The Swallows of Summer

Summer in this area is not the most productive time for bird watching, which makes swallows especially welcome. Several species can be seen all summer long here and are fun to watch.

How can you tell you’re seeing a swallow? If you notice several small birds that are wheeling and darting back and forth through the air, in perpetual aerobatic motion, good chance they’re swallows. Particularly in the early morning and evening, over the golf course or any water feature (like the East Rec pond), they go in tireless pursuit of flying insects, which make up nearly their entire diet. Most of their waking hours are spent on the move, beaks wide open, sometimes high in the air, sometimes swooping low over grass or water to grab the next meal, which they eat without missing a wing beat.

While it’s exhilarating to watch swallows in their aerial dance, another treat comes in seeing them standing still. They do land occasionally on utility wires or tree snags, where you can inspect them with binoculars. And in the late spring and early summer, you can get a good view of them as they come to their nests, which they make either in nest boxes or in abandoned woodpecker holes or other natural crevices in trees. If you have a nest box up for a bluebirds, you may find either of these swallows using it.

The most attractive of our swallows are the Violet-Green and the Tree varieties. (The Barn Swallow is nice-looking too, but I’m only allowed two photos.) When you get a chance to observe one close up and in good light, the male Violet-Green Swallow is a stunning bird with an unexpected combination of colors: a green head, a greenish-blue back, and violet patches on the upper wings and tail. The breast is solid white, and the white extends up the throat and face above the eye. The male Tree Swallow has an iridescent blue back and head and a bright white breast, but the white ends before the eye, giving it a dark face, unlike the Violet-Green. This difference is very helpful in telling the two swallows apart, especially when you don’t have a good view of their colorful backs.

Currently a family of Violet-Green Swallows is nesting in a hole in an old oak tree by our house. As sunset nears, the swallows’ last flights of the day overlap with the local bats’ first, with everyone zig-zagging through the air at top speed after bugs. It’s easy to imagine a bit of cross-species showing-off going on – “Check this out, you bats!”

Like birds and bird watching? Join the Oakmont Birders mailing list by contacting bkendrick@jps.net. Questions about birds? Want a “Birds Seen in Oakmont” checklist? Send an e-mail.

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