Saturday, October 18, 2014

How Barn Swallows Led Me to Bluebirds (and Other Swallows in Between) Adele Barger Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows
Photos and text © 2014 Adele Wilson

Swallows and Bluebirds may not be in the same family, but to me they are connected!  That is because the phenomenon of Barn Swallows nesting on my porch actually led me to discover Bluebirds.

Please be patient ... I shall get to the Bluebirds later!

During the summers of 2011 and 2012, Barn Swallows raised fourteen babies in a nest on my porch, only four feet (a little over a meter) from the door to my apartment.  They built the nest in the spring of 2011, raised five babies in it, and then returned in the spring of 2012 to use the same nest.  In fact, they used the nest twice that summer!  Two different pairs of Barn Swallows each raised a family in that nest in 2012. All of this is detailed with text and photos in my book, Bonding with the Barn Swallows, available from Amazon.  The photo below is from June 14, 2012, just a few days before 2012's first brood fledged.

I was thrilled about having two successive Barn Swallow families in the nest during that summer of 2012.  During the previous summer (2011), knowing that Barn Swallows sometimes raise two broods within one season, I had hoped and prayed that the nest would be used for a later brood after the first babies had fledged from the nest, but, sadly, that did not transpire.  Now, in 2012, the nest was indeed being used a second time, fulfilling my dream!

The Barn Swallow Disappointment

The last baby fledged from the nest on August 9th.  By mid-August, there were no Barn Swallows in the neighborhood at all.  They had all departed for their long journey to their wintering quarters in Central and South America.

In mid-April of 2013, the Barn Swallows finally returned.  What a joy it was to see them again!

I was more than ready to host a new family of swallows on my porch.  The nest from the previous year was still intact, having stood strong throughout the winter.  When a pair of Barn Swallows began flying to and fro across the porch, I was delighted.  The swallows were guarding the nest!

Within a few weeks, the swallows began placing feathers in the nest.  Knowing this activity to be a prelude to the laying of eggs, I was even more excited.

But, unfortunately, for some reason, the pair of swallows failed to use the nest.  I didn't see them for a few days, and then a few days more.  They had obviously abandoned the nest!

I told my landlord how devastated I was.  My landlord then informed me of a new Barn Swallow nest on the adjacent building.

By that time it was early July.  When I arrived at the adjacent building and saw the nest, I was heartened to discover that, yes, it was certainly a Barn Swallow nest, with two adult Barn Swallows guarding it from nearby.  The eggs had been laid, the babies had hatched, and a few of the babies were peeking above the nest.  Were the adults who built this nest the same adults who had begun to use my porch nest, only to later abandon it?  I did not know the answer, but what I DID know is that I was thrilled to be able to view some Barn Swallow babies.  Over the next few days, I was able to get some photos of the babies before they fledged.  This photo is from July 8, 2013:

A couple of days after my landlord had told me about nest on the adjacent building, I saw a swallow on my porch nest!  I was in ecstasy because it seemed that the Barn Swallows would be using the nest after all.

The swallow on the nest had a whitish patch on its forehead, which looked like dried clay.  The swallow would arrive at the nest, dab some mud onto the top of it, then quickly fly off.  It would keep returning and adding more mud to the nest.  "Oh my," I thought, "that swallow must be working so hard and getting mud on its forehead while dipping into it and scooping it up with its beak."

Another swallow soon joined the first swallow, and IT TOO HAD A WHITE PATCH ON ITS FOREHEAD!  Suddenly I realized that these birds must have been either been Barn Swallow mutations or an entirely different species of swallows.  Here is the pair of swallows after they had added some mud to the nest:
I soon discovered that I had been correct about these birds not being Barn Swallows!  I looked in my bird book (Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, which I highly recommend) and determined that these were CLIFF SWALLOWS because Cliff Swallows always have inverted, whitish triangles on their foreheads.  Some people have said these triangles look like carpenter caps.
The Tireless Carpenters

And "carpenter caps" is an apt description because these swallows were working tirelessly, making many trips to and from the nest, continually adding mud to it.  One of the swallows was the "head honcho", who must have been the male.  The other must have been the female, his mate, and she seemed to be following the male's instructions on exactly where to place the mud.  When the male was dissatisfied with the way the female had placed the mud, he would apply his beak to the same area of mud, seeming to add a "finishing touch" to it.

The two swallows ended up creating a dome over the previously bowl-shaped Barn Swallow nest, fashioning the nest into a typical Cliff Swallow type nest.  Below is a "before-and-after" photo.  On the left is the Barn Swallow nest as it appeared in June 2013.  On the right is the way the nest appeared in mid-July 2013 after the Cliff Swallows had finished modifying it.  Quite a difference, would you say?

A Multitude of Cliff Swallows

As the nest was nearing completion, quite a few other Cliff Swallows flew up to the nest seeking entrance via the opening that had been left in the dome.  At times there were as many as six or seven Cliff Swallows simultaneously flying frantically back and forth near my porch ceiling.  But, as each approached the nest to enter it, it would be pecked away, quite viciously I might add, by the male swallow inside the nest.

Once the nest was completed, the male Cliff Swallow would spend all morning inside it.  In quick and jerky motions, he would constantly look up, then down, then to each side, and then repeat these motions over and over again, guarding against those who might want to usurp the nest.

Here is a Cliff Swallow trying to sneak up the side of the nest with the resident male inside.  The male does not yet see the swallow on the side of the nest.  Eventually, however, the sneaking swallow arrived in the vicinity of the entrance hole and was pecked away by the male:

Finally, after several mornings of mob scenes on my porch with many Cliff Swallows seeking entrance to the nest, things seemed to settle down.  Just then we had a heavy rain storm, and water started streaming down through a crack in my bedroom ceiling.  I called my landlord, and he arranged for a roofer to come the following Wednesday and investigate the leak.

A Second Abandonment! 

The roofer came in mid-July and put a ladder right beside the swallow nest.  His use of the ladder to climb to the roof must have frightened the Cliff Swallows because I never saw them again after that day.

Needless to say, I was devastated almost to the point of being severely depressed.  First, the Barn Swallows had rejected the nest.  Then, as if to console me, swallows of a different type had arrived.  But, after working so hard on the nest and completely remodeling it, they, too, had decided to abandon the nest.

Each morning, I would walk around the property searching for swallows -- any type of swallows.  I would see them flying in the air and swooping in the field, but none were showing any interest in either my porch or the well-fashioned nest attached to it.  Even the nest on the adjacent building -- the one on which I had taken pictures of the baby Barn Swallows earlier that month -- was void of swallows.  The babies had left the nest for good and had probably joined the flock by now.

A Blessing of New Birds

On July 29th, I was standing on my porch and gazing at the horse pasture on the neighbor's property adjacent to my driveway.  Suddenly, I sighted a quick flash of a bright, orangish-brown color.  The color looked a little like that of a Robin's breast, but it was much more brilliant.  

A little later, I ventured toward the horse pasture and saw some very unusual-looking tiny birds.  I couldn't figure out what they were because I had never seen birds with those markings.  One bird flew up to the utility wire, and I was able to get a couple of photos of it, one of which is shown below.  I then went inside my apartment, uploaded the photos onto my computer, and proceeded to study them.

All at once, I remembered the flash of bright orange that I had seen in the horse pasture that morning.  Could that have possibly been an Eastern Bluebird?  The last time I had seen any Bluebirds around here had been about 18 years previously when I had first moved here.  During that time period, I would occasionally see a few birds flying between the trees along the local road.  After noticing blue on their wings, I became certain that they were Bluebirds.  But since that time, I had seen no more Bluebirds.

We have only one type of Bluebird in this part of the US, and that is the Eastern Bluebird.  As contrasted with other types of Bluebirds, our Eastern Bluebirds have no blue on their breasts or bellies.  Their breast colors are either burnt orange or a slightly reddish-orange, depending on whether they are males or females.  Their bellies are an off-white color, although the females often tend to have a larger area of off-white than do the males.  The color blue appears only on the head, the back, the wings, and the tail.  And, on the female, this blue tends to be a duller, greyish-blue.  The juveniles will often lack any type of blue at first.  If the juvenile is a male, a brilliant blue will generally first appear on the lower parts of the wings.

I then began to wonder if the tiny birds I had seen and photographed that morning might have been baby Bluebirds.  I went to Google Images and typed in "juvenile bluebird".  After taking some time to study the photos that appeared, I came upon one with the same markings as the bird I had photographed that morning.  That photo had been taken in Antietam, Maryland, a location in the same region of the US in which I reside.

I still was not certain that I had seen baby Bluebirds that morning.  Mentioned on the website with the Antietam photo was a reference to the Maryland Bluebird Society, and I quickly found the Society's Facebook page.  I went ahead and "liked" the page and messaged them with the photo of what I thought might be a juvenile Eastern Bluebird.

Voila!  The Maryland Bluebird Society responded that the photo was indeed of a juvenile Eastern Bluebird.  Joy of joys, I had discovered a bird whose population had been dwindling for many decades!

Now I wanted to find some adults!  On August 4th I took a walk around the property, hoping and praying to find an adult Eastern Bluebird.

A bird suddenly alighted on the utility wire between this building and the adjacent one, but, without binoculars, I was unable to identify it.  I went ahead and photographed it while it stayed on the wire for a few minutes, hoping that my prayers would be answered and that it would indeed be a Bluebird.

And, once I had taken the photos and looked at my camera's previews, I was overjoyed!  It did indeed look like a Bluebird!  This seemed too good to be true.

Soon the bird flew from the wire and toward the woods.  As I was studying the location that seemed to be the bird's destination, a curious thing occurred.  The bird returned from the woods and approached the wire, but this time with another bird!

I peered at the two birds on the wire.  Knowing from my camera's preview that the first bird had an orangish breast, I noticed that the second bird seemed to have an even oranger breast.  The oranger color stood out without my having to photograph the bird.  In fact, I did aim my camera at the pair of birds, but, sadly, this time I was too late.  The two birds flew from the wire before I could snap the shutter.

Later that day, I mustered the courage to again message the Maryland Bluebird Society.  Attaching the photo of the bird on the wire, I was hoping the Society wouldn't find me to be too much of an nuisance.  Thankfully, the Society again responded and told me that the photo showed an adult female Eastern Bluebird!

So, had the female Bluebird on the wire been curious about me?  Had she been lingering on the wire to get a good view of me in order to assess me?  Had she flown away in order to get her mate and bring him back with her for a second opinion?  

I will never know for sure.  But this experience revealed to me that Bluebirds are quite curious about humans.  After all, it is due to human installation of Bluebird nest boxes that the Eastern Bluebird has seemed to make a comeback in its population numbers, at least in some regions of the Eastern US.

So this is how my love of Barn Swallows led me to Bluebirds.  After both the Barn Swallows and the Cliff Swallows had abandoned my porch nest, I had begun venturing outdoors in search of Barn Swallows, in hopes that they would decide to start a late brood on my porch after the Cliff Swallows had left.  But, instead, my search had led to a miracle!  And that miracle was the sighting of Bluebirds for the first time in 18 years!  Thank you, Barn Swallows!

Here are a couple of Bluebird babies in the horse pasture on August 29, 2013:

Why, all of a sudden, were Bluebirds appearing here during the summer of 2013 after many years of invisibility?  Recently, after almost 15 months of seeing my first juvenile Bluebirds, I finally discovered the answer to that question and will offer it in my next blog post.

In the meantime, may Bluebirds of Happiness fill your days!


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