Hard to Swallow? Hardly!

National Bird Day was yesterday and as luck would have it the tree swallows returned to my neck of the woods even though the morning temperatures were below freezing. I will take this opportunity to republish one of my lost articles from a few years back.

Dateline:  January 5, 2013*

Hundreds of tree swallows leave the Bayberry

Carol Duke of Massachusetts,  fellow writer at the former Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens blog provides an awe-inspiring poetic and photographic tribute to the spring return and nesting habits of the Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). In Florida, we provide the winter, non-breeding area for this interesting bird thus seeing a different side of behavior.

A group of tree swallows are known collectively as a “stand” of swallows.  Our winter residents hardly sit, let alone stand.  Nearly constant in flight, they soar, snagging meals of insects “on the wing”. A few years back I did a short video while they flew round and round and round.

This week the tree swallows returned to my area and I wondered aloud why they didn’t tire of flying, as I stood, camera in hand, waiting for a photo opportunity.  It was not to happen.  I recall beautiful photos of swallows, but I’m thinking that the majority of those were taken when they are nesting, standing and protecting nest boxes or feeding their young.

This seems to be as clear a shot as I’m going to get of these birds

The very next day I sort of got an answer.  It was a dull day, cold by Florida standards as the daily high never got above 61F.  I had the fireplace going as I prepared to watch an afternoon of football.

The shrub was black with birds

Cleaning up the dishes from a late breakfast the sky seemed to darken through the kitchen skylight.  Now we weren’t expecting rain and as I glanced out the window…one that doesn’t overlook the pond…I was stunned by the arrival of HUNDREDS of tree swallows landing in the Southern Bayberry a.k.a. Wax Myrtle shrubs which are growing as a natural barrier along the fence.

Though it would seem an exaggeration, I kid you not regarding the numbers.  Now, two days later under 80F skies, I was greeted again by “the swarm” and here is a 15 second video of the event.

There were HUNDREDS of birds flying and landing. They would barely rest for a moment before taking flight again, en masse, only to return seconds later.  The birds bump into each other with their landing techniques and the chatter is deafening.  Perhaps not oddly, they returned around the same time of day, 11 a.m.  They must know about “elevenses”.

They came in a blur and left in a blur

The main diet of the tree swallow is insects, but they also can be enticed to some berries, with plant materials making up about 20% of their diet. Appropriately enough, they landed in the female shrubs that represent the majority of those along that particular side of the property and produce the fruit.  I guess they were hankering for the waxy blue-colored berries of the Southern Bayberry (Myrica cerifera).  It could also be that due to the time of year insects aren’t as plentiful and that’s when the need to eat plants comes in.

A few things that I have learned about swallows is that they are cavity nesters.  If you are in their breeding range, to entice them to take up residence consider providing a nest box if you don’t have available tree snags.  Some have encountered problems with them competing with bluebirds for the nest boxes as related by fellow blogger Donna Donabella.  In some ways by not being in their breeding range, I’m lucky.  My bluebirds have free reign of the nest box I provide and when I see the size of the gang these tree swallows come up with, my bluebirds wouldn’t stand a chance.

I’m stilled stunned by just how many tree swallows will try to squeeze on one branch

Obviously a nice clear photo of the lovely iridescent birds is not in my future, given their winter habits.  I’ll be happy with the memory of my encounter.  Experiencing a gang of birds in some ways is just as rewarding as watching newborn nestlings.  So, as many of you await the spring return of the tree swallow, consider how we all get different views of the habits of our amazing creatures depending on our location in their world.  Provide for them appropriately and remember that avoidance of pesticide use is key in attracting our insect eating birds.

A few of the 2018 gang watch their flock mates in the Wax Myrtle from the wire above

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 5, 2013 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

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