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Creek Running North

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June 13, 2003

Barn swallows

Well, one animal is likely to enjoy the new road: we came upon a perfectly content western fence lizard there this evening, catching the last few bits of illumination before the sun dropped down behind the Sonoma hills.

The bay was high and — for this placid body of water — relatively choppy, with treacherous four-inch swells. We came around the sewage treatment plant and were enveloped in a joyous crowd of barn swallows.

There's a movie that comes to mind whenever I see these birds. In Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, Hobbs (Jimmy Stewart) plays an infinitely patient father forced to go "bird spotting" with his son-in-law's prospective boss, Mr. Turner, played by John McGiver. Each time the inexpert Hobbs spots a new bird and asks for an ID, Turner gives him a weary, patrician sneer and says, dismissively, "barn swallow."

Barn swallows are anything but pedestrian. They dart and swoop with stunning accuracy, thick clouds of them taking seemingly random paths through the air without collisions. Their colors shift from steely blue to rust, but in some light — such as that from a setting sun tonight — they can look almost golden. Their forked tails make them look especially jaunty, like a stealth bomber or a Corvair.

I spent one evening six or eight years ago ankle-deep in the Belle Fourche, watching barn swallows career beneath the Devil's Tower, landing every so often among their cousins, the cliff swallows, who build improbable mud nests on the crumbling red cliffs. "I have never seen birds fly in mixed flocks," declaimed an aging birder in one obviously relevant Hitchcock film set in Bodega Bay. Never trust birders in movies, at least not movies from 1962-63. Barn swallows fly with cliff swallows at the mouth of Pinole Creek as well, but the cliffies are somewhere else tonight.

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 13, 2003 12:17 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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No, still never trust birdwatchers in films... The Sean Connery character in Finding Forrester called a yellow warbler a Connecticut warbler. And the perennial eagle-call of the red-tailed hawk is still ubiquitous.

Posted by: Pica at June 17, 2003 12:40 PM
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They're stunning creatures are swallows. Here on the Leeds- Liverpool Canal they are the first hirondine to arrive back and spend dusk and dawn skimming the water for bugs. Glad to have found your weblog (via Ecotone).

Posted by: Coup de Vent at June 26, 2003 05:20 PM
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Haven't seen any posts recently. I've been lurking a while and really like your site. I hope you haven't given up!

No mixed flocks?!? You wonder where Hitchcock has been... probably too much time in the darkroom... I've seen maelstroms of barn swallows, cliff swallows, tree swallows, house swifts, white-rumped swifts, nighthawks, and once even a flock of house martins, all swooping and looping about in a frenzy of an insect banquet, in the US, here in Japan (minus the nighthawks, but add nightjars) and Europe (also minus the nighthawks). I doubt the birds make much distinction between who can eat what. Watching swifts, especially the big ones like the white rumps, is like watching F1 drivers, controlled, alacritous velocity (less acrobatic than swallows, but far faster).

Posted by: Miguel Arboleda at June 28, 2003 04:12 AM
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