My San Antonio swallows and swifts

Whenever the local mountain mist, the neblina, rolls in, it´s time to watch for swallows and swifts snatching insects ahead of the clouds. On a still day without rain, in came today’s neblina, bringing my first sure sighting up here of the Gray-breasted martin (Progne chalybea). This species can regularly be found nesting at the second gas station down in Turrialba.

Photographs of swallows and swifts are not easy to come by. Swifts are ridiculously difficult to photograph since they spend their lives in the air and roost in locations that are virtually impossible to reach. Swallows perch regularly on wires (where did they perch before wires were invented?) and present the photographer with an easier task. I’m not a photographer myself and the following photo is again by kind courtesy of friend Karel Straatman. This is the Blue-and-white swallow (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca), which is the species by which you should measure all other swallows here in San Antonio. Small, fluttery and clean-cut, you just can’t miss it at middle elevations.

Our commonest swallow, the Blue-and-white

Our commonest swallow, the Blue-and-white

Garrigues and Dean (Birds of Costa Rica) list 13 swallow species (including 3 martins) for the whole country. 3 of these (Violet-green swallow, Cave swallow and Brown-chested martin) are only casual in Costa Rica and can generally be discounted. The 10 remaining species are theoretically possible in the Turrialba area, yet only 5 of them are on my San Antonio Checklist. These are:

1. Blue-and-white swallow – this resident can’t be missed

2. Southern rough-winged swallow – our other resident, a brownish swallow, noticeably larger than the Blue-and-white and with a whitish rump that is easily seen

3. Northern rough-winged swallow – not resident in our area, looks pretty much like the species above but does not have the pale rump; it joins us from North America between August and May; nests in holes in banks locally; both of the rough-wingeds are fairly easy to find

4. Gray-breasted martin – today’s sighting was the first sure confirmation for San Antonio

5. Barn swallow – a migrant; plenty of them were here today but they are irregular in this area

Here’s a Barn swallow that we banded down at CATIE:

Barn swallow6

The remaining 5 species, with the exception of the Purple martin, are on both the CATIE and Rancho Naturalista checklists, but have not been seen at neighbouring Espino Blanco Reserve. If I try a bit harder I should theoretically be able to find the Mangrove swallow, the Tree swallow, the Cliff swallow and the Bank swallow, but no luck so far!

As for the 11 swift species found in Costa Rica, frankly I’m baffled.

All I can really do is first determine whether they are large or small and then assume that the large ones are White-collared swifts (Streptoprocne zonaris) and the small ones Vaux’s swifts (Chaetura vauxi). Both are resident.  The former is relatively easy to identify once it flies against a vegetation background, when the white collar is distinctive. I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure of the Vaux’s because Chimney swift is very similar and also possible in migration. I have no sightings of Vaux’s outside the migration season.

The other local checklists list several of the other species and seem to suggest that I should be able to find at least the Black swift and the Chestnut-collared swift here locally. Indeed, I recently saw a medium-sized swift here at home that may well have been the former species. Can’t check ’em off though, unless I’m dead sure!

No photographs of course.

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