Tree Swallows – 2011 Final Update

Tree Swallow chick waiting for a meal

Note:  clicking on any of the pictures will take you to the SmugMug album, which now also includes the videos. 

Those who read my stuff know there is an empty lot next to the building where I work, and in that lot there is a Bluebird house our office put up.  Last year we had Bluebirds in it, but this year they passed on it, and a Tree Swallows nested in it.

As I mentioned before, these birdhouses are a tad small for the species because they typically have a brood of 5 to 7 chicks.  Even though smaller than Bluebirds, that makes it a tight fit.

Yum! . . . a nice juicy bug meal.

We had been watching the parents feeding the chicks, and figured they would take flight any day now (this was on July 26th) since the ones at home had already left, so I went out at lunch and parked myself about 6 feet from the birdhouse and started taking pictures.    I knew the parents were not going to be happy, but I also knew the insistent chirping of the hungry chicks would eventually force them to override their mistrust of the old bag of bones with the nifty Nikon D7000 and 105mm f/2.8 VR lens.

The plan was to get a couple of videos of the chicks being fed, and also some actions shots of the parent handing off the bug.  A difficult thing, because as can be seen from the following videos the parents are in and out of there in a fraction of a second.

I had to look for the parents out of the corner of my eye since I was holding the camera by hand (my tripod was in the car, but I was too lazy to get it).  There were many false starts as the parents would come in, and veer off at the last moment, but the following is a decent sequence.

After I captured a few videos I switched to photographs.  After more false starts, I was able to get some decent shots.

The approach

The above shot is misleading . . . the parent veered off without transferring the meal.

Barely transferred the bug before veering off

The above was a near miss, but the bug was transferred.

The Proper Technique

The shot above shows the proper technique for transferring bugs; you jam it in there so there is no chance of the chick dropping it, and then you go back to the hunt (next shot).

Mission successful (see the bug's leg in the chick's beak)

My favorite shot if the following, and while it looks to precede the two above, it is from another sequence altogether.

Just before the jam.  My favorite shot.

During this hour-long shoot one of the more aggressive chick perched too far into the opening and was shoved out.  It sort of glided to the ground about 10 feet from me, and immediately the parents were hovering above it, and chirping like mad.

Thinking I would pick it up and shove it back in the box, but as I approached it flew up about two feet, and sideways about 20.  Once again I headed after it, but it got up about four feet off the ground, flailing its wings like mad, the parents presumably shouting encouragement.

It started to drift forward, and then you could almost sense the light go on, and it started flapping its wings, tentatively at first, and then at a regular beat.  It gained altitude, and in a few seconds it made it to the top of a tree about 40 yards away.  It was so amazing to watch that I forgot the camera, so it exists only as a memory I will carry with me until dementia or death forever wipe it from this universe.

More in the box

I could hear more in the box, but at this point we did not know how many.  Eventually we would find out there had been at least six in the brood.   Meanwhile, lunch was over, and I returned to my non-photography job.

The next day we saw three more chicks atop the pole the box is mounted on.  Obviously they had just flown out, and were still hesitant to fly, preferring instead to do the high-wire act.

The Batman cape impersonation

Even the finches stopped by to check out the new terrors of the sky.

Finches checking out the young tree swallows

By the evening all of the new young swallows had left to parts unknown, but there were two left in the birdhouse.  How do I know?  The parents were feeding at least one, and just before I left I noticed there was one on the ground (the parents would go down to it on every other feeding pass or so).  I watched for a while, and the groundling tried a number of times to fly, but was not cutting it.

Braving flyby after flyby from the parents, I walked over to it.  I named it Brave Little One because when I came up to it opened it’s beak, flared its wings, and tried to strike a defensive semi-menacing pose.  He was small, and obviously its wings were not yet strong enough to carry even its slight weight.  I picked it up, and put it back in the box along with the other one.

I walked back to the car and watched another ten minutes or so to make sure the parents would continue feeding, and Brave Little One did not again venture out from the box.

The Killer Hawk

Midway through the next day I got an urgent call to the front office.  A hawk had pounced on what looked like a young swallow on the ground.  I grabbed the camera and headed out to the field.  The adult swallows were buzzing the hawk which acted as if it had something in its talons.  I walked briskly toward it hoping it would get startled and fly off, hopefully leaving what it had caught.

Halfway to it I was myself startled by one of the swallow chicks flying up off the ground in front of me and heading off accompanied by the adults.  By the time I looked back the hawk had also taken off and was heading to the trees in the opposite direction.  It did look as if it had something in its grasp, but could not tell what.

Who, me? I didn't do nothing!

I caught up with the hawk after a few minutes, but there was no sign of whatever it had caught.  It looked at me, and flew off.

The box now empty, all the birds left the area.  I don’t know if the hawk caught one of the young sparrows, or a passing mammal . . .

Unlike humans, nature is neither kind nor cruel, and hawks too have to eat.  Still, I felt a connection with these particular Tree Swallow parents and that particular brood.  I had watched them a long time, and captured some of them for others to share.  As much as I like hawks, this particular one did not endear itself to me . . . even though if I detach myself from the emotional involvement I admit I got a couple of good hawk pictures, especially those on the ground.

I don’t like getting hurt, so I will engage the same emotional detachment I so successfully use with people, and apply it in my dealings with next year’s brood . . . but for now I can’t shake the mental picture of Brave Little One striking its defensive pose in the last few seconds of its life.