A small colony of cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) build their nests on Hat Creek Powerhouse #1 (Shasta County CA) each summer. Cliff swallows place their gourd-shaped nests with small entrance tunnels on vertical walls, usually under an overhang, in or near open areas where they can forage for flying insects. Buildings, cliffs, and the undersides of bridges are favored nesting sites. Cliff swallow nests are constructed entirely of mud pellets without any reinforcing materials such as twigs, grasses, feathers or leaves. At the powerhouse the nests are located high above the ground in the window recesses.
While walking along Hat Creek near the powerhouse I noticed a spot along the creek where a steady stream of cliff swallows came to gather mud pellets. These birds were either building new nests or repairing the damage to last year’s nests. The “mud hole” was at a quiet section by the water’s edge. There was a little recess in the bank with a slight overhang that perhaps provided a bit of protection as the swallows gathered pellets of mud. As one bird left with its bit of mud, another would immediately take its place. Occasionally two birds would claim the right to gather mud at the same time resulting in a slight tussle.
Cliff swallows, in my opinion, are beautiful birds. Brown wings and tail contrast with the white to greyish underparts. Two white streaks run down the dark back. The cheeks and neck are rufous or red, the forehead is white and the crown is black resulting in colorful and distinctive head plumage. A buff to orange colored rump adds additional interest. Cliff swallows are the only swallow in our area with a square tail.
Cliff swallows summer throughout most of North America and migrate to South America (Venezuela, Chile, Brazil and Argentina, mostly) during the winter.
Cliff swallows are the famed birds that have traditionally returned to Mission San Juan Capistrano from Ventana, Argentina around March 19th each year. Unfortunately they no longer are returning to the mission.
Cliff swallows are interesting birds – more about them in my next post.