Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Swallows Return

Yesterday my 90 year old Dad and I went for an afternoon drive. He doesn't drive anymore, and he likes to get out of the house. He particularly like to get out of the house when it's a sunny day and 55 degrees, and it's still winter. I can't say as I blame him.

So we took Old Highway 99 south, wending our way down into the more wild areas of south Thurston County. My dad was born and raised in this county, and he's seen most of it, but when we take him for drives we are always trying to find something new, some area he hasn't seen. It's rare that we succeed.

Today we ended up on 123rd where it crosses the Black River. This is one of my favorite places, especially when the sun is shining. In the midday sun, the Black river becomes a deep ultramarine blue, which contrasts nicely with the russets and rufous-browns of the surrounding hardhack shrubs. In this picture, to the right, you can also see the sole willow tree, which is full of pussywillows (male catkins). I'd been hoping to see bumblebees here, but the catkins so far lack the yellow pollen that the bees love. I'll have to come back. Which will be real hardship.

The highlight of the visit was when we spotted the first swallows of the year. A small group of seven Tree Swallows were flying over the Black river drainage. Their flight was erratic, with lots of changes of direction and altitude: they were hunting for flying insects. They chase these bugs with verve & vigor; if you are close enough you can hear their bills snap together as they make a catch.

These are the first insectivorous migrant birds of the year, back in our county, and soon to be filling the skies of our neighborhoods. I can hardly wait.

Tree swallows are distinct for a dark blue top half, and a pristine white bottom half. This extends to the head, which is half and half. They are similar to Violet Green Swallows, but they are bigger, and they are completely dark on top from head to tail. They also come earlier than all other swallows; one reason for this is that they can and do eat berries (which is weird for a swallow) and so if they come a little too early, and the insects are not yet abundant, they can find other food.

They pair up and make nests in abandoned woodpecker holes in trees. Failing that, they use wooden nestboxes, and are particularly fond of nestboxes placed on pilings over water. You can reliably find them in East Bay south of the marina, squabbling with the Purple Martins over the nest boxes that have been placed there.

In a few days, spring officially arrives. But for me, with the swallows, it is already here.


Birder's Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin & Wheye
Bird photos by Bill Thompson and Bet Zimmerman

1 comment:

  1. Near Chambers Lake (Lacey/Olympia) on March 2 we saw swallows in flight, too high for sight ID though we guessed Violet Green, the most frequent ones over this lake. First sighting last year (2008) came on March 18. For this spot March 2 sets a record as far as we can remember.