Name That Swallow!

Last autumn, well past the time when the Purple Martins, the Barn and Tree Swallows had migrated south for the winter, I continued to observe a swallow flying over the pond. When I looked up the options, I was left needing more information. The unidentified bird has returned to the sky above the pond and I often see it flying alongside the Tree Swallows and the Barn Swallows. It doesn’t have the coloring of either species, and it has a unique wing shape, as well.

Based on the descriptions of the various species that could be found where I live, the possibilities were limited to:

Bank Swallow: “Look for them in chattering nesting colonies dug into the sides of sandy cliffs or banks, or pick them out of mixed swallow flocks as they catch insects over the water.” I wasn’t seeing “colonies” of birds, just a handful. And, let’s face it, I live in a flat part of the country. There aren’t sandy cliffs or banks near where I was observing my unknown swallow.

Chimney Swift: “Its tiny body, curving wings, and stiff, shallow wingbeats give it a flight style as distinctive as its fluid, chattering call. This enigmatic little bird spends almost its entire life airborne. When it lands, it can’t perch—it clings to vertical walls inside chimneys or in hollow trees or caves.” The color was a bit dark, but mostly the wing shape seems different from the bird I observed.

Cliff Swallow: “These common, sociable swallows are nearly always found in large groups, whether they’re chasing insects high above the ground, preening on perches, or dipping into a river for a bath.” First, I don’t know where they’d make their large colonies on the edges of cliffs in my area, but I only see a few of them flying together – not swarms.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow: “The Northern Rough-winged Swallow’s plain brown back and dusky throat doesn’t stand out, allowing it to sometimes go unnoticed in flocks of brighter swallow species. This common summer visitor flies low over water snatching insects in midair and rests on wires, posts, and exposed branches. It nests in burrows excavated by other birds and mammals, and spends the winters in Mexico and Central America. The species derives its name from the outer wing feathers, which have small hooks or points on their leading edges.” Color- check. Behavior – check. Nesting – perhaps. Rough-wing – no data on that characteristic.

The other day, just as I was packing up and heading home, I came upon a group of about six little birds in a small tree near the pond’s edge. The shape was unique – not sparrow, not blackbird, maybe fly-catcher I thought. So, while the lighting was horrible and I didn’t have the camera on a mono-pod for stability, I took a few shots before they flew off. When the birds took flight, I realized they were the elusive swallow I had been trying to identify, along with a Tree Swallow, or two.

The results weren’t great. But, I did get the following inferior photos of the bird.

I’ve narrowed this down to Bank Swallow and Northern-rough winged swallow. The juvenile Tree Swallow is brown on the back, but the photos I’ve reviewed show a more distinct separation between the white under the chin than I see in these unidentified birds. This unknown bird also flies a bit differently than the Tree Swallows, in my estimation.

I’m looking for help from the experts. Let me know if you can help me identify this pretty, little swallows. I would surely appreciate it!

UPDATE – pretty fast from the avian experts! Those who have weighed in all agree (quite strongly) that this bird is a Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Thanks everyone for your assistance.

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