You want to find a Cave Swallow in New York, huh? Fortunately for you, it’s easy. Just follow the steps below and you will be in Hirundinidae heaven in no time!
- Wait until the end of October or, even better, the middle of November.
- Wait for several days of winds from the southwest.
- Check the shores of Lake Ontario for swallows with pale foreheads and pale rumps OR
- Wait for a day with winds out of the northwest following those days with southwest winds.
- Go to the south coast of Long Island.
- Look for swallows with pale foreheads and pale rumps.
Or you could do as I did and drive out to Jones Beach State Park on Long Island after other birders find Cave Swallows and are kind enough to report them to the local listserv. The tricky part is making sure that you are looking at a Cave Swallow and not a Tree Swallow though, honestly, the identification is not at all difficult. Even if the birds are silhouetted you may be able to pick them out by their more flappy flight style. (At least that is what I did once Andrew Vallely spotted one and got me on it and it ended up flying with a couple Tree Swallows.)
But what’s the big deal about seeing Cave Swallows in New York anyway? After all, it’s just another swallow, right? And one that isn’t even that different from Cliff Swallows?
Just another swallow, yes, but Cave Swallows breed no closer to New York State than the southern tip of Florida, though that is not the population that supplies New York birders with our Petrochelidon fulva fix. No, those south Florida birds are part of the Caribbean population of Cave Swallows, P. f. fulva, the nominate subspecies, which is much more orange-rufous than the birds from the “Mexican” population that we see in New York. Those “Mexican” birds nest no closer to New York than Texas, but over the last couple of decades* they have been documented irrupting north and east late in the fall almost every year, especially if they have southwest winds to blow them. And who can resist looking for a swallow in November?
Though there were four birds reported at Jones Beach on Saturday I only saw the one, though managing to photograph it made seeing just one perfectly fine by me, especially considering that before that I had only ever seen four, all on the same day as they flew past the Fort Tilden hawk watch platform a couple of years ago.
Not a bad bird at all and well worth looking for if you have the chance.
*It is unclear if the discovery of Cave Swallows at Cape May in 1992 was the first time they had irrupted in numbers or if they had been doing it for some time and birders just hadn’t caught on to their tricks.