I saw my first rough-winged swallow when I was a teenager fishing along a creek in western Pennsylvania. I thought it wasn’t much to look at. It had a graceful swallow shape, but otherwise it was plain and dull.
Skimming low over water catching insects along with other swallows, a rough-wing lacks their polished plumage and contrasting, iridescent colors. The back, head, and wings are wood-brown and the throat is drab, shading to gray on the chest and sides. The belly is a dirty, brownish white. Only the undertail feathers are dazzling white. The black, shiny bill looks very short, even for a swallow.
When we moved to our house near Rocky Marsh Run (Jefferson County), I learned to appreciate this somber swallow. Starting in August, I noticed groups of swallows landing on the utility lines that spanned the upper pasture. They grew more plentiful each day. Throughout September, a few hundred swallows regularly circled the house and barn, skimming over the pasture and lining the wires. Some of them were tree and barn swallows, but the vast majority were rough-wings. Many of the phone videos I made of local wildlife through the spotting scope in the fall included the passing forms of rough-winged swallows. But by September’s end, most of the swallows had gone.
The following spring, I noticed a pair of these brown, graceful beauties alighting on the pavement, chasing each other and perching on the line extending from our house to the pole next to the bridge on Rocky Marsh Run. I watched them fly repeatedly to and from a drainage hole in the bridge abutment. They evidently nested there.
In mid-May, they were arrowing down to the bridge with beaks loaded with insects to feed their young. A few days later, I discovered two swallow fledglings in the bare branches of a dying ailanthus tree in the paddock. The begging youngsters were as brown as their parents, with chestnut-brown edgings on their wing coverts. When a baby opened its mouth to receive food, I noticed a yellow gape, which, viewed from the front with beak closed, resembled frowning clown lips.
John James Audubon wrote in his journal in 1819 that he hunted a flock of ibis in Bayou Sara, Louisiana. The ibis eluded him that day, but he managed to shoot two birds he believed were bank swallows (which he called sand martins). Close examination revealed they were larger and browner. Audubon named the new species “rough-winged” after the leading primary wing feather, which has a serrated outer web. This odd characteristic is more pronounced in the male bird.
Every April, we anticipate and appreciate seeing our rough-wings return to their bridge. We feel especially lucky to know they’ll use our pasture as a staging area to gather with their friends and relatives this fall, before their trek to Central America for the winter.
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. He submitted the artwork for this piece, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.