April 5th, 2020: Migrants start returning at Trout Lake…
*I’m a little behind in my posts after the NZ trip, but I’ll be getting caught up in the next week or so.
I headed to Trout Lake today for the first time in a while. It’s a great little city park that a friend of mine used to bird at all the time. In fact, largely because of him and other diligent birders, Trout Lake boasts an all-time species list of 163. That’s pretty high for a modest-sized park in the middle of the city. My list at Trout Lake today was 25 species: respectable at this time of year, but migration is only just getting started.
There were lots of people there, doing the social distancing thing pretty responsibly for the most part. Sadly, it’s clearly more important to some than others…
One of my favourite signs that spring is really here is the Violet-green Swallow. And I saw my first two of the year today! There have been Tree Swallows in the lower mainland for at least a couple of weeks now. They get here early enough that I don’t think of them as a herald of spring. And you can find Barn Swallows in some Vancouver locations in the winter. But not Violet-green. Once they’re here, migration is starting to get going.
So that’s three of our swallow species: Tree, Barn, and Violet-green. The others are Cliff Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Purple Martin, and Bank Swallow (mostly during migration in May).
In appearance, you can’t beat the Violet-green Swallow. First, it’s the only bird we have with any real violet. And it’s iridescent. Combine this with their iridescent emerald green (brighter than the Tree Swallow’s blue-green) and pure white face and breast (cleaner white than the other swallows too), and you can see how they really stand out in a crowd. I’m reminded that I need to get a better photo… But at least I have a couple where you can see their brilliance.
At distance however, or in low light, they might be mistaken for a Tree Swallow. At least 4 quick distinguishing factors allow you to separate them though. (1) If you see any violet/purple, it’s not a Tree Swallow. (2) There is substantially more white in a Violet-green’s face, making it look much lighter. A Violet-green has white up to and past the eye, while the white on a Tree stops below the eye. (2) The rump on a Violet-green also has much more white. It wraps around from the belly, leaving only a narrow dark line down the center of the rump. On a Tree Swallow, the white also creeps around onto the rump at the sides, but not nearly as far across the back. And, (4) once you get used to it, there are differences in flight type and flight silhouette that work at range.
Violet-greens are pretty good travellers too. They winter in Central America and breed well into Alaska. They nest in natural cavities (or nest boxes) like other swallows. But they often fly higher than other swallows and at a decent clip: 28mph!