I was along the Scioto River recently, watching two different species of swallows nesting under a bridge. Nearby were some puddles where they would occasionally land.
Swallows in general are social birds, eating insects on the wing as they swoop and fly acrobatically near bodies of water.
This handsome bird is a Cliff Swallow, a species that nests together in colonies. Notice the mud has been disturbed by many beaks. This species gathers it by the beakful to create nests.
Identification of this swallow isn’t terribly difficult- look for the steel blue head, white forehead patch, squared tail and the rufous bib on a white breast. Click on pictures for greater detail.
Here a Cliff Swallow is gathering mud in its beak while another flies off. Back before humans built structures that they could nest on, these swallows nested on cliff faces, hence their name. With the introduction of the House Sparrow to North America from Europe, their number have diminished due to their nests being occasionally taken over by those numerous interlopers.
Cliff Swallows are truly a social species; not only do they nest together, but they feed together and collect nesting materials together. They will even signal to other members of the colony to indicate the location of a good food source in hungry times.
Notice these two swallows watching the mud-daubing show. Their foreheads are dark, their backs totally steel blue, their breasts completely rufous. Their tails are long and pointed, and in flight, they are seen to be deeply forked. These birds are Barn Swallows, a common swallow of North America who also like to nest under bridges. You’ve likely seen one flying over you in the summer and heard its call.
This Barn Swallow is gathering up grass and straw for nesting material, rather than mud. This individual looks at first glance to be a Cliff Swallow, but it is not- it is an immature bird that hasn’t developed its fully rufous breast yet. But note the solid blue back and lack of a white forehead patch. Immature birds can be tough to identify for novices and veterans alike.
A Cliff Swallow returns to its nest. Note that several nests are built close together. Cliff Swallows will return to nest colonies that they have previously used. The nests themselves can often be re-used.
This Cliff Swallow daubs mud from its beak onto a growing nest. To its right, another bird brings food to a hungry nestling. Spring is an active time under bridges- nature makes use of many different places!
Meanwhile, a Barn Swallow perches higher up under the bridge superstructure. Perhaps this one is looking for a suitable place to nest, or simply taking a breather before exuberantly dashing through the air in an intricate pattern, catching more bugs on the wing.