Saturday, May 07, 2011


Even before I started birding, I enjoyed watching the aerial antics of swallows. The first that I learned to recognize was the Barn Swallow, a common sight wherever there are open fields and structures for building nests. A Barn Swallow may also have been the first bird I tried to photograph – when I was a kid I tried to photograph one with a fixed-prime-lens point-and-shoot film camera (needless to say, the results were not good). When I started looking closer at the swallows with binoculars, I realized that there were other types of swallows too. Tree Swallows, shown above, were probably the first I noticed as distinct from Barn Swallows. Tree Swallows are usually the first to arrive in the spring and the last to depart in the fall. During migration, they sometimes form impressively large gatherings, especially in coastal areas. In March, their sudden appearance at ponds and marshes is a sure sign that more insectivores are on the way.

I was slower to recognize Northern Rough-winged Swallows, probably because I had them confused with Bank Swallows when I first started looking at birds. At my local patch, Northern Rough-winged Swallows seem to form the majority on most days. It may be that the park has better nesting habitat for them than for the other swallow species. Tree Swallows are usually the second most numerous.

When I first started birding, it was a challenge to track swallows in flight with my binoculars well enough to see enough details of their plumage to identify. It is still not easy, but I have gotten much better at that over the years. These two Northern Rough-winged Swallows, though, did not present any such challenge. One seemed to be picking up nesting material from the parking lot, while the other just rested in place.

In addition to the Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, I have also seen Bank and Barn Swallows at my patch regularly, though mainly during migration. Cliff Swallows started nesting nearby (at the Route 27 bridge) a few years ago. I have not seen them yet this year, but they will probably show up soon. Yesterday, I saw a Purple Martin at the park for the first time ever. I just happened to notice one swallow that looked darker than the rest, which was enough to make me take a closer look.