Hard to Swallow? Hardly!

Hundreds of tree swallows leave the Bayberry

Hundreds of tree swallows leave the Bayberry

A while back, fellow Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens team blogger Carol Duke of Massachusetts provided 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

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

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

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

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.

© 2013, Loret T. Setters. All rights reserved. This article is the property of BeautifulWildlifeGarden.com We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for sharing these fabulous images. As a nestbox tender, I’m very fond of these beautiful, acrobatic and feisty birds. It’s amazing to observe their winter behavior.

    • says

      Thank you Martha!

      I never really thought about birds behaving differently in different areas of the country, until I kept seeing the closeup photos of swallows when they are in the north. Made me wonder just when and where they were going to land around here. I have to say in some ways I am jealous. Wishing you and your swallows continued success with your nest boxes. Send those new birdies down this way so I can enjoy bigger and better swarms :)
      Loret recently posted..A substitute White Christmas!

  2. says

    Wow, what an amazing sight to see them swirling in such huge flocks! I love your videos, feels like I’m right there in their midst. The Tree Swallows are the first birds to return here in the spring, and even though there may still be snow on the ground, it is at this time that I know spring really is coming, as I talk about here: http://www.ecosystemgardening.com/tree-swallows-return.html
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..The Holiday Wildlife Garden

    • says

      There were so many birds that my neighbor actually called to find out what the heck was going on with the birds. I’ll send them up your way in a couple of months. Meanwhile, my selfish self is going to enjoy the swirl :)
      Loret recently posted..Four, I tell you FOUR!

  3. says

    “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…” this is so true, Loret. I find the same thing with the overwintering Monarchs that I wrote about.. most people await their return in the Spring, but on the CA Central Coast there is a unique opportunity to see the Monarchs as they go about their winter habits..
    kathy recently posted..Living with the Monarchs in Winter~

    • says

      That’s why this blog is so great, Kathy. We get to share our experiences and see what we don’t get to see from all over the country. It really has expanded my appreciation of the habits of all the critters and what they do to survive from year to year.
      Loret recently posted..Four, I tell you FOUR!

    • says

      I’m not sure Donna although with our record high temperatures approaching 80 (10 degrees over Normal) I hope they are warm enough. Maybe they are “exercising” to keep their wings in tip-top shape so they can get back to you guys to have their babies once spring rolls around. Thanks for the compliments and for always adding to the conversation,.
      Loret T. Setters recently posted..Four, I tell you FOUR!

  4. Cindy says

    Great post Loret & amazing pictures.. Also good observations about regional behavioral difference altho’ I still haven’t gotten a good swallow picture.. they’re pretty darn fast darting around over my kayak too.. xx

Trackbacks

  1. […] 77. Hard to Swallow? Hardly! Tree Swallow. 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… ~Loret T. Setters […]

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