Swallow Rail was the name my dad gave the farm over forty years ago. He wanted it to be relevant, reflecting the spatial and natural qualities of his 18 acres in Western Shelby County. His inspiration came from the swallows that swoop and swerve so adeptly in open fields, catching insects on the fly. The rail of Swallow Rail comes from the two railroad tracks that flank either end of the road.
As we continue caring for his 18-acre dream the name he chose remains as true today as it did forty years ago. The swallows still fly and the trains still run. It’s like generations of swallows have been trained, like a Pavlovian response, to come to the field as soon as they hear the loud hum of the mower. They know a hearty meal awaits if they let me stir up the insects as I do my chores.
They fly about in rapid movement; sometimes I flinch because they come so close and at such great speed. If they were bats catching insects, I would probably be a little uneasy but because they are the swallows, I feel a sense of comfortable familiarity; and that they belong here more than anyone else. They are doing what they do best, out there in the field catching insects on the fly. They know exactly how to manipulate their bodies to move this way or that. Tail forked, pointed or fanned; wings outstretched or pulled close to their bodies; their flight truly is an aerial acrobat. Swallows are one of the few birds that are entirely insectivores and they have all the moves to catch as many insects as possible.
I did a little research on swallows, particularly the barn swallows that follow me in a tangle as I mow. The barn swallow is the only swallow that has a “swallow-tail”, a term that has come to mean deeply forked. The colorations also make this bird easily identifiable (which is helpful to me because I am not a very good birder). As they jet through the air you can catch glimpses of its blue-black back; the underside is buff-colored to cinnamon with a slightly darker throat. And, of course, that amazing forked tail.
The barn swallow is most common but there are others including the tree swallow that has entirely white under parts; the cliff swallow has a rust-colored rump and a squared tail; the bank swallow is marked by its brown back and dark band that runs across its otherwise white breast; and the much-desired purple martin, which is the largest of the swallows and has an entirely blue-black body.
Most fun was my “field work”. I spent about 2 hours roaming in and out of different microenvironments of the farm. I carried a little stool around with me so I could sit quietly in the nut grove and watch the cardinals; then over by the catalpas in the middle of the field where the Eastern King bird has a perch; and on the side of the dam where the Joe-Pye weed and ironweed are in bloom, providing a meal for the resident pair of hummingbirds. And the Mockingbirds that so annoyed me this spring with their loud mimicking song at 4 A.M. are now busy with their children in the crabapples. I watched a young one on the back patio chasing mosquitoes just last evening!
We so often do not take the quiet time to simply sit and observe. Maybe this quarantined summer season has allowed some of us to do so? My observations reaffirmed the idea, once again, that there is an extraordinary balance in the natural world. I do not need to put out a hummingbird feeder full of sugar water if I let the native wildflowers (called weeds by some) grow on the dam or put potted tropical plants on the patio. The grove of catalpas in the middle of the back field makes it a perfect place for my little Eastern King Bird who watches from her perch for an insect meal. Her tail fans out and she shows off the unmistakable white band that allowed me to identify her. I am often mesmerized by her moves because she hovers just above the grass with her wings outstretched, fluttering like a heavy butterfly or a papery puppet on a string, until she goes in for the snatch.