Those Fast Flying Swallows

(Used with permission from Pinellas Birds)

by Ranger Rick Curlew

Heck, anybody can identify a swallow sitting still. Photograph one, too. But how about identifying a swallow in flight? And then photographing one in flight? Not an easy task either way, especially for someone new to the hobby. Here are a few tips that might help you.

Barn Swallows are the most common and are easy to I.D. because of the longish “swallow-like” tail they show (see Tom Mast's photo below). Immature Barns will not show as long a tail as an adult, and in some cases will not show any “tails”, but the lack of a buffy rump patch will nail the I.D. They have a bluish-purple back. Barns are common from the end of July through October.

Ranger Rick Curlew
Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallows are very Barn-like in appearance, but shows a white or pale forehead and a buffy rump patch (see Sharon Pratt's photo, below left) with a squarish tail (see Robert Qually's photo, below right). They are never numerous, but often one or two will be mixed in with a larger flock of Barns or mixed flocks of swallows. They are most numerous, though uncommon, from mid-August through September. Only the very unexpected Cave Swallow shares the buffy rump patch field mark.

Cliff Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallows are the 2nd-most numerous in our area behind the Barn Swallow. They breed here and for the most part most of them have passed through our area by the first of September (but not all…). They almost look like a female Purple Martin. They have a brown back and a brownish-gray breast and throat. Photo below by Sue Tavaglione

Bank Swallows are the smallest of the five swallows mentioned here and are fast, quick flyers. With experience you’ll be able to pick one out of a crowd because of its smaller size. Look for the whitish undersides and the simple, obvious breast band or necklace and the white throat - unlike a Rough-winged which has a brownish-gray throat and breast. Banks usually don’t start to show up until the end of August and early September. In the photos below, both taken by Eric Plage of a fast-flying Bank found at Fort De Soto in late August, you can see the breast band and white throat clearly marked.

Bank Swallow
Bank Sawllow

Tree Swallows are exceptionally numerous throughout the southern half of the state in winter. Though they arrive in Florida in low numbers by August we usually don’t see any in Pinellas until late September at the earliest. They are glossy-blue above and white below (see Smith's photo below).