New York State Avian Records Committee

a committee of the New York State Ornithological Association

Gallery of New York Rarities
Cave SwallowText and photographs by Angus Wilson

On Saturday 28th November 1998, Andy Guthrie and I observed what we believe is a Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva) hawking over the golf course at Riis Park, Queens, New York. Here are a collection of photographs of this bird. We later saw two Cave Swallows (presumably the initial bird plus a second) circling over the nearby Fort Tilden Headquarters. These constitute the 2nd and 3rd records for New York State (pending acceptance).

Click here for some additional pictures.

Click here for a description of the sighting.

Finally click here for a collection of comments on the photos and discussion of subspecific identification and ageing by subscribers to ID-Frontiers.

All images copyright © of Angus Wilson.

Figure 1. The breast, belly, flanks and vent region are white. The upper breast and throat are cinnamon (color slightly obscured by shadow). Notice the slight notch in the tail.

Figure 2. Side on view showing the pale cinnamon of the throat extending across lower nape as a collar. In the field the forehead color was difficult to determine (through 30x scope) but seemed dark (possibly red). In these photos the forehead appears lighter than the dark blue cap with a clear hint of red (especially close to the bill). The forehead is clearly darker than the throat.


Figure 3. The mantle and crown are a dark metallic blue. The forehead shows a tint of red above the bill and mask.




Figure 4. Head-on view showing the pale cinnamon throat. Note the contrast with the white belly, flanks and vent.




Figure 5. In life, the throat was pale cinnamon without any signs of a dark patch. The dark areas in these photos are shadows. Note the dark areas on some of the undertail coverts.



Figure 6. Side-profile showing cinnamon of the throat extending up across the nape as a prominent collar.






Figure 7. Undersurface view. The underwing coverts and axillaries are sandy-brown. The flanks appear to be white with no more than a slight buff wash along the very base of the wing.



Figure 8. Distant view as the bird dips behined a stand of pines marking the perimeter of the golf course.

Figure 9. A view of the uppersurface as the bird banks sharply. The pale nape separating the dark back from the dark cap is quite obvious in this shot as well as the pale brick colored rump patch . Although out-of-focus, the series of pale stripes running lengthwise across the dark blue mantle are visible.

Click here for a second page of photos.

Click here for a description of the sighting.

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Cave Swallows (Petrochelidon fulva)

Riis Park/Fort Tilden, Queens, New York
Saturday 11/28/98

Angus Wilson and Andy Guthrie

Events: As part of our regular circuit covering Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Riis Park/Fort Tilden and Floyd Bennett Field, we stopped to check a traditionally productive area of scrub separating the Riis Public Golf Course and beach front. As we walked along the perimeter fence, through some disused handball courts, we noticed a small hirundine flitting along the southwestern edge of the golf course. Through binoculars we could see that the bird had a dull brick-red rump, pale underparts and a pale throat offset by a weak reddish breast band. We knew immediately that we were looking at a Cave Swallow. We quickly returned to the main Riis parking lot to collect our camera gear and returned to the spot. The time was now 9:25 am. We soon relocated the bird as it coursed over the small stands of pines dotted around the center of the golf course. Over the next hour we studied the bird, taking notes and a number of photographs. The bird tended to keep within the boundary of the golf course itself and only occasionally came very close to us, once or twice passing directly overhead. We were able to watch the bird through telescopes and binoculars. Attempts to video the bird proved too difficult given the distance and limited field of view.

At about 10:30 we spotted two swallows circling above the fire station and horse stables, at least one of which was a Cave Swallow. We initially presumed (by default) that the second bird must have been a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Both birds vanished from sight. After a further 15 minutes without relocating the birds, we headed for the Park Headquarters building and ran into Dorothy Poole and Gaye Fugate. They informed us that a Cave Swallow had been written in the log book from the day before by Isaac Grant and Gene Herskovics. Like us, Poole and Fugate had not otherwise been aware of this previous sighting. From a pay-phone outside of the headquarters, AG made a series of calls to local birders most of whom had traveled upstate or to Massachusetts for the holiday weekend. In the course of making these many calls, he spotted two swallows circling over the large grassy areas at the entrance to the park near Building 149 and the vegetable lot. Remarkably, both birds were Cave Swallows. During the next twenty minutes we saw these two birds several times. They were rarely close together and I was unable to obtain a picture of both birds in the same frame. The very mobile behavior and the wide-separation of the two congeners suggested a very diffuse prey base. We speculated that it paid for the two birds to stay well apart to minimize competition. John Bull and party pulled up as we were about to leave. We alerted them to the our exciting finds which were still circling very high overhead. We left at about 11:30 am but have been informed that other observers, including Nellie Larsen, Max Larsen and Robert Kurtz, saw the birds during the afternoon.

Description: (Adapted from field notes taken whilst watching the initial bird. During our later observations of two birds together such close inspection was not possible however both appeared extremely similar to each other (plumage details and wear) as well as to the bird studied over the golf course. This description was prepared prior to any consultation with reference material or our photographs).

A small, neat and short-tailed hirundine. Plumage appeared relatively fresh. All the flight feathers appeared intact and in good order. Weak buffy-orange wash across the upperbreast; this band was not sharply defined (as in Bank Swallow) but appeared as a diffuse wash, becoming slightly paler on the throat. The pale throat contrasted with a dark facial mask and cap. This sharp separation was very apparent, even at considerable distance. When seen from below, the white or perhaps pale buff underparts (lower breast, vent, belly and flanks) contrasted sharply with darker (sandy-brown) underwings. Tail almost square perhaps with very slight fork. Rump patch a pale brick-red (similar to palest bricks used in nearby concession building), contrasting with darker rectrices. The rump seemed less obvious than on a typical Cliff Swallow and we speculated that this might be due to a lighter brown tone to the uppersurface of the wings. Mantle and scapulars dark metallic-blue with several parallel white stripes visible only at close distance. Clearly defined pale collar separating the dark crown from the dark mantle. A dark mask extended from the base of the bill, across the lores and eye to the crown. Despite repeated efforts, we were unable to firmly attribute a specific color to the dark forehead, oscillating between dark red and the same dark blue as the cap. The key point however is that the forehead was not obviously white.

Ranged from 25 feet off the ground to more than 500 ft. Often working into the wind. Although we saw no Tree Swallows during the day, the flight style seemed relatively slow and steady without the dramatic dips of other species. On several occasions, this feature resulted in momentary confusion with Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), which were abundant on the golf course. Neither bird heard to call at anytime even when together. Both of us (AG and AW) have prior experience of Cave Swallow (breeding birds in Texas) as well as several other hirundines. AW also has experience with Red-rumped Swallow (a remote possibility?).

The steady west winds raised the hope that the birds would remain in the area and many birders converged on Riis Park and Fort Tilden the following morning (11/29/98). However, in spite of exhaustive searching throughout the day, neither bird was seen again.

Analysis of photographs: (in progress.)

Discussion: Once an extreme vagrant to northeastern North America, Cave Swallow has become an annual late fall occurrence at Cape May Point, NJ (Mlodinow and O'Brien, 1996). There are records from the last seven seasons with a maximum of five there between the 7th and 16th November 1997 (Paxton et al., 1998). This species was recorded several times from Cape May this fall season, with two birds over the Cape May National Golf Course on November 23rd 1998 (Cape May RBA). Given the similarity in timing, we speculate that the same mechanism is responsible for these now regular New Jersey occurrences and the two Riis Park birds. It is even possible that the same individuals are involved. There is only one previous record of Cave Swallow from New York State, a one-day bird observed at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on 23 May 1990 (Levine, 1998).

There are at least five races of Cave Swallow - nominate fulva of the Caribbean; pelodroma breeding in northern Arizona, southeastern New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico; citata of the Yucatan Peninsula and two races restricted to South America (chapmani and rufcollaris) (Turner and Rose, 1989; Howell and Webb, 1995). The rump (uppertail-coverts) of both fulva and citata are described as cinnamon-rufous or chestnut and we believe, would appear significantly darker than either of the Riis Park birds. The undertail coverts of fulva are also reportedly darker than pelodroma. Although we did not note significantly dark undertail coverts, this feature seems too subjective without direct comparison to be of much use. On the basis of the rump color and lack of an orange wash to the flanks, we would argue that these individuals correspond to the race pelodroma. This conclusion must be regarded as very preliminary pending further research. The prior New York record was attributed to the Caribbean subspecies fulva (Levine, 1998).

Literature Cited:

Howell, S.N.G. and Webb, S. (1995) A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. Oxford University Press.

Levine E. (ed.) Bull's Birds of New York State. Cornell University Press.

Mlodinow, S.G. and O'Brien, M. (1996) America's 100 Most Wanted Birds. Falcon Press.

Paxton, R. O., Boyle, W. J., and Cutler, D.A. (1998) Regional Reports: Hudson-Delaware region. Field Notes 52(1): p37.

Turner, A. and Rose, C. (1989) Swallows and Martins. Houghton Mifflin Co.

Click here for some additional pictures.

Click here for a collection of comments on the photos and discussion of subspecific identification and ageing by subscribers to ID-Frontiers.

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