Anyone who has driven through Hagerman Wildlife Refuge in the last few weeks has probably noticed the flocks of swallows darting through the air. Until Marolyn and I stopped and really spent time trying to photograph these birds, we were not aware that there were different species of swallows all flocked together. We talked to Jack Chiles, (our "go to guy" for bird identification at Hagerman) who informed us that there are three easily seen species of swallows in Hagerman -- Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, and Bank Swallows. The Purple Martin, along with a few other much less common species (Northern Rough-winged Swallow and Tree Swallow), can also be observed. Now, the challenge -- see, identify and photograph each of the three most abundant and easily seen species of swallows. Seeing and identifying was not a problem, but photographing swallows, especially in flight, can be very frustrating.
The Barn Swallow is very distinctive with deep blue plumage above, orange to buff color on its breast and belly while the throat and forehead are rust in color. It is the only North American swallow with buffy to cinnamon under parts and under wing linings and a white-spotted, deeply forked tail. This swallow looks as if it is wearing a mask due to the line between the deep blue of the head and the rust color on the throat. Probably the most distinctive feature of the Barn Swallow is the deeply forked tail.
The Bank Swallow is America's smallest swallow. It is brown above with wings and back slighter darker. The underside is mostly white with the exception of a distinctive brown breast band below a white throat. These swallows have long slender wings with a slightly forked tail.
The Cliff Swallow is sometimes confused with the Barn Swallow. They both have deep blue backs, but the Cliff Swallow has a light colored belly, dark throat and light brown to rust face. A very distinctive white forehead and square tail help to distinguish the Cliff Swallow from the Barn Swallow. Sometimes two white streaks can be seen down the back of the Cliff Swallow.
The habitat, behavior and diet are very similar among the three species of swallows found in Hagerman. All feed mostly on flying insects, usually above water and near their nest which for the Cliff and Barn Swallow is built under the eaves of buildings and bridges. The Bank Swallow's nest is built in the banks of sandy cliffs. In Hagerman, most feeding and nesting is seen in and around the bridges. Some foraging can be seen over open fields.
These swallows are long distance migratory birds. The Barn, Cliff and Bank Swallows all head to Central and/or South America for the winter and usually begin their migration south when their young become independent and ready for the long flight.
A point of interest -- the killing of Barn Swallows for their deep blue feathers was one of the issues that led to the founding of the Audubon Society and legislation to protect migratory birds.
Now you know -- all those swallows buzzing around Hagerman are not the same and now you, too, can identify them.
Written by Skeeter & Marolyn Lasuzzo
Photography By Skeeter Lasuzzo
For more information about HAgerman National Wildlife Refuge, the official website is http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/hagerman/index.html and for more on the Friends, see http://www.friendsofhagerman.com.