So interesting the difference in the birds and to me they all look alike above my head. But about 9 years ago we were presently surprised with with a pair of lesser stripped swallos nesting in our open lappa. Someone broke her nest and she is now here by my big kitchen roof and we have named them Jessie and James. All through the years when she has chick’s and they can fly, then she waits for us outside to show us her chick’s. And Jessie talks to me and I talk to her and she answers in their own manner. Very special these two birds. Last year I saved her one chick that had a sore foot, the little one could not sit properly on the fence so I picked him up and massaged his little foot and then it started to rain. I put the little one back in the nest and two days later I picked him up again on the grass and massaged his foot again and put him back in the nest again. He was fine after that and flew all over the show and Jessie came to say thank you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
Filed under Bird ID Challenge Birds General Nature
Wow! What an amazing story Valmai – thank you for sharing with us 🙂
Lovely story Valmai..nothing quite like a ‘wild’ pet !