Saving the world while you wait

Encounter – The Welcome Swallow

A Welcome Swallow at Barossa Reservoir in South Australia
The phrase 'One swallow does not make a summer' doesn't exactly apply to Australia's Welcome Swallow
The phrase ‘One swallow does not make a summer’ doesn’t exactly apply to Australia’s Welcome Swallow

The Aristotelian phrase ‘One swallow does not a summer make’ doesn’t quite apply in the case of the Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena), if seen through a northern-hemisphere lens. This is a bird of the southern hemisphere that occurs in Australia and New Zealand. Winter sees these swift-flying birds (not to be confused with the unrelated swifts, also rapid fliers) flocking near water bodies and huddling on electric cables. They are known to flee the south as the cold draughts close in, moving from colder South Australia and Victoria to warmer feeding grounds in New South Wales and Queensland on the country’s eastern coast. Since about 1950, the Welcome Swallow has been recorded in New Zealand, where its status has been noted with the curious legend ‘self-introduced’. I wonder if the birds had to wash their feet on arrival.

On a cold, cloudy April morning threatened by an oncoming squall, I came across Welcome Swallows flocking beside the Barossa Reservoir near Adelaide, South Australia. The dam, known as the Whispering Wall for its remarkable acoustic properties, is surrounded by parkland and is something of a birdwatching hotspot. My guide, the gentle and witty Mary Ann Kennedy of A Taste of South Australia, urged me to move my corporeal bulk to the other side of the dam so she could demonstrate the Whispering Wall’s propensity for unwrapping secrets. The walk was short but very distracting, for the reservoir teemed with birds — a flock of loquacious Galahs, Rainbow Lorikeets, New Holland Honeyeaters, Dusky Moorhens and Eurasian Coots. Far ahead, against the hazy mirror of sky and water, I could discern the silhouettes of Black Swans. Mary Ann told me that the gum trees were the haunt of koalas and possums.

In other words, she knew what to say to get me moving.

A Welcome Swallow at Barossa Reservoir in South Australia
A Welcome Swallow at Barossa Reservoir in South Australia

Skimming the water were swallows that made for very queasy photographic subjects. In fact, so addicted to flight are swallows that they are rarely seen perched. Their swooping acrobatics and deft aerial maneuvers as they hawk insects on the wing make them fascinating subjects, though they appear dull and grey in flight. Midway around the dam, a few of these birds were seen in unlikely states of rest that appeared to last fifteen or so seconds. As most birders know, however ephemeral their state of stasis, perched swallows make for fantastic viewing and no opportunity must be spared to photograph them. Observing my slow progress to the end of the dam, Mary Ann seated herself comfortably on the other side and began catching up on her emails. Noticing that she wasn’t in a hurry, I spent a few meditative moments with my very photogenic subject, and produced this lovely portrait.

Monogamous for the most part, Welcome Swallows are seen in flocks numbering up to a hundred or more birds. The Barn Swallow of the northern hemisphere also appears on checklists in Australia, but by far the Welcome Swallow is the more common species. It is also easier to tell apart from the Barn Swallow by its russet throat and forehead compared to the chin strap of the Barn Swallow. The species it most resembles is the Pacific Swallow, a race of which occurs in the hills of southern India.

Here’s something interesting: The Welcome Swallow was named by Australian farmers eager for its arrival in the spring. Know the reason for their enthusiasm: A swallow eats the approximate equivalent of its body weight in insects in a single day. An immense windfall for agriculture, if you consider the toll a flock can inflict on a legion of farmers’ foes. Not surprisingly, even today its presence is more than welcome.

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Encounter – The Pacific Swallow