The Blue Swallow is truly a magnificent bird, metallic blue in colour, and the male has two long needle-thin tail feathers. It is a very fussy bird, choosing to live only in mistbelt grassland and unfortunately this grassland type has been reduced to almost nothing due to afforestation, poor veld management, fragmentation of habitat, and urbanisation. What does the future hold for this special swallow?
Blue Swallows are listed as Critically Endangered in South Africa because of the loss of their grassland habitat. They are intra-African breeding migrants, flying down from East Africa to breed in South Africa. They arrive here in late September and depart again in early April. There are about 32 breeding pairs that we are aware of, and ALL of these are in KwaZulu-Natal. The birds that once bred in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces appear to have gone extinct as breeding birds. This makes Blue Swallows far more endangered than Black Rhinos, and it also makes KZN the last outpost for these swallows in South Africa. Thus they really deserve more attention and input from the provincial conservation authority, which unfortunately is not happening!
Most Blue Swallows are found on private land, with only one population occurring in an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) protected area namely Impendle Nature Reserve (having gone extinct in Blinkwater NR a few decades ago). Therefore privately owned land has a vitally important role to play in the future survival of these birds. Impendle NR has one of the strongest and most productive populations of this species, with a maximum of four pairs – certainly not an ideal situation in anyone’s language! To add to our concern the 2015/2016 breeding season was not good with most of the pairs failing to breed – possibly due to the drought.
Now it’s time to park the bad news and look at these awesome birds themselves. They nest underground either in the dark recesses of aardvark burrows or in sink holes. The nest is a small cup of mud and at the beginning of every breeding season the pair line this cup with the most beautifully delicate white feathers, possibly to help them find the nest in poor light. Usually three speckled eggs are laid, which eventually hatch into seriously hungry chicks that keep the parents very busy indeed. In most years the pair can successfully breed and raise chicks twice in the season. To observe the first flight of the chicks is a life changing experience for the lucky few who monitor the birds. The first flight off the nest is make or break – if not successful they could end up at the bottom of the aardvark burrow or in water at the bottom of the sink hole. Once out the hole they fly weakly to start with while they are led away by the anxious parents. Once the chicks have crash landed on a small bush or fence the parents continue to feed them, and what a sight it is to watch the metallic blue adults zipping low over the grassland in pursuit of tiny insects. In no time at all the young birds are flying with the parents but still demanding to be fed, like typical human teenagers!
What a tragedy it would be if these truly magnificent birds were to disappear from KZN (and thus from South Africa) due to a lack of interest or conservation resources. We would like to put a challenge out there – and that is for all landowners in areas suitable for blue swallows, make a concerted effort to protect them and to facilitate their breeding. And we would like to thank those landowners who are already doing their bit to conserve this extremely rare species.