You’ve heard of the annual return of the swallows to the Mission San Juan Capistrano in California, right? Well, let me tell you about ANOTHER return. Every year like clockwork, the Cliff Swallows and the Barn Swallows return around the week before or after Mother’s Day in May… to the EXACT same mud puddle… just off the James Cameron Bridge that goes over Contentnea Creek in Grifton, North Carolina. This shallow muddy puddle is in a grassy area where the puddle is formed by vehicle tires making a rut in the ground. When it rains, the ruts fill with shallow water making a mud puddle and there the muddy water waits for their return! These swallows have surely claimed this tiny spot of earth as theirs!
This mud puddle is about ten feet long. I usually pull my truck off the road near the puddle, roll down my window and watch them. Through the rolled down window, I photograph them. They don’t seem to mind and keep about their business. They’re probably used to the traffic at the intersection. Their sounds are very soft and quiet, but yet audible as they fly about and under the bridge.
Jugs of Swallow Nests!
So just what does their nest look like? The depth of the water at the creek decides the “eye-view” you get of their nests. Sometimes in periods of high rainfall amounts, by kayak you are much closer to the bottom of the bridge and higher up to view them. The DEEPER it is, the faster the current. Since you are going upstream from the put in to the bridge, the current will drift you backwards from them so be patient as this might make it a little difficult to just sit there.
When we’ve had periods of no rain, it gets interesting.The water level depth finder for the creek is attached to this bridge. Sometimes there is no water under it. That puts you just barely floating in the water and of course, the nests are much higher up in relation to you sitting down there in a kayak. They don’t seem to mind if you lay your paddle down across your kayak and just slowly coast through. Don’t make any large arm movements or talk loudly and you’ll be greatly rewarded with babies peeking their heads out at you and parents flying in with their dinner for them!
What is Unique about Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)
These small birds tend to be more west than Pitt County, but nevertheless they are under the bridge at Contentnea Creek in Grifton. The creek is the physical boundary line of Pitt and Lenoir Counties and the town of Grifton lies in both counties.
- Length: 5.5 inches with a wingspan of 132 inches
- Tail: Has a square ended tail as opposed to Barn Swallows or Swifts
- Weight: 0.8 ounces
- Habitat: open terrains near water
- sip water while in flight. They swoop down near the water surface, sip it and very swiftly bank upwards back into the air. Reminds me of a swift scoop of water.
- Nest: mud lined nests usually attached to undersides of bridges, barn rafters, eaves and old buildings. They will nest in a colony of other Cliff Swallows. The colony can be as large as 3,500 nests. Some refer to their nests as mud jugs.
- Migratory: Cliff Swallows are migratory in North Carolina. Winters from Brazil to Argentina. Consult your local field guide for occurrence in your area.
- Food: They catch their food of flying insects while in flight. Will eat some berries and fruit.
Watching them get the water, mud and grass was fascinating. Afterwards, they would fly off under the bridge to where they were building their nests.
When the Swallows Return…
After a long or short cold winter, one of my favorite things I look forward to is my first spring drive down to this mud puddle just before Mother’s Day. It seems to herald that spring is indeed here and summer is on the way. It’s fun to just sit and watch them. It makes me smile when I hear their tiny sounds. Be sure to check YOUR guides or the internet references to see if these fantastic Swallows return to where YOU live, too!