Here in Lipa, I rather tend to look up at the skies during the last quarter of each year to be among the first to catch a glimpse of the swallows arriving. Their presence always indicates that colder weather is just around the corner.

But today is not even August; what are the swallows doing here? I hate to admit it, but their presence this early actually scares me. Once upon a time, sure as clockwork they arrived when the air started to get cooler; and left when the temperatures started to rise. What greater portent of changing weather patterns can there be than the presence of swallows at the end of July?

Much as I love having them around, of course! I have always been fascinated by swallows – laying-layang as well call them locally. They are swift, graceful and can fly all day long.

When I was a kid growing up in the Base, sometimes we would line the road with sticks in our hands, trying to swat any of the countless swallows that buzzed the road even with children running around. The swallows gymnastically and effortlessly slalomed around us as though they were aware of what we were trying to do and were even taunting us to try a little bit harder.

You would have thought that a couple of rows of kids armed with sticks would be a little daunting to the little birds. But they were defiant and kept coming; if anything, it could have been that they were the ones playing and we were – in fact – their toys!

Sometimes, instead of on the road, we would line the banks of this narrow canal that curved behind the row of houses that we all called the Dallas Area. We would swing our sticks as they swiftly glided along the shape of the canal; and all we ever succeeded in doing was creating splashes of water as we swung the sticks we brandished.

In the end, everyone came to the conclusion that we could not catch a laying-layang if we tried while it was in full flight. So, we all turned our attention to the less trying art of catching tutubi that perched on the twigs of trees along the banks of the canal. When that got tiresome, we would wade on the murky waters of the canal to collect butetê. These we would bring home so we could watch them swim around inside garapons as though they were tiny fish.

But back to the swallows and how to catch them, you could, as a matter of fact. Just not while they were in flight…

I have written a few times that we used to have a poultry farm when I was a teenager and after we had moved out of the Base. The swallows would come to our farm during the cold months by the hundreds to feast on the countless insects that were naturally part and parcel of the farm.

Of course, being swallows, they were happiest flying all over the place and buzzing the ground to swoop for some tiny insects only they could see. They would, in fact, occasionally try to get some rest by perching on the edges of the roof overhangs.

For all their athleticism when in full flight and skill at dodging objects that blocked their way, they were disappointingly tatanga-tanga when they perched on the overhangs. More often than not, they would hold on with their feet to the overhangs facing the roof of the poultry house as it inclined upwards. That simply meant that their long tails were visible from underneath the roof.

I suppose the cocky swallows were just confident that nobody would be stupid enough to try and sneak up on them from underneath the roof. But I was an adolescent with a point to prove and – in fact – was stupid enough to actually try and make an attempt!

Not that, after catching one, there was much point in holding onto it once the point was proven. For one, it was too small to even contemplate as food. For another, aba’y matalas-talas din ang tukâ ng lintek! While the gentle maya’s beak is blunt and it can peck at your fingers all day long without making much of an impression, the laying-layang’s beak is sharp and pointed and it will hurt if you ever want to see if I am making all this up!

Just do not try to catch it while it is in full flight because it will only make a damned fool out of you!

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