NATURE NOTE – Number 70 June 14, 2023
Some of you may think I spend too much time on birds. Maybe I do, but birds are an easy and convenient way to see and experience nature – more so than trying to see fish or reptiles or wildflowers. Scouts can find birds almost anywhere, and there are many species out there, and they change with the seasons and with your location. It’s easier to learn about birds by learning a group at a time, so let’s learn about one of those common groups in…
Our Current topic: Swifts and swallows
I’ve grouped these birds into a group, not because of their actual similarity, but because they are often seen under similar situations and can be confused by someone just getting into birding. They both feed almost exclusively on insects they catch on the wing, and can be seen twisting and turning in the sky over suburban and other areas. Let’s talk about them separately.
The Chimney swift: this is the “flying cigar”. A short, heavy, dark body with long, stiff pointed wings, it spends almost its entire life in flight. Watch for it in the evening flying in flocks, twisting, turning, diving with very rapid wing beats. You won’t ever see it perched, as their tiny legs cannot grasp a twig. They can hang onto the inside of a chimney to sleep, or perch on their nest attached to the inside of the chimney. Originally, they used rock ledges and hollow trees for nesting, but as brick chimneys came into common use, they moved there. Now as chimneys are less common, or home owners cover them, the population is facing a rather steep decline. During flight they issue a high pitched, rapid chattering. There are several other species of swifts in the west, but only the Chimney swift is in the east. It’s a long-distant migrant, moving south as their food source fades in the fall. Be careful and don’t confuse Chimney swifts with bats.
Swallows: a very large family of birds spread throughout the world, there are several species common to our area. They too twist and turn in search of insects, commonly in flocks, often dipping low over water, rapidly beating their wings followed by a glide and then more rapid wing beats. Their sounds and calls vary, but are given in flight.
Common in our area, is the long-tailed, orange-throated, metallic-blue Barn swallow often found around farm (or camp) buildings. The long forked tail is the key to this bird and it’s easy to see in flight. Often seen sitting on a utility wire in small groups they build their mud and stick nest on the side of barn rafters.
Tree swallows are common in open suburban areas, fields and marshes. These are white-breasted swallows that looks green one minute, and blue the next. Their metallic color changes as the light hits them from different angles. They are rather tolerant of humans and readily use nest boxes placed near open areas, but their original nest sites were tree cavities. This is one of the most studied birds in North America and has been the basis of much of our bird knowledge. This migrant will be an early return to its breeding ground since it also can feed on seeds as well as insects.
The smaller, squared-tailed Rough-winged swallow is brown with a dull-whitish breast. It has a slower flight than other swallows and is more frequently seen over water or perched on a utility wire in small groups. Not much bright color with this guy.
The Bank swallow looks somewhat like a Rough-winged swallow, but it has two key differences. While brown, it has a dark band across its breast and some white on the side of the neck. Also, the habitant is totally different. Since the Bank swallow uses a river bank (hence the name) to burrow out a nest site, it is not a forest or field bird, but closely tied to water sources or damp road cuts.
Another species we might encounter under a bridge is the colorful Cliff swallow, with bright coloring a little like the Barn swallow but minus the forked tail. And the rump is orange. The nests of these birds are often mud huts attached to the beams under a bridge. Usually found in large groups, they tend to feed higher in the sky than other swallows.
Purple Martin, the largest swallow, is the all metallic-blue resident of the multi-apartment bird houses seen around houses and farms. Native Americans attracted these insect catchers by putting out hanging hollow gourds for nests. Their characteristics are similar to other sparrows, but a trade-mark is the huge flocks that gather in late summer prior to their long journey south. Still common is some areas, they have been displaced in other areas by Starlings and House sparrows (also called English sparrows) taking over their houses. Both of these are invasive species.
While the above is certainly not a lot of detail about these birds, it gives you some quick info that might cause you to pause and looks a little closer at those birds darting around your house or farm or troop meeting site. A good field guide or app can give you much more detail on identification, but these are easy birds to identify – and find – in the BRMC area. Point them out to scouts. Make a list of those you find (for Bird Study or Nature Merit Badge). Camp Powhatan should give you the Chimney swift, Barn and Tree swallow, and maybe the Rough-winged. And always look twice late in the evenings. It may be BATS you are looking at (See NATURE NOTE #37). But that’s nature too, right? Good luck and have fun.