Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The "other" swallow

At just about any location in Howarth Park I can look up and see Violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) circling above me. In the past few months, while sketching ground squirrels at the edge of Lake Ralphine, I almost always see some Violet-green swallows flying low over the water to catch insects along with another swallow that moves so fast that I've never been able to tell much more than that it was brown. I always meant to look it up when I got home and always forgot by the time I got here.

Today it was cold when I set out on my walk so I just kept moving, hoping that the sun would come out from behind the fog and warm things up. A few Violet-green swallows circled overhead but it seemed that most other birds were huddled up somewhere trying to stay warm. The light was rather gray and dingy, not very conducive to sketching, so I found myself walking just for the sake of walking, a pleasant change from my usual industrious search for something to draw. I enjoyed the quiet and the muted colors and, most of all, the opportunity to keep my hands warm in my pockets.

Chloe likes to go the long way around Lake Ralphine and today I indulged her. Toward the end of the trail around the lake, as I reached the dam that marks the beginning of the end of the walk, I heard the unmistakable sound of young birds calling for food. Looking out toward the lake I saw three little puffed out birds sitting on a snag, with their heads popping out of the fluffy down just enough to call out with great frequency. I immediately recognized them as young "other" swallows and began to sketch, thinking they'd be gone in moments. They stayed right where I found them, except once when something big flew nearby but out of my range of vision. That caused them to flutter off of their perch and circle wildly until they settled back down and resumed their positions on the snag. Both parents flew by frequently and dropped food into the open beaks without landing or stopping. The youngsters fluttered their wings and called out loudly each time they saw a swallow fly over, even when it wasn't one of their parents. I sketched for 45 minutes and, at the end, one parent came and perched on the snag for a very brief time, until the other parent came and did some sort of maneuver that caused the first parent to go flying again and then they both landed and stayed on the snag before taking off once again.

Now I know what to call "other" swallow --- Northern rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis). The name comes from the series of barbed or hooked primary feathers on the wing, which can be felt, though not seen. No one seems to know why these feathers are barbed.

To learn more about Northern rough-winged swallows visit:
All About Birds
Bird Web

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