Swifts, Swallows or Martins – where do you even begin with these small birds whizzing overhead and seldom stopping to perch. If you are anything like me, you love looking up at these birds. Their silhouettes glide across the summer skies, watching big flocks (collectively known as gulps when referring to swallows) whizz around a termite mound just after the rains. But you’re never quite sure who is who. So I have finally decided it is time to pin down some tips on how to try and correctly identify these birds.
Although in this picture the difference between each bird may be more apparent, it certainly is a lot more tricky when they are whizzing above your head. Source: The Wildlife Trusts
Tip 1 – Know the difference between Passerines and Non-Passerines
As a novice to birding these words may be unfamiliar to you but don’t let them throw you off. Simply put, these are the two groups that all birds can be classified into. Passerines can be described as birds that have unspecialised feet, a ‘normal’ foot structure constituting three toes facing forward and one toe facing backwards, all on the same level, in a fixed position. These birds also fall into the small to medium size category and have bright plumage colouring, particularly during the mating season. Non-passerines on the other hand are simply all other birds that have nothing in common with one another or broadly speaking with passerines.
Swifts are quickly eliminated from confusion here as we know that they are unable to perch as Swallows and Martins do. Large congregations of Barn Swallows are not unusual as these migratory birds will often flock together in larger groups than usual in anticipation of their long journey back further north to escape the southern hemisphere’s winter.
Although all three species are acrobats up in the air, it is only the Swallows and Martins that you will find perching on trees or fence lines owing to their ‘normal’ foot structure. In contrast, the Swifts are known to hunt, eat, mate, preen and sleep while airborne and only touchdown when they are nesting. Their unconventional foot structure is more adapted for clinging or hanging (their hind toe is usually reversible). With the above classifications in mind and through observing their behaviour we can group the Swallows and Martins as passerines and the Swifts as non-passerines and begin a process of elimination.
Tip 2 – Familiarising yourself with their different plumages and general shapes
Although they may all look like silhouettes flying circles above your head there are a few distinctions that can be made with regard to each families’ plumage colouration and their wing and tail shape.
House Martin, Swift and Swallow Recognition Silhouette
Swallows are the most colourful family with most of them at least having some iridescent blue plumage along with patches of russet or chestnut rufous plumage usually on the head, breast, or belly. They have deeply forked tails with some having elongated outer rectrices commonly referred to as streamers.
This Barn Swallow highlights the iridescent blue plumage that covers the back of most Swallows but it is the russet forehead and throat that is the give-away clue of a Barn Swallow. The elongated outer-most rectrices are also evident in the forked tail of the Barn Swallow.
The Martins are essentially dull Swallows that are mostly brown and grey and have broader, short, and pointed wings. Their tails are only slightly forked compared to the Swallows and they lack streamers.
specie Riparia paludicola family of Hirundinidae
In comparison, the Swifts are dark brown in colour, particularly on their bellies, and for this reason, will look black against the sky. They have proportionally longer narrow wings that I find have the closest resemblance to a boomerang and their forked tails are much shorter and stouter than the elongated pronged tail of a swallow.
Although most Swifts have a dark underbelly, this Alpine Swift adds to the confusion by being the only Swift species locally with a white underbelly and throat. This is where I rather take notice of its boomerang-like wingspan and that it doesn’t have a prominently forked tail.
TIP 3 – Know which species to expect where and when
After understanding each family’s characteristics, the final tip is to pick out the individual species. For me, the easiest way to do this is to know which species occur in which area and what time of year you can expect to see the migratory species. So, of the 13 Swallow, 5 Martin, and 11 Swift species that occur across Southern Africa, which species can you expect to see at Londolozi?
Wire-tailed Swallow – a locally common resident all year round, with long tail streamers and only a rufous forehead and an all-white breast (no chest band)
Lesser Striped Swallow – Generally present all year round but some populations are intra-African migrants, mostly being present between July/Aug through to March/April. The thinner striped throat and chest along with the rufous head and cheeks and rufous rump help to identify them.
Barn Swallow – a common Palearctic migrant that is present from September/October and migrates at the end of Feb to early May (a Palearctic migrant is a long-distance migrant that breeds in Europe and Southern Asia and winter in sub-Saharan Africa). The rufous forehead and throat and blue-black chest band along with the tail streamers used to identify this bird.
Red-breasted Swallow – a common Intra-Africa migrant arriving late July/early August and departing by March/April for Equatorial Africa. The entire throat and breast is rufous with blue ear coverts and wings. These Swallows are slightly bigger than the others already mentioned.
Mosque Swallow- there have been few records at Londolozi as these birds have a preference to be in the vicinity of Baobab trees which are not found on Londolozi. Their appearance is similar to that of the Red-breasted Swallow, with pale ear coverts and a white breast and whitish underwings.
Of course, other species could possibly occur in the area such as the Pearl-breasted, White-throated, and Grey-rumped Swallow but these have very rarely been seen here at Londolozi.
Brown-throated Martin- The only Martin we are likely to see at Londolozi is the Brown-throated Martin which I, along with several other rangers and trackers have yet to spot… but that doesn’t mean they aren’t here.
Rock Martin- is another Martin that one may have a chance of seeing, however, these are much less common.
One other Martin we may come across but is rather rare is the Sand Martin, an uncommon Palearctic migrant, that may roost with Barn Swallows.
African Palm Swift – a common resident year-round. Identified by its deeply forked tail, and plain plumage across the entire bird.
Little Swift – a common resident year-round with partial migrant populations. Identified by the square-ended tail that appears rounded when spread and a broad white rump.
White-rumped Swift – a common intra-African migrant present from August to May. Identified by the long slender and deeply forked tail, along with the narrow white rump band and the white throat patch.
Alpine Swift – a fairly common resident and partial intra-Africa migrant present from August to March. Identified by the slightly larger size and the only one in the region with white underparts and a brown breastband.
Common swift- a common Palearctic migrant, present from late October to March. Permanently airborne in the region and usually in flocks of tens to hundreds. Identifiable by very little contrast in colour, appears uniformly dark from a distance, a more deeply forked tail and narrower wings than African Black Swift.
African Black Swift- uncommon in the areas around Londolozi, with some populations being Intra-African migrants. Identifiable by the clear white throat patch, less deeply forked tail and broader wings than Common Swift, black back clearly contrasts with paler head and rump, pale secondaries are clearly visible from above.
Horus Swift- an uncommon resident and sometimes an intra-Africa breeding visitor with few recorded sightings at Londolozi. Identifiable by a slightly stockier build than White-rumped Swift, less deeply forked tail and broader white rump patch that extends onto the flanks, white throat patch.
Although this may still seem like a daunting list it certainly helps to familiarise yourself with the individual species you can expect to find and eliminate those you aren’t. I often still find myself unsure of their identity as these birds swirl and glide above my head but I always remind myself that birding can be challenging at the best of times and that is how I got hooked in the first place. So I hope these tips help in some way or another but at the end of the day, the best tip that I can give you is to just pick up your binoculars and get your eyes on them!