Saturday, August 18, 2012

Swallows and Swifts

I've been reading Dunwoody Pond, a book by John Janovy, Jr. It has a chapter on the dynamics of cliff swallow colonies and how they are affected by their parasites. Okay, I know this may seem like a bunch of esoteric bullshit to some people, but it isn't. It helps me understand the world I live in. And anyway, even if it were bullshit, it's the job of writers to write it down, and it is the job of readers to read it. So Janovy writes it, and I read it.

The bicycle trail from Lanesboro to Harmony runs along the Root River and passes under a highway bridge just east of Preston. When you ride under it you can't help noticing the colony of cliff swallows overhead, twittering and swooping in and out of the nests. In fact there is even a bench where you can sit and admire the birds coming and going. After reading Mr. Janovy's book, I will never be able to look at a cliff swallow colony again without seeing the fleas, feather lice and swallow bugs - a bedbug that makes a pretty good living off of swallows. When I stopped to take the picture last week the birds were done raising their young and were gathering or already on their way to Argentina for the winter.

The picture below has nothing to do with the swallows. The fellow on the bench asked me to help him with his spinning reel. I sat down beside him and began untangling the monofilament wrapped behind the spool. I asked him what he was fishing for and what he used for bait. "Trout - mostly browns. Some people use flies of course, and others use spinners. I usually chop up a chub and hook little pieces on a small hook. Fly fishing is fun I guess, but if you actually want to catch fish, chub pieces are the best."  Probably good advise if a person's goal is to actually catch fish. Surprisingly, I was able to help him with his birdsnest.

For whatever reasons the Root River Valley seems to be good habitat for swallows and swifts. In Lanesboro I've noticed the barn swallow nests tucked under eaves and I see them flying overhead every evening as I sit on our deck and smoke my cigar and kill the last beer of the day. It certainly isn't mosquitoes that feed them. There are very few - so it's probably midges and various other hatches on the river and streams.

A quarter of a mile up the trail is Preston and the old school. The following is from the Fillmore County Journal.  
The number one chimney swift site in the state of Minnesota as determined by the Audubon Minnesota Swift Counts in 2011 is the former Preston Elementary School chimney, which is now Trailhead Inn and Suites. Population counts had been conducted at over 200 sites within the state in 2011. Last August 30 around sunset, 1100 chimney swifts were counted circling over the 65-foot tall historic chimney before funneling down for a good night’s rest. The chimney is nearing 100 years old and has likely been a destination for the swifts since its construction. Swifts gather for communal roosts in large chimneys.
Greg Munson, former director of the Quarry Hill Nature Center, became aware this last spring of some damage to the old chimney, probably from a lightening strike. He initiated the effort to repair the historic chimney. The chimney has not functioned for the purpose for which it was designed, for the building’s furnace, for many years. Munson contacted owner Steve Corson and was given permission to repair and stabilize the chimney. The Minnesota DNR Non-Game Wildlife Division provided $4,500 for the repair of the chimney which has been completed.
At a May 2011 Preston City Council meeting, Munson presented plans for a tower/kiosk to be located in front of the Trailhead Inn near the bathrooms. The tower could provide a nesting site for a pair of chimney swifts. The kiosk would have educational materials on each of the four sides about swifts and possibly about cliff swallows and turkey vultures, which are also prevalent in the area. The tower is planned to be 16 feet tall with a 4-foot by 4-foot base to be made of concrete block. The DNR has expressed an interest concerning the installation of a camera, similar to the “eagle cam.”
Funding for building the tower/kiosk has been obtained ($300 from Zumbro Valley Audubon Society of the greater Rochester area, $300 from Minnesota Audubon, $2,000 from the Corson family, and $1,000 from the Preston Foundation.
City Administrator Joe Hoffman confirmed that the city has approved the building of the tower/kiosk on city property contingent on an agreement between the parties involved. At the city council’s July 16 meeting Hoffman reported that the city attorney had drafted an agreement as directed in May. However, Zumbro Valley Audubon wasn’t receptive to being responsible for liability and maintenance and asked that the city accept these responsibilities. The city council is concerned mostly about future maintenance and has invited Zumbro Valley Audubon to their August 6 meeting to work out an agreement between them for the liability coverage and maintenance of the tower/kiosk. Until there is an agreement, construction of the tower/kiosk is on hold. 
The designation as the number one gathering site for the chimney swifts in the state is yet another visitor attraction for the city of Preston.

Chimney swifts gather in huge flocks in late summer-early fall preparing for their migration south to the Peruvian Amazon Basin where they spend our winter. 
Preston’s historic chimney attracts the fast flying, insect eating birds for their over night resting place. Swifts don’t perch but cling to a vertical wall like this brick chimney. Swift numbers have been declining, possibly due to a reduction in the number of masonry chimneys available for roosting and nesting. Many old chimneys have been capped. The preservation of old chimneys could help stabilize the population of the chimney swift. 
Audubon describes the chimney swifts as four and three-quarters inches to five and one-half inches, about sparrow sized. They have a brownish gray body which appears black in flight and a very short tail. The small spines on the tail are used for support while roosting. Their wings are long, narrow and curved. The swifts have a wing span of about 12 inches and weigh less than an ounce. They communicate with loud, chattering twitters.
Swifts are built for speed and are great aerialists. They are among the fastest fliers in the bird world. They have been described as a flying cigar. They breed and roost in chimneys and feed entirely while in flight on flying insects. They also bathe and drink out of bodies of water while in flight. Twigs for their nests are gathered while in flight. Once they leave their roosting location in the morning, they stay in flight all day until they return to the roosting location in the evening.
Nests are made of twigs fastened together with saliva and attached to the inner wall of chimneys, air shafts, and occasionally a hollow tree.


George A said...

The last sentence in your post answered a question that popped up in my mind while reading: what the hell did Chimney Swifts do before humans started building chimneys? They used hollow trees of course--a trick I hope they'll recall once we humans succeed in deducting ourselves from the evolutionary equation.

Gunnar Berg said...

They are swifts. They know air currents, when the insects fly, where to mitigate to, where to nest. Somewhere deep in their DNA they know everything that swifts ever knew.

George A said...

I wish humans tucked away ultimate knowledge in their DNA--for the life of me I just can't recall how our ancestors moved those huge stones from Wales to the Salisbury Plain, or how once they got 'em there they erected the hinge. Don't get me started about all lost knowledge about those heads on Easter Island.

In a stream of consciousness way, this all reminds me of how my son's video games reminds me of Zen and how life is played on many different levels--if I could just obtain ultimate enlightenment I could cut to the chase, enter into Nirvana and thereby skip the tedium of endless reincarnation. I think I'm doomed to return as a Chimney swift. I just hope there's a chimney or a hollow tree trunk left standing--And here I thought that living in Maryland without AC in July/August is good training for the afterlife. Gunnar, you're causing big ripples in the cosmos with these birds.

Gunnar Berg said...

1. The human knowledge is still there, just buried, that is why you are uneasy.

2. Ahhhh, the heads are full bodies buried them up to their necks in time. ;-)

3. I'm certain you will make one fine swift. Straining, I can almost see you now - flying high, almost out of sight, slicing your wings through the air, twist tacking up and to the left to catch the most delicious midge in the heavens.

George A said...

"flying high, almost out of sight, slicing your wings through the air, twist tacking up and to the left to catch the most delicious midge in the heavens."

Except for the delicious midge part it sounds like what I do on figure skates: slicing and dicing with the greatest of ease--other than I personally turn better to the right (clockwise) rather than the left...

Gunnar Berg said...