PENINSULA - As many Peninsula residents are well aware, our area is home to many fascinating species year round. Two common animals that immediately come to mind are deer and bear, and when one thinks of birds, it's inevitable to think of seagulls and those darned noisy crows. But other birds that also spend a lot of time in our paradise are the sweet songbirds of the swallow family, with one of the most likely visitors being the North American barn swallow.
Easily identified by its distinctly deep-forked tail, the barn swallow is a slender bird with a short, wide black beak perfect for catching dragonflies, moths, grasshoppers and other bugs. Though males tend to have slightly longer tail feathers, both sexes have a black or dark blue hood and cape, creamy beige underbelly and a rust-colored face and throat.
Usually weighing no more than an ounce, barn swallows can grow as large as seven inches in length and have a wingspan from 11 to 13 inches - which allows them to fly more than 20 miles per hour. Such flying skills not only make for great transportation but also allow them to defend their territory and attract a mate.
Often eating on the go, the species thrive on a diet of insects, and live in mud nests under eaves, bridges and other sheltering structures. According to experts, males tend to choose their preferred nesting site, guard the area and then sing in attempt to attract a female to become his lifelong mate. Building a nest out of globules of mud, plant fibers and feathers or animal hair, the pair prepares for the arrival of four to six chicks and may fly and swoop aggressively to protect their home. Once hatched, the chicks will occupy the nest and chirp for food while the parents take turns feeding them.
Once the chicks are strong enough to fly and survive on their own, mom and dad will migrate southward for part of the year and are usually guaranteed to return to their past nesting spot for breeding the following year.
"Growing up on a farm in Iowa, I became familiar with many barn swallows - they built in and around our barn and loved dive-bombing the cats and me!" laughs Discovery Coast Audubon Society President Patricia Cruse, who founded the club in January 2005. "On the Peninsula, I have found a variety of swallow's nests, including nests at the Port of Chinook restrooms and on the west side of the Bank of Pacific in Long Beach... If you want to attract them, build a barn or provide a similar structure - that is what they like and they will come back year after year."
Another swallow found under eaves and overhangs is the cliff swallow, a six-inch square-tailed bird with varied shades of red, black and brown with a white forehead and underbelly.
As the name implies, cliff swallows started out as colony cliff dwellers but their gourd-shaped mud and grass nests can be found in culverts, on cliffs, trees, or under bridges and structural overhangs. A comical species, the birds are known to steal materials from one another's nests and the females have gone so far as to take over another pair's nest by laying her eggs in it or carrying her eggs from her old nest to the stolen nest.
Cliff swallows dine on insects but experts say they might eat a berry or two every now and then.
Like cliff swallows, bank swallows can also be found in colonies nestled in tunnels along riverbanks, quarries and coast-facing cliffs. While they do not normally set up camp in our neck of the woods, bank swallows are white with dark brown heads and capes and may be spotted during their migration to and from Central America.
At about six inches in length, the tree swallow features a bright white underbelly and iridescent blue-green head and back (which is brown in adolescents). Adult females often have a brown face and lay their eggs in feather-lined grass nests in trees among marshy areas or waterways.
Like other swallows, the tree species feeds on insects but also eats bayberries and other plants, which improves their survival rate when migrating south to California and the Gulf Coast.
According to studies at Cornell University's Lab of Orinthology, tree swallows fly the farthest north during the wintertime and prefer to return to their breeding and nesting destinations prior to other birds' arrival. When not breeding, tree swallows are often spotted in swirling flocks of 100 or more.
Another western swallow that bird watchers will enjoy is the violet-green swallow - a beautiful little green bird with a white underbelly, chest and chin. Though the upper feathers are a dark shade of green, the iridescence often causes the females to appear bronze and the males to reveal a purple hue. Also insectivores, violet-green swallows often catch a meal in flight but also have been spotted foraging for bugs on the ground. Living in more inconspicuous areas, these birds build their straw and grass nests in tree holes, boxes or crevices. Violet-greens can be found in large flocks and often nest in groups.
Brown, gray and white with a petite beak, the northern rough-winged swallow nests in caves, tree holes, tunnels and drainpipes. With serrated wing feathers, northern rough-winged swallows have a lower "wingbeat" which certainly does not restrict them from catching insects in midair.
Some experts believe that the swallow species originated in Africa and eventually spread to Europe, Asia and the Americas. Historically, sailors are said to have used swallows as a guide during their sails. If they spotted a swallow from the boat, they knew land couldn't be far, since swallows tend to stay close to home.
Swallows have even become so popular that a two-month celebration is held annually in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., when flocks of swallows return from Argentina for the spring and summer months.
To find out more about swallows and other feathered friends in our area, check out online sources such as www.enature.com, the United State Geological Survey at www.usgs.gov or the Cornell University Lab of Orinthology at www.birds.cornell.edu, or pick up a copy of Stokes Field Guide to Birds Western Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
For more information about local bird watching, contact the Discovery Coast Audubon Society's Patricia Cruse at 642-1310. After two years in the making, the local Audubon chapter will be issued permanent status by Audubon Washington and the National Audubon Society on July 13. According to Cruse, Discovery Coast Audubon has the newest Pacific County charter in 25 years. Check them out at (www.discoverycoastaudubon.com).