Reader John Pears from the UK sends some nice photos of a species much beloved by our own Matthew Cobb—the Barn Swallow. John’s notes follow:
At this time of year in the UK we eagerly await the return of the Swallows, Swifts and Martins, which signals that spring is here and summer is not far away. That’s the situation in Northern Europe, but I’ve just returned from Southern Europe (Portugal) where things are different. I took the attached photos of Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) on 31 March and couldn’t reconcile the feeding of fledglings alongside the nearby nest building activities. Perhaps one of your readers can help with what appears to be strange parallel behaviour?
It was one of the nice moments when the birds didn’t mind me being present and I could shoot frames at will. Eventually you pick up the trigger signals from the fledgling so timing improves and so do the images.
- The first image is a sequence of the shots taken over 1.5 seconds and it shows the remarkable agility of these birds (not to mention the power of modern cameras).
John added in a subsequent email, explaining the sequence to me (it’s a parent feeding an offspring):
1. The parent is swooping in,2. Applying air brakes,3. And then thrusting the insect (visible in first 2 frames) into the fledglings mouth.
I watched the scene for about 40 minutes while my wife repeatedly checked her watch.
- The second is the nest building bird with a beak full of estuarine mud.
- 3 and 4 show more feeding activity:
- 5 is my favourite, showing the full splendour of the ‘swallow tail’
These photos show different methods of delivery:
- The 6th is a Old World swallowtail (Papilio machaon) butterfly!
20 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photographs”
Wow! You can even see in that the first picture theat it is probably a Tipulidae or crane fly of some species!
Yep, and I seem to remember a scene near the end of one of the Jurassic Park movies where a bad guy is fed to a baby T. rex. That is like the last thing this crane fly sees.
Could the parallel behaviour of feeding and nest building be explained by this guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology?
Excerpt: “Barn Swallow parents sometimes get help from other birds to feed their young. These “helpers at the nest” are usually older siblings from previous clutches, but unrelated juveniles may help as well”
I was thinking the same thing, did the same search, too. I was also trying to remember where I read about this, perhaps a Bernd Heinrich book. I admit to knowing little of H. rustica’s behavior, nor of any related species. They are known (wikipedia says so, so it must be true) to roost communally after breeding, and even though territorial during breeding, will nest communally if there are enough good nesting places, so perhaps the previous, non-breeding, young remaining with the parents aids in securing preferred nesting sites from would-be usurpers as well as protecting against cuckolding or perhaps brood parasitism?
Great photos John, thanks!
Those must have been hard to capture. I see how parent bird is stuffing the beak of the baby while still on the wing. They are in too much of a hurry to even land!
Great stuff, thanks!
I love watching them hunt, their air maneuvers are stunning. (Not to mention the airspeed velocity of unladen swallows…)
Swallows are so sassy!
Thanks for your kind comments.
I did wonder if the feeding could be explained by courtship but the gaping mouth of the juvenile is a giveaway. I also wondered if the birds were resident rather than migratory which, with a milder climate, could give a wider breading season.
Lovely shots. The swallow swallowing 🙂
The species is generally a trans-saharan migrant but Cramp et al’s “Birds of the Western Palearctic” notes that small numbers are recorded annually in winter in southern Spain and the same may presumably apply to nearby Portugal too. It is certainly possible, therefore, that your birds had overwintered in the area.
The same source gives the average incubation period as just over 15 days and the average period to fledging as 19.5 days so if the young bird in the photos was seen on 31 March its egg was probably laid in the last week of February! Cramp et al note that in southern Spain and NW Africa egg laying may begin in March in this species but it is worth noting that this is based on a reference from 1962 and it is possible that climate change has led to earlier nesting nowadays compared to the 1960s.
Here in the north of England I saw my first swallows of the year yesterday (16 April).
“The species is generally a trans-saharan migrant”
I am, of course referring to the populations breeding in W Europe. The species breeds throughout much of the northern hemisphere and North American and Asian populations winter in South America and southern Asia respectively.
Thanks for the swooping, swanky swallow photos. That tail really is marvelous.
The fledgling seems old enough to hunt on its own, but apparently not. I thought once fledglings left the nest, they were pretty much on their own.
That depends on the species. Some can barely fly when the fledge and if high skill levels are needed to feed (live is to catchers or swallows) they are dependent for a period of time. Others like waders and ducks can feed themselves straight from the egg,
Those are some truly awesome pictures!
Beautifully captured, John, such a treat to see!
Beautiful photos of the barn swallows! Their behavior is fascinating.
Last year, friends of mine successfully hand-raised a brood of barn swallow chicks (well, 4 of the 5 – one struggled to eat and was never strong) whose nest had been blown down during a storm. When the young swallows started flying, they had to be moved out of the house, because the windows were a danger.
Two of the bigger swallows flew off into the surrounding fields and pastures, and the other two that survived were a little more dependent, so my friends moved their nest box (a repurposed cat carrier) to the top of a ladder in the breezeway of their horse barn. I wasn’t aware of this, and came out to the barn one day when my friends were away. The two young barn swallows were quite imprinted on humans, and immediately perched on my hat, begging for wax-worms. I had to walk out to the pasture, and I was afraid they’d be targets for aerial predators, if they followed me and fluttered around my hat, so I stuffed them with wax-worms and put them back in their nest box. By the time I returned to the barn, the swallows were ready for more attention, and rode around on my hat while I did chores.
I had to feed them again before leaving, because they kept fluttering inside my truck when I opened the door. I seem to have a chronic problem with various barn critters trying to come home with me.