Nesting swallows: good luck promised!

Published in Nature Watch

Marion Podolski has the good fortune to have swallows nesting in her doorway in Vrboska on Hvar. Exciting and fascinating!

Barn swallow singing Barn swallow singing Charles J.Sharp, Sharp Photography

16th June 2017. I’m happy to report that the good fortune of our house is assured for the summer at least. This is due to the presence of a little swallow family nesting in the porch by our front door. We did try to explain to them that it wasn’t the quietest of locations, but neither parents nor babies seem particularly disturbed by our coming and going. And so, we have the privilege of watching this little brood develop at close quarters.

The nest in the porch. Photo: Marion Podolski

These are barn swallows, Hirundo rustica, as most European swallows are. They’re known locally as Lastavice, arriving on Hvar during April/May, along with their close cousins, the house martins. Vrboska provides a very suitable habitat for both, having an ideal source of mud for nest building in the upper harbour, and plenty of flying insects in the surrounding fields. We really appreciate the birds’ help in keeping down the mosquitoes!

The proud parent. Photo: Marion Podolski

I’m learning to tell the difference between swallows and martins, especially in their home life. What I thought was a rather unfinished nest in our porch turns out to be the typical open-cup shape built by swallows. It’s high up in the corner of the wall, built from gobs of mud. This is in contrast to the house martins more enclosed nest with entry hole, tucked up under the eaves of many a village house. And while the martins may build a row of nests together, the swallows tend to be more individual. Though I do understand that the next generation likes to nest near where they grew up, and our porch does have four corners!

House martin nests. Photo: Marion Podolski

We currently have four chicks in our nest, as I’m sorry to say that we lost one overboard during the week. It seemed in fine shape and pretty well fed, but unfortunately had not survived the fall when we found it on the step. We gave that one a decent burial, and have set a camera to monitor progress on the others and try to keep them safe.

Eyes open! Photo: Marion Podolski

Looking at today’s photos, I see that the chick on the left has open eyes and a feathery halo on its head! And they all have gaping mouths when Mum or Dad arrives with food, as they do often throughout the day.

Feeding frenzy. Photo: Marion Podolski

For swallows, eggs typically take between 14 to 21 days to hatch. The newborns are naked with closed eyes, which take up to 10 days to open.Within 17-24 days these babies will fledge, but will still hang around the nest site to be fed by Mum and Dad for a while. More photos to come.

To be continued as things develop…

Nesting swallows, part 2, 18th June 2017: growing feathers

A quick update on our Barn Swallow nestlings, as I’ve just been outside to check with the zoom lens. They certainly are growing fast and look much more alert! It’s now very clear that they have their eyes open and feathers are growing. And is that a tinge of russet colour?

Alert chicks. Photo: Marion Podolski

I can tell from the step below that nobody has fallen out so there must still be four in the nest, but I’m relieved when #4 at the back stretches and shows its wee beak. Everyone is safe. I can get on with clearing up the crap below them!

There's number 4! Photo: Marion Podolski

Nesting swallows part 3, 20th June 2017: real little birds now

Our little chicks are developing rapidly into miniature versions of their parents! Their wing feathers are almost completely in, although the tails are still stubby little markers for the graceful long forked tails of adulthood.

Stubby tails. Photo: Marion Podolski

As I stand quietly in the shade of the opposite doorway, one of the parents checks me out carefully. No doubt I’d have been in trouble if I tried to approach the nest more closely.

Parent checks me out. Photo: Marion Podolski

He/she was also offering me a nice view of the subtle colouring on the chest, and the underwing. I really can’t tell without seeing the tail whether this is Mum or Dad. We have strapped up a security camera on a coat rack, which gives us a view of the activity on the nest without encroaching on their privacy. It’s wide-angle, so not quite the resolution we’d like, but, hey, not bad for an impromptu nest cam! Here are some examples:

Swallows on the security camera

As the chicks grow, they seem increasingly crowded on the nest. They’re kind of piled up on top of each other by now.

Just like real birds. Photo: Marion Podolski

Which makes it all the harder for them to be testing out their wings in preparation for the big first flight, which must surely be coming any day now. I watched one climb to the top of the pile and flap away for a while, somewhat hampered by its siblings.

Stretching wings. Photo: Marion Podolski

And after its workout, a little stretch and a preening session to take care of the feathers!

Preening. Photo: Marion Podolski

Nesting swallows part 4, 23rd June 2017: testing wings

Our little swallow chicks are still on the nest, although there’s been plenty of flapping going on. We’ve taken to watching them on our nestcam, as they go very still and flat when we open the door. Not so interesting to watch! Here are a couple of photos, though, to show what a difference a few days makes. First is feeding time (20 June).

Dinner is served. Photo: Marion Podolski

And here they are a few days later, piled on top of one another. They’re looking much sleeker, and have clearly been looking after their new feathers. The face patterns are now individual and I’m guessing that big guy is the oldest, as he seems to be rather larger than the sibling alongside. And you can just make out the other two underneath.

Still four in the nest. Photo: Marion Podolski

Still waiting for that fledging moment…

Nesting swallows part 5: 23rd June 2017, Taking to the air

After watching the nest remotely for a few days, I was thrilled to catch sight of a chick take flight from the nest and land on the nearby light. That was Saturday 23 June, at 8:26am. The new fledgling was fed by a parent there, looked around for a while and returned to the nest, where it landed on top of its siblings! Yay! A successful first flight!!

First flight, June 23rd 2017. Photo: Marion Podolski, on nestcam

If I hadn’t seen it happen on the nestcam, we would not have known. For the rest of the day (a roasting 34 degrees C) all four chicks were piled on the nest as usual. And then this morning, this.

Empty nest. Photo: Marion Podolski

An empty nest. Arghhhh! Did we completely miss the rest of the babies taking flight? Where’d they go? But I can still hear them and there seem to be rather a lot of swallows flying around in our courtyard. Ah, there they are!

Fledglings on the porch light. Photo: Marion Podolski

Our porch light is a handy platform! From there, they ventured out to practise their flying again. From time to time they land on the wire, where I managed to catch a quick family portrait with one parent and 4 chicks.They are clearly smaller, and have not yet grown their long V-tails.

Swallow with fledglings on the line. Photo: Marion Podolski

Here’s a better close-up of three of the youngsters, looking like real swallows now. They were watching their sibling practise his aerial skills.

Young swallows on watch. Photo: Marion Podolski

He can fly pretty well already, but the landings definitely need work. Always the hardest part of learning to fly, I guess! Here he’s managed to park himself on the neighbour’s roof.

Slightly inexpert roof landing. Photo: Marion Podolski

Now that’s better! A nice clean landing perched back on the wire. That seems to be the new feeding station, and the parents will still feed them for some days to come. And very soon they’ll be catching their own insects.

More expert, landing on the line. Photo: Marion Podolski

I wonder when the parents will start another round? Please let me get my porch clean again first!

© Marion Podolski 2017

Reproduced by kind permission from Marion's exquisite pictorial blog Go Hvar. Many thanks from Eco Hvar!

Lead photograph by Charles J. Sharp, of Sharp Photography, published under Creative Commons License

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