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Mark Daul: Kingfishers and cliff swallows don't get along

by jmaloni
Sat, Jun 22nd 2013 07:00 am

by Mark Daul

Outdoors in Niagara

It's no secret that I live along the south shore of Lake Ontario, just 300 to 400 feet from the western edge of Four Mile Creek State Park.

Living right up on the edge of the lakeshore I get to observe a lot of things, such as carp and salmon surfacing on their spring rituals; cormorants flying low to the surface of the water in search of food, and all different kinds of ducks, geese, seagulls and whatever else Mother Nature decides to show me - like minnows breaking the surface being chased by perch or larger fish in the same waters. Since early spring, my wife and I have spotted a bald eagle hanging out once in a while in a tall tree that is growing on the edge of the lake. I can tell you more about that in a future story, and right now I am trying to get a photo of it to show everybody. I have photos of the naked branches of that tree where it perches. We don't see it often except for three straight days this week it has appeared momentarily, not long enough to capture a photo.

There is always something new and interesting to see. Ships, sailboats, fishing boats, the U.S. Coast Guard going by on a mission of some sort, and I can't forget the Homeland Security guys with their helicopters several times a day. Sunrises and sunsets are awesome. The Toronto skyline and sometimes the whole skyline from Hamilton, Ontario, on the west, past Toronto to the Scarborough area to the east, and sometimes I swear, on a clear night, a person can see lights as far away as Oshawa, Ontario.

Birds such as cliff swallows and kingfishers provide lots of entertainment. Near my house, swallows burrow holes in the sand veins along the cliffs (thus the name cliff swallows). Right now, these migrating birds are up here from the south, eating our bugs, making babies, chasing kingfishers, and as the weather changes, adios, off to the south again.

There aren't many places the public can observe these little guys along the Ontario shoreline, but you could if you were boating and paying attention to what is going on around you. Look for cliffs with sand veins in them and I'll bet you will see dozens and dozens of holes dug close together, forming a large community of swallows. There will be holes carved into the soft sand vein and will have an opening of about 3 inches. You won't be able to see how deep they go, but they are about an arm's length. That is their nesting house; they lay eggs, raise their young and off they go until the next cycle. Mind you, they just don't just make their homes in cliffs like the name implies. They can be found in buildings and under bridges too, but I'm only familiar with my small, short-legged, long-winged bug hunters that can change their flight pattern with a blink of the eye. Although you can observe these speedy little guys in the daytime, I found evening is best. Bugs tend to swarm then, and the swallows know that as they always feed in flight, following the swarm if necessary.

Cliff swallows do have an enemy, and when a kingfisher decides he is going raid a swallow's homestead, he would have another thought coming very quickly. I've watched these little kings fly from one shoreline boulder to another, sneaking up to the swallows' nest not knowing he has hundreds of eyes peering at him. When he thinks the coast is clear, off he goes thinking he is going to mooch a free meal, compliments of the swallows.

But I have never witnessed that tactic working for the king. As soon as he takes flight and aims himself toward the nests, he is met with 20-30 swallows immediately. It's like watching a World War II movie where the enemy is being chased in flight and the maneuvers are near perfect by both. It could be like a dog chasing a car, what would it do if it ever did catch one?

Those kingfishers with their gorgeous blue, blue-gray color are a medium sized bird, carrying around a big head with a long bill. A single swallow would have no chance by itself. After flying out of sight, and never one to give up, the kingfisher will return in an hour or so and start the challenge all over again. He thinks he is fooling everybody. He'll fly in, land on a rock or a tree branch close to the water and wait until a small unsuspecting fish would come in range and poof, it would be devoured. In my many observations of the king, it seems like it would always be an emerald shiner, a shiny minnow that is native to the Great Lakes and also favorite fishing bait among fishermen. After his first catch, he'll come back and land on the next rock that is closer to the swallow homestead, fish there for a while in silence, again thinking he is going to give that homestead another try and not knowing he is being watched by many. The only songs I have heard from one of these kingfishers was when they are in flight, then it is a notable identifying sound, but I am sure there are others.

Barn swallows are abundant around here, and you will see them almost anywhere there is a barn - sometimes a gazebo - building nests in any little cubbyhole they would like to call home for a while. Often mistaken for a bluebird, they will just take over a bluebird's nest with no consideration, paying no rent. They have flight patterns like the cliff swallow and are similar with their diet consisting of bugs. Not one for trees and woods, these guys like a meadow right outside their front door for easy picking of their meals. They have a sharp tweet like that of the cliff swallow, and even if you are hard of hearing you'll be able to hear these tweets, especially overhead in a barn or a gazebo.

Whichever way you look at it, birds are fascinating creatures. Some of these little devils migrate over thousands of miles every year, just to raise their young, then fly back to wherever they came from just to continue their place in life. Look at the tiny hummingbird that travels as far away as Canada, all the way to South America and back. The next time somebody calls you a "birdbrain" remind them how smart a bird really is and it takes a great brain to do the things they do. Remind them a bird communicates with "tweets" and doesn't need computers or iPods to tweet with.

Before I finish here, next week I'll share a Coast Guard story that is happening right now on Lake Erie. The story isn't nice, and if you are a charter captain of some kind, you definitely have to be updated on recent activities pertaining to your charter business.

Comments, suggestions, email me: [email protected], or the Sentinel: [email protected].

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