ROGERS — As cliff swallows return to Capistrano, the fast flying birds also return to Arkansas and Beaver Lake each spring.
Good numbers of cliff swallows start showing up around bluffs and under bridges in mid to late April after the birds make a migration of thousands of miles from their wintering grounds in South America.
Bluffs at Beaver Lake are a hot spot for viewing their aerial show. On summer mornings, adult cliff swallows swarm in darting, aerobatic flocks while feeding near their jug-shaped nests. They dine on flying insects to feed themselves and newly hatched birds in communities of swallow nests. Clusters with dozens of nests can be seen along sheltered overhangs on certain bluffs.
Joe Neal of Fayetteville and Alan Bland of Rogers floated June 25 in a boat on the lake’s calm water mesmerized by 50 or so cliff swallows swirling hither and yon above the boat. A hundred or more nests were attached to the bluff that towered 75 to 100 feet above the clear water.
“These are the same swallow species that go back to Capistrano,” said Neal, author of several books on birds and a field trip leader with the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society.
This particular bluff, called Red Bluff, on the lake’s north shore across from Rocky Branch park, could be the cliff swallow capital of Beaver Lake. Bland noted he’s seen cliff swallows here since he was a kid in the 1960s.
It’s critical the swallows time their spring arrival just right.
“There has to be bugs flying, and they have to be abundant,” Neal explained. There’s usually enough food for the swallows by mid to late April.
Nests are used year after year. First order of business for the swallows when they return from South America is to spruce up those nests. The swallows do that by attaching individual pellets of mud to the nests.
“They find an open spot that’s moist and has mud,” Neal said. “They try to find mud that’s close, but they fly as far as a mile to get it.”
He noted that, according to Cornell University’s Birds of the World database, a cliff swallow pair can collect as many as 44 pellets in 30 minutes. A nest may contain 900 to 1,200 individual mud pellets.
Adults lay eggs in the nests and hatch a crop of newborn cliff swallows. It’s a thrilling sight to see the swarming display of swallows feeding in early morning. They’ll catch flying insects, but sometimes strafe the water catching bugs near the surface.
“Mom and dad have to eat, and they have to take some food back to the kids,” Bland said. He’s a retired Army Corps of Engineers Beaver Lake park ranger familiar with bluffs on the reservoir that have nests.
When the newborns are fledglings ready to leave the nest, they’re already the size of adult cliff swallows, Neal said.
“They have to learn to fly and feed themselves, so they’re around for a awhile after they leave the nest.”
Tree swallows and northern rough-winged swallows are two more species of swallows seen at the lake. Tree swallows are found in the lake’s major creek arms that have vertical timber in the water. They nest in tree cavities. Joe’s Creek, Ford’s Creek or Van Winkle Hollow are havens for tree swallows.
Northern rough-winged swallows may nest in rocky cavities or cracks in the bluffs by the lake, Neal said.
Bird watchers eager for a cliff swallow show better hit the lake soon. By mid-July, after raising their young, cliff swallows start their long migration back to South America. The birds are gone by August.
See the show
At Beaver Lake, cliff swallows seem to prefer bluffs that don’t get long harsh exposure to direct sunlight. Alan Bland, former Army Corps of Engineers park ranger at the lake, said the large bluff across from War Eagle Marina is another good place to see cliff swallows and their nests.
Source: Staff report