The first Swallows of the spring

Published 10:00 pm Monday, March 14, 2016

Several of the swallows are amongst the first birds to arrive each spring, and the first Tree Swallow was seen this year in Asheville on Feb. 21, which was at least five days earlier than any previous reports. This Tree Swallow has been closely followed by several more birds in the Hendersonville and Asheville area and this predominantly northern bird is set to establish itself even further as a regular and increasingly common breeding species here in the western part of the state.

The next swallow to arrive is usually the Northern Rough-winged Swallow and we expect them during the second week of March. “Roughies,” as they are known to birders, are the small, somewhat plain brown swallows that weave their lazy flight over lakes, marshes and wet fields. Most spend the northern winter just south of the US border in Mexico, with smaller numbers wintering as far south as Costa Rica and Panama.

Rough-wings are superficially similar to another small brown swallow, the Bank Swallow. However, these small brown and white swallows are white below with brown chest bands. They are rare breeding birds in the mountains and piedmont of the Carolinas, with only very small, scattered colonies being reported from year to year.

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Like their relatives, the Northern Rough-wings, Bank Swallows breed in cliff or dirt banks either along rivers, quarries or roadways. Due to their superficial resemblance to the Rough-wings, Bank Swallows may be more widespread than we believe.

Purple Martins have also already been reported this year. They are usually first seen in the coastal counties of the state, and we expect them to start appearing in the Foothills and mountains any day now. They are usually seen around the gourds of last year’s colony, where they check out the accommodations in readiness for the arrival of the females. It was originally believed that the first arrivals were the scouts searching out potential colonies for colonization, although research has concluded that this exploration takes place in late summer instead.

The last of our group is the Barn Swallow and this may be the most familiar and widespread of all the North American swallows. These coast-to-coast breeders are a common sight throughout farms, small towns and open areas of the country. Barn Swallows have a fairly long arrival period, with some of the earliest arriving mid-March, and northern breeders still arriving many weeks later. Their sweeping flight, persistent twittering and generally social behavior make them one of the most loved birds in the country.

The first swallows always tell you that spring is not far away and after the swallows arrive, the warblers, tanagers, and vireos should not be far behind.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 20 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours, online at For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, check the website for additional listings.