As a beginning birder in southern California, I, along with every other resident, heard of the festival to celebrate the return of the cliff swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano along the California coast. The usual festival day, attracting thousands of visitors, is March 19. I soon learned the swallows did not adhere to the Chamber of Commerce schedule and arrive from their South American wintering grounds towards the end of February.
When and where to look: In the Yakima region, look for the first cliff swallows after about mid-March, with most arriving by early April. The swallows soon set to work either refurbishing old nests or constructing new ones. In Yakima, a great spot to view these birds is the colony on the Painted Rocks, the andesite cliffs on West Powerhouse Road west of 40th Ave. Here. they nest on the cliff, as they do in many parts of the Yakima River Canyon. Elsewhere near Yakima, the swallows have largely forsaken cliffs in favor of bridges, sides of buildings, and culverts. There are many, many colonies of varying size tucked under bridges throughout south-central Washington and indeed across North America.
How to spot one: This is the only swallow in the Pacific Northwest with an orangish rump patch, not always easy to see. At close range is a buff-colored “headlamp” on their forehead. Their calls are distinctive rough churring notes, but learning this takes some practice.
Chow time: A wide variety of tiny flying insects are sought by this swallow. Birds in a colony range some distance, starting usually near their nests and often low over water in the cool of the morning and ranging up the ridges in the shrub-steppe as temperatures warm, following the bug action.
Home life: Cliff swallows typically nest in colonies, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The nest is usually on a vertical surface with some sort of overhead protection. As you see in the photo, it is composed of thousands of tiny globs of mud, each requiring a trip to mud. The birds collect mouthfulls of mud (yuck) and fly back to build a gourd-shaped structure, with a narrow entrance. She lays four to five eggs, which both sexes incubate for about 13 to 15 days. They both bring food to the young. The young leave the nest after about three and a half weeks. Once fledged these swallows depart rather quickly southward. Most of our region’s cliff swallows are typically gone by early August and birds we see later are probably Canadian or Alaskan breeders, whose nesting cycle is delayed as compared to Washington’s.
Mission San Juan Capistrano was one of 21 missions built by the government of Spain in California between 1769 and 1823. Their goal was to convert native Americans to Catholicism and more firmly establish Spain’s presence in the region. Under the leadership of Fr. Junipero Serra, farming with livestock, vegetables and fruit was established. However, measles and others diseases caused the death of up to 90% of the native populations. The mission effort was mostly a failure and all of the missions were sold to private interests in 1833. A number of these are now popular tourist destinations.