Today I received an interesting question about swallows from a reader:
I have a few questions about swallows and I was wondering if you could help me. I live right on the beach, at Dolphin Sands, Swansea, Tasmania. With Freycinet National Park and the Great Oyster Bay sanctuary we have the perfect place for wildlife. I was told that swallows always appear on the first few days of Spring, or pretty close to it and that they migrate as far as Siberia. Is this true? Also I was told that a pair will always return to the same nesting spot they had the previous year and that they mate for life. Is any of this true? I’d like to find out much more about these lovely little birds. Can you offer any suggestions?
This is my answer to Bronwyn:
It depends on which species of swallow you are seeing.
There are six species of swallows and martins to be found in Australia.
Only two are generally present in Tasmania.
The Welcome Swallow is common throughout eastern and southern Australia, including Tasmania. They have a rusty brown throat and on the forehead. In flight the tail is deeply forked. They normally migrate north in autumn and winter to SE Queensland (wise birds). They return to breed in the spring and early summer. They make a bowl shaped mud nest about the size of a soup bowl, often under wharves, bridges, verandas, eaves and other made structures, including boats. (They often use house boats on the River Murray here in SA)
The other species found in Tasmania is the Tree Martin. They are smaller than the Welcome Swallow, with greyish wings and back and whitish underparts. The tail is only slightly forked. They tend to nest in tree hollows and sometimes holes in cliffs or even holes and ventilators in buildings. They migrate north in Feb-May and return July to October. They are found in Indonesia and PNG as well.
None of our swallows migrate to Siberia. On the other hand, many of our small wading birds do go to the Arctic Circle to breed during our winter. That’s a topic far too big for this article.
Welcome Swallows tend to be monogamous except there is some evidence in Tasmania that they may change partners from year to year (and even within one breeding season). Nest sites are often reused, being refurbished from one breeding attempt to the next. Pair bonding in Tree Martins is not known. In fact there are few detailed breeding studies of this species.
Other readers from Tasmania might care to add further comments. I’ve never been birding in Tasmania so I’ve had to rely entirely on my reference library for this information.
Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds volume 7, Melbourne, Oxford University Press.
A very unusual question
I get regular comments from readers here on this blog. That’s great and I enjoy hearing from my many readers. I also get many questions about birds, either through the comments section or via the contact form. Most of these are reasonably straight forward queries, some of them need a little research to find the answers. Today I had a very interesting question from a reader.
I don’t want to mention names, or even quote the question and background information I was given. It is probably the most unusual question I’ve been asked. It seems that in a southern NSW town there is a legal dispute between neighbours, one of them accusing the other of throwing moss from his roof gutters on to his driveway and making a mess.
A relative of one of them asked me whether it was birds causing the problem. Below is my answer.
In actual fact it could be any number of birds that are the culprits. I would most certainly think that a bird or birds of some sort are responsible for the mess being created.
Peewees (Magpie Larks) are near the top of my list. They are always mucking about in our gutters. What is more, they make a mud nest and moss would make a lovely lining. It would also help bind together the mud they are using.
It could also be Australian Magpies, though I doubt if they are using it as nesting material. They tend to use only sticks – but then, they don’t read the books about how they are supposed to behave. Wool and cloth have been used – so why not moss?
Both of the above species could also be searching in the moss for tidbits to eat, things like worms and beetles.
Another possible culprit is the Common Blackbird. They are notorious for flicking mulch from gardens on to paths and driveways in their attempt to find a feed. Drives some people crazy. Again, they could be looking for food in the moss, but they too could use it as a nesting material. Common Starlings also do the same.
Other candidates include Currawongs, Ravens, Thrushes, Swallows (mud nest), White-winged Choughs (mud nest) and I wouldn’t be surprised at any of the flycatcher family using moss, including the Willie Wagtail, the Rufous and Grey Fantails. I should also mention the robins – of the 5 different species in your area, all but one use moss to line their nests. Superb Fairy-wrens also use moss.
This list comes from just a quick flip through a field guide – there are probably many more I haven’t listed. And remember, birds don’t read the guide books – they are all capable of behaviour not mentioned in the books.
So, as you can see, there are many possibilities. You just have to catch the culprit in the act!
The beautiful Galah is a very common bird around where we live in Murray Bridge, South Australia. Flocks of several hundred are a common sight in the summer months.
Over the last few weeks two Galahs have been investigating a hollow in an old growth mallee tree near our house. This hollow is in clear view from where we often have meals on our new back veranda. The tree is about 30 metres away.
I hesitate to call them a “pair” because I haven’t actually seen them mating. I have strong reasons for calling them as such because one is a male and the other is a female and they are displaying typical nesting behaviour. (The female has a red eye, the male a dark brown eye.)
This pair has been hanging around this hollow for several hours every day now for many weeks. Both often go into the hollow to check it out. I can’t tell if they are actually enlarging it or not. They allow us to get quite close to the tree without flying off.
Then last week while we were having lunch they started breaking small leafy twigs off the tree and taking them into the hollow to line their nest. Seems fairly conclusive to me.
The only downside it that we will have to put up with some very noisy little neighbours later in the year. Baby Galahs can be very demanding and very noisy.
I’ve taken quite a few photos. Below is a selection of the best of them. Click on the photo to enlarge the image.
One of the common resident bird species in our garden and on our five acre block is the Yellow-rumped Thornbill. Every day we see flocks of 8-10 foraging on the ground in most parts of our property. I love seeing them hopping around or flying low across the garden, their bright yellow tails brilliant in the sunshine. They are regular visitors to the bird baths too during the warmer months of the year.
At present they are extremely active. The warmer spring weather is with us and so they are probably nesting somewhere too. It’s just that I haven’t yet found their nest.
I had just hung out the washing this morning and was on my way back inside. A different bird call drew my attention so I raced inside for the camera and binoculars. Sure enough, we had a male White-winged Triller in our small patch of mallee scrub. This species is an irregular visitor here, usually in the spring or summer.
White-winged Trillers can be seen throughout most of mainland Australia and northern Tasmania. In my experience they are widespread but not common, and certainly not found in large numbers, usually seen singly or in pairs. They also occur in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. They are a breeding migrant in the southern parts of the country. In the winter months they spend time in the northern and inland regions.
The call is a rich, far reaching, descending ‘chip-chip-chip-joey-joey-joey.’