Swallows are perhaps the most beautiful of overlooked birds. Naturally painted in metallic hues of blue, jade, and purples, highlighted with orange and adornments of red. If a child used their favorite markers on thick aluminum and then held that metal creation up to be touched by the magical shades of sunset, Barn Swallows take flight.
The Tree Swallow is one of the first birds I remember. Not from seeing one, no, that didn’t happen until I could go to where they actually lived. I recall it from the Niagara Falls public library, kneeling on the pumpkin orange carpet to look at illustrations in some unknown, important bird book for kids. The beautiful blue colors highlighted with green iridescence caught my 7 year old eye. It’s a while ago, I can’t say what I was exactly thinking but it was probably a combination of, “How could that bird exist? Did it really look like that? Where can I see it?”
As common and beautiful as Barn Swallows are, we may appreciate them but when they swoop low over the cut summer grass, when flocks of swallows do their aerial acrobatics high overhead, how many of us stick with them? As frequent as Tree Swallows are at the ponds and wetlands of the north, it’s not easy to stay focused on high-flying silhouettes. When tanagers are calling, when a Hook-billed Kite is soaring into view, it’s easier to take bins off of birds that are too quick to follow.
These birding factors aren’t limited to North America, they are universal simply because it’s always easier to watch birds that are easier to see. As eye-catching as the plumages of many swallow species are, it takes drive, patience and determination to truly watch them, stay with them, lose yourself in the meditation of Hirundines.
Using that official name for the family brings up a recollection of birding in Costa Rica during the 90s. A friend of mine and I were birding around Carara when we ran into a lone British birder, Steve. During our chance meeting on the famous “River Trail” in Carara National Park, the usual birding exchange took place as we attempted to wipe off the sweat that comes easy and constant at that site.
Steve worked at keeping his glasses clear with a handkerchief. “I’m sure I saw a Collared Plover, Royal Flycatcher. It was good to catch up with the Hirundines.”
“Hirundines, you know swallows.”
Finally catching up with his British pronunciation. “Ahh, of course Hirundines!”
Hirundines, because the family is more than swallows and even that name doesn’t do them justice. They are also martins and they are more aerialists than anything. Perching on wires and branches, as if eagerly waiting to once again get back up into the sky and into action, back into the performance of their lives, they chatter with anticipation.
It’a all about survival but when watching aerialists do their thing, one can’t help but wonder if they love it, if they take joy in zipping through the skies and that’s what can help with the mental focus. Contemplate the thrill, the fantastic happiness of birds in flight and it becomes easier to stick with swallows flitting around way up there near the clouds.
One of the unsung good things about swallows is that they don’t hide in the vegetation, they are up there in plain view begging to be watched. If you keep watching them, you may also see something rare, pick out the odd bird that flew a bit too far, flew out of its usual range.
Today, that reminds me of other memories of meditative birding, finding rare birds while looking at gulls in the Niagara River. When we watch gulls from the top of the Niagara Gorge, it’s like looking at swallows except that the birds are far down below. They don’t have the jewel colors of the swallows, attributes for identification and appreciation are more subtle in nature. There are shades of pale and gray, patterns and shapes of dark in the primaries, the color of an eye. As with Hirundines, you have to study them for a time, keep watching and lose yourself in gulls. It’ usually cold, better be dressed for it!
It’s also meditative birding and today I can’t help but think of Ned. I can still see him there, bent over to prop himself on a railing at Sir Adam Beck to better study the birds down below.
“Do you see the California Gull?”
“Yes, I think I got it, slightly darker back…the black in the primaries make a trapezoid-like shape..cool, California Gull on the Niagara River!”
On that or another cold day Ned Brinkley, Alec and I drove further north to look for a supposed Curlew Sandpiper. As we expected, it turned out to be one of the hardy sandpipers, a Dunlin. But there were other birds to look at, several of which were of another family beautiful yet commonly under-appreciated; the ducks.
We had all seen scaups and Canvasbacks on many occasions, but on that bright morning, the light was hitting them just right, the iridescent colors of their heads rivaled the metallic shades of swallows, the intricate patterns on their flanks was natural calligraphy. They were birds we had seen many times but on that beautiful morning in Hamilton, Ontario, we marveled over them. It was a while ago now, I can’t recall exactly what Ned said but know that he was for sure saying a lot, talking about the unsung beauty of those birds, maybe talking about languages, laughing, enjoying life to the fullest.
I hadn’t seen Ned in a while but we occasionally kept in touch, I had hoped to go birding with him again. In keeping with his generous and helpful nature, at one point, it’s no surprise that he was a major help in finding images for the birding apps I work on. Others, like Alvaro Jaramillo and George Armistead, have perfectly expressed how special of a person Ned was, what an incredible loss his passing is to the birding community and honestly, the world in general. So, I won’t go on about that here. But I will say that he will be dearly missed and that I will be thinking of him and the many other people whose lives were made better by knowing him as I meditate on swallows, hoping for a Violet-green. Ned would have been interested in knowing that it looks like it’s going to be a good year in Costa Rica for that beautiful bird.