Turrialba Swallows

I take the opportunity to talk about swallows in our area after a fortuitous encounter with the Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia), known in Europe as the Sand Martin, near the old sugar mill at Florencia in the flatlands outside the town of Turrialba on the way to the Caribbean. This was my first sure id of this very common migrant. Three individuals were perfectly lined up on a wire with accompanying migrating Barn and Cliff Swallows.

Swallows are not easy to identify because they are mostly seen in flight and their rapid movement often makes it difficult to pin down the actual species. In our area, there are really only 4 likely species outside migration season, while during migration there are 3 more quite common species to contend with.

All photos that follow are courtesy of John Beer and are of resident species only.


Our very own resident swallow, the Blue-and-white Swallow; photo taken in the highlands at Bajos del Volcán by John Beer

Up on the Turrialba Volcano slope, your first thought, at any time of year, must always be of the pretty little Blue-and-white Swallow (Pygochelidon cyanoleuca). This is a common resident species from 500 m to 3000 m and thus is also easily found down in Turrialba at 600 m. Confusion is possible with other species (Tree, Mangrove and Violet-green Swallows) but can be avoided by noting that the look-alikes have either a white rump or (migrant Tree Swallow) white under-tail coverts. Of these three, the resident Mangrove Swallow is the most likely to be seen, but it is usually seen at lower elevations as it skims low over water. I have not recorded it in our area.

The next most likely resident species are the very different, slightly larger, and brownish-coloured Northern and Southern Rough-winged Swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis and Stelgidopteryx ruficollis, respectively). Both are fairly common in our area up to an elevation of at least 15oo m. I have not found them any higher than that in the Turrialba area. The Northern seems rather more common but if you see a pale rump or (on a perched bird) a slightly reddish throat you have a Southern Rough-winged Swallow. Populations of Northern Rough-winged Swallows may be joined by migrants from the north in the lowlands, but I believe that in the Turrialba area all Rough-winged Swallows are residents, nesting in burrows in banks.


Northern Rough-winged Swallows at Peralta (400 m)

And its southern companion:


Southern Rough-winged Swallow, also at Peralta;  John’s photo shows clearly the key field marks

Only one resident swallow remains and this is the much larger Gray-breasted Martin (Progne chalybea). This species likes to nest in gas and bus stations, and that’s where you can find it most easily in Turrialba. It is also common at the abandoned sugar mill at Florencia. You should have little difficulty identifying it because of its size and its dark, blue-black upper-parts.


Gray-breasted Martin

We turn finally to the 3 common migrants that appear, Barn, Cliff and Bank Swallows. The Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) is simply called the Swallow in Europe and adults are easily recognized because of their long, forked tail. I had no trouble identifying this species when I first came to Costa Rica but Cliff and Bank Swallows were not such an easy proposition, despite their abundance. Only when I found them perched on wires could I be absolutely sure of the identification. To this is the added difficulty that they mostly migrate along the coasts and avoid the highlands where I live. Experienced US birders will probably have little difficulty with these migrants.

It was very satisfying this week to have all three migrants perched together at Florencia. How I miss not having a decent camera!



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