While outside in the garden earlier today my attention was suddenly attracted by a small group of swallow like birds flying high above the house.
I didn’t have time to grab the binoculars or the camera, so I can’t be sure what they were. I’m guessing that they were either Fairy Martins or Tree Martins. Both species spend winter in northern Australia and start to appear in the southern regions about now.
Looking through my field guides I’m drawn to the conclusion that I probably saw Fairy Martins. While they are quite common in the area for most of the spring and summer, I don’t see them very often over our house, so it was a special treat. It is more common to see Welcome Swallows here as they are resident here all year round.
Click here to see a photo of a Fairy Martin taken by someone else.
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.
Welcome Swallows are a common species throughout much of southern and eastern Australia. Here in Murray Bridge, South Australia they are the most common of our swallow species. Along the River Murray they can often be seen in loose flocks of hundreds. Even in the streets it is not unusual to see 50 – 100 resting on power lines.
Strangely, they are not all that common at our place, situated about 5 kilometres from the river. When we do have them around it is usually fleeting visits by no more than 2 – 6 at a time. In recent months, however, their visits are becoming a little more regular. Instead of once a fortnight on average, they appear to be around most days. They are probably more frequent visitors than I realise with me being stuck in my office with my writing for long hours most days.
Several days ago I was delighted to hear the soft ‘seep, seep, seep’ call and twittering quite close to the office. I left my computer to find two of them – dare I call them a “pair” (?) sitting on the storm water down pipe coming off the office roof (see photos) They could well have been calling to me to ask permission to visit!
One of them occasionally would fly off in tight circles around the nearby garden and through our new back veranda. Were they checking it out as a possible nesting site? I’m not sure, but they were very interested in the locality for about ten minutes before flying off.
Last week we went for a short picnic lunch to the Pangarinda Arboretum at Wellington East, South Australia.
The breeze was cool – it is winter after all – but the sun was pleasant if you were out of the wind. While we had our lunch about half a dozen Welcome swallows entertained us by swooping all around. Two of them seemed to be having a race (breeding behaviour?) and as they swept past me they nearly collided with my nose.
While there were plenty of plants already flowering this spot will only come into its own in the coming month of so. Many plants were not yet flowering. Despite that the birds were already busy feeding on those plant that were in flower. The New Holland Honeyeaters, Red Wattlebirds and Singing Honeyeaters were particularly active everywhere through the park. We only stayed several hours but it was a pleasant diversion from the intense writing I have been doing over the last few weeks.
Yesterday afternoon we were sitting in the lovely spring sunshine on our front verandah. We were enjoying the beautiful day while having a cuppa. As we sat there two Welcome Swallows flew in under the verandah and just over our heads. This was a delightful little event that thrilled us, mainly because they came so close – perhaps a metre or less over our heads.
I’ve seen Welcome Swallows do this kind of thing in many other places, but this is the first time we’ve seen it on our verandah. In fact, we do not see this species all that often over our garden. This is strange, because the species is very common in our immediate district. At times I have seen loose flocks of several hundred near or over the nearby river. At other times I have seen 50 – 100 resting on nearby power lines. For some reason they do not want to visit our place.
I know that they make a mess when they make their mud nest under a verandah or the eaves of a house, but it would be lovely if they thought our place was a suitable nesting site. I’d probably even be happy to clean up the mess they made.