Cave Swallow, Petrochelidon fulva in New York

At 1:04 PM on Sunday 24th November 2002, I found a single Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva) and a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) hawking over the dunes at Breezy Point, Queens, New York. A quick cell phone call to Andy Guthrie who was holding swallow vigil at Orchard Beach, Bronx Co., brought a number of excited birders down from Westchester/Bronx and from Central Long Island. The Cave Swallow remained throughout the afternoon, although it ranged widely across this area of dunes and would disappear for 10-15 mins at a time. At a distance the two swallows could be hard to differentiate, although the Cave Swallow would sometime perform a rapid fluttering not shown by the Tree Swallow. This was my second sighting of Cave Swallow in Queens County, New York, the first being two birds that Andy Guthrie and I observed just a few miles to the east at Riis Park/Fort Tilden, 27 Nov 1998 (Guthrie and Wilson 2000; and see below).  [The following photographs were taken with a Canon 400mm/F5.6 lens and EOS D-60 body.]

Figure 1. Side profile showing the orange (pale cinnamon) throat and forehead as well as the blue cap.

Figure 2. A view of the uppersurface as the bird banks sharply. The pale nape separating the dark blue back from the dark cap is quite obvious in this shot. Note also the brick orange uppertail coverts and rump. This photo shows that the four inner primaries on each wing are freshly molted as are the corresponding upperwing coverts. The fact that the next oldest primary has not been dropped suggests an adult in suspended molt. The contrast between old and fresh feathers creates a Pterodroma petrel-like M mark! McNair and Post (2001) mention that an adult salvaged in North Carolina in late autumn showed arrested molt. This conflicts with prior literature indicating that adults have completed basic molt by November (West 1995).

Figure 3. Another view of the upper parts showing the similar colors of the cheek and rump to good effect.

Figure 4. Often the breast would appear as a darker band, less warmly colored than the cheek and throat. Notice the shallow notch to the tail.

Figure 5. Head on, the pale forehead and darkish lores gave the impression of a dark mask, visible at some distance. The color of the forehead seems to become more red close to the eye. At this angle the orange tone of the cheek seems washed out and concolorous with the breast.

Figure 6. Another view of pale cinnamon throat and forehead. When folded, the tail showed an obvious notch, which was not apparent when fanned.

Figure 7. Undersurface view. The underwing coverts and axillaries are orange-brown. The belly and lower breast are off-white merging smoothly into the orange flanks.

Subspecific Identification

Two subspecies occur in North America (P. f. pallida and P. f. fulva). Separation in the field has been the subject of intense debate and awaits a truly definitive study. As a generalization, it seems that most vagrants recorded in the northeast during the autumn are from the southwestern (Mexican) subspecies P. f. pallida. However, great difficulties remain and observers should be extremely cautious in assigning birds to subspecies (Curry and McLaughlin 2000; McNair and Post 2001). Based on our own examination of specimens and from correspondence, it seems that the differences (size, rump color etc) outlined in field guides are overly simplistic.


Curry, B. and McLaughlin, K. A. (2000) The November 1999 Cave Swallow invasion in Ontario and northeastern North America. Ontario Birds 18: 13-26.

Guthrie, A. and Wilson, A. (2000) Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva), second New York state record. Kingbird 50:110-117.

McNair, D. B. and W. Post (2001) Review of the occurrence of vagrant Cave Swallows in the United States and Canada. Journal of Field Ornithology 72(4): 485-622.

West, S. (1995) Cave Swallow (Hirundo fulva). No 141, in A. Poole and F. Gill, eds. The Birds of North America. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and American Ornithologists Union, Washington D.C.

Click here to view pictures of one of two Cave Swallows seen at nearby Riis Park/Fort Tilden, 27 Nov 1998.

Page and photos copyright Angus Wilson© 2002 All rights reserved.
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