Saving the Blue Swallows

Welcome to issue 11 of the Flack’s Photography Newsletters. I truly hope it finds you happy and in good health!

On the 11 of January I was kindly asked if I wanted to visit a nature reserve near Richmond (KwaZulu Natal, South Africa). The custodians of the site asked if I could photograph their Blue Swallows; a critically endangered species in South Africa, in order to drive awareness and encourage birders and photographers to visit the area. The location has a long history of using the birds to educate children about conservation, but due to Covid-19 had not received a paid invoice for eleven months and was looking to diversify its revenue streams.

Excited about the opportunity, I quickly made plans to visit the reserve. I think it is every photographer’s dream to use their images to promote conservation and make a difference!

A magnificent, male Blue Swallow stretches his wings before taking off from his favourite perch at Roseland Nature Reserve near Richmond, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. This was not the first time I have seen Blue Swallows, but it was the first time I have been able to truly admire their beauty and uniqueness. Roselands Nature Reserve is a very special site and provides unrivalled opportunities to see these critically endangered birds.

Fast forward 6 weeks and I have learned so much about these incredible birds, have met the most awesome bunch of people who are determined to save them, and have spent some amazing moments in the field documenting their beauty and conservation story.

With only an estimated 40 pairs of Blue Swallows left in South Africa and only 1000 pairs worldwide (possibly less), these birds need our help and support. This conservation story takes you on a journey to Roseland Nature Reserve; one of the last remaining, active breeding sites in South Africa for these exquisite hirundines. The story of Roselands perfectly captures why these birds are in trouble, highlights the heroes and heroines who are working hard to protect them, demonstrates what photography and photographers can do to support conservation efforts and reveals much of what still needs to be done to ensure these Swallows live on.

Before I get going, however, I think it is probably important to note that this story is not meant to be a scientific paper, hence it may have some errors in it. Secondly, it is not meant to cover every conceivable angle about the bird’s conservation or identify all the organisations that have fought to save it. Instead, it focuses on telling the story of Roselands and its Blue Swallows to the best of my ability.


The Story of Roselands Nature Reserve

A Short History of Conservation at Roselands

The history of Roselands is a fascinating one. The farm has been in the Nicholson family for six generations; almost 160 years, and fortunately for the Blue Swallows, the family has always been conservation minded. Indeed, when speaking to Peter Nicholson, the current owner and manager of the farm, I learnt that his Dad had been reading a conservation magazine when he stumbled across an article about the Blue Swallows and their population decline. Knowing that they had several birds on the farm he contacted the author of the article and invited him to visit. According to Peter, his Dad says that the man’s jaw dropped to the floor when he saw that their farm was home to 4 nest sites and as many breeding pairs of these magnificent birds.

The habitat in which Blue Swallows are found in South Africa is incredibly special, as well as endangered. This image shows a male Blue Swallow sitting on a Bracken fern perch, which is one of the most common perches for Blue Swallows in their Mistbelt grassland environments and is such a typical scene for this species.

According to Peter, this first meeting started the journey towards protecting the Blue Swallows and their habitat. With the prompting and help of Kevin McCann, who was the KZN Biodiversity Stewardship Programme Manager for Ezemvelo at the time, Roselands was declared a formal nature reserve around 2008. Since then Birdlife South Africa and Conservation Outcomes, represented in the area by Steve McKean, together with Pete Nicholson, Brent Coverdale; the Animal Scientist for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and Nathan Bam; a partner at Roselands Outdoor Adventure Centre, have joined forces to protect the birds and their breeding home. This protection is key to the bird’s survival and Roselands is an excellent case study in how collaboration between NGOs, conservation organisations, landowners and like-minded people can make a notable difference to conservation.

A female Blue Swallow flies in with a combination of mud and grass stems to build her nest at the “Dip Tank” nest site at Roselands Nature Reserve. This is the most famous of the nest sites at Roselands, as it has been used for 22 years to educate children about the importance of the environment and ensuring we conserve it.

As part of ensuring the sustainability of Roselands, Peter leases the grassland area and some old farm buildings to the Roselands Outdoor Adventure Centre. As previously mentioned, Nathan and his partner have been using the location to educate children about the importance of the environment and the conservation of species, such as the Blue Swallow. This provides an excellent example of how to turn a precious habitat into something that can be sustained over time.

In the below photograph, Nathan can be seen educating a group of children from the local community on the unique nature of the Mistbelt grasslands and their inhabitants. The grassland, where this photograph was taken, is so incredibly rich with insect life that as you walk through it all you see is grasshoppers and bugs jumping to the right and to the left. It is truly a magical experience for kids and adults and offers an amazing space in which to experience conservation firsthand. Pre Covid-19, Nathan’s operation would educate around 6000 children each year including disadvantaged kids from near and far.

This photograph was taken at the “Dip Tank” nest site and shows Nathan Bam explaining the importance of the Mistbelt grasslands to a group of children from the local community. Nathan’s passion for environmental education and children is contagious! This image also shows the large sinkhole in which the birds nest year after year.

Why Are the Blue Swallows in Trouble?

South Africa’s Blue Swallows have very specific feeding, breeding and nesting requirements. They are dependent on Mistbelt grasslands and make their nests primarily in sink holes or discarded Aardvark burrows. These special grasslands are incredibly rich in insects and specifically flying insects, which make up most of the blue swallow’s diet.

A male Blue Swallow preens himself near “Dip Tank” nest site at Roselands Nature Reserve.

Unfortunately, given the fertility of these habitats, they are also prime locations for timber, dairy and beef production. Consequently, most of this land has been degraded or destroyed as a result. According to Birdlife South Africa: “Only 10% of the breeding population of Blue Swallows in South Africa occur on formally protected land and, thus, the onus falls on the private landowner to protect these special birds”.

These endangered grasslands are not only the home to the Blue Swallow but are also the safe harbour for the endangered Mistbelt Chirping Frog; Anhydrophryne ngongoniensis, the critically endangered Orchid; Satyrium rhdanthum, and rare flowers called Hilton Daisies.

The “Florida Dam” nest site; where a pair of Blue Swallows successfully raised two chicks this year, is nestled between gum plantations and farmland. The nest was built in a large sinkhole in front of the tree fern, which can be seen at the bottom right of this image.

Steve McKean who works on the Blue Swallow Project; a joint partnership between Birdlife South Africa and Conservation Outcomes, describes this habitat as follows: “These grasslands are amongst the least protected biomes in South Africa, with less than 2% of Mistbelt grassland within formal Protected Areas. This vegetation types is classified as “endangered”. The area of natural grassland is decreasing due to land transformation for agriculture, timber plantations, infrastructure and housing development. There has been a 23% decrease in grassland area since 2008 and we are losing our natural grasslands at 6% annually.”

Roselands Nature Reserve really brings home how these birds and their habitat compete with gum plantations and farming. In this next image, which is known as the “Florida Dam” nest site, you can clearly see how plantations surround a small tract of Mistbelt grassland, which extends from the right of the fence down to the dam. On the left of the fence, is the beginning of Roselands’ farming activities. The active Blue Swallow nest is just a few metres in front of the tree fern you can see in the centre of the image.

The Mistbelt grassland; wherein the Florida Dam nest site is located, is surrounded by gum plantations and farming activities. This beautifully preserved grassland is a safe harbour for several threatened species including a frog, a bird and a couple of flowers.

When chatting to Peter Nicholson, I was very interested to hear that all his farming is done organically and that no insecticides or poisons are used. Moreover, their farm is an island situated in between gum plantations, which although do not support animal or bird life, don’t use chemicals or poisons. This may be one of the many secrets that has made Roselands such an important stronghold for these birds and ensures that they return year after year.

By successfully safeguarding the Blue Swallow, Roselands is not only protecting this bird but is also using it as a flagship species for the protection of these unique grasslands and the fauna and flora that reside in them.

Blue Swallows and Breeding Success at Roselands Nature Reserve

Blue Swallows are supremely adapted to thrive in Mistbelt grasslands. Their feathers repel water better than other birds; enabling them to deal with the very moist conditions that this habitat provides. They are also the lowest flying of the hirundine, which allows them to hawk insects just above the ground and prevents them competing with similar species for food.

The male birds are immediately recognizable by their long tail streamers and metallic blue colour. The more symmetrical and longer the outer tail feathers of the male, the earlier he is likely to find a mate and the earlier he can produce his first set of fledglings.

A stunning, male Blue Swallow captured on his way to feed his two youngsters at the “Florida Dam” nest site. This male, arguably the most majestic of the Swallows at Roselands, would return every few minutes with a mouthful of flying insects, fly around the sinkhole a couple of times and then dive down to feed his chicks.

Producing baby Blue Swallows, however, is no easy matter! Prolonged mist or rain; over 3 to 4 days, causes the birds to forage more and spend less time on the eggs or feeding their chicks, which can result in the eggs not hatching or fledgling mortalities. Not only this, but during periods of high rainfall, the wall, nest or both can collapse resulting in further loss or mortality.

Fortunately for Roselands, they have four, active nest sites! This year all the sites were occupied and had varying degrees of breeding success. The most successful pair was located at the “Florida Dam” nest site, where they successfully raised two healthy fledglings. I was fortunate to see the birds before they fledged, as well as once they had left the nest and were seen flying over the nearby dam. The young Swallows are easily identifiable by their black (not metallic blue colouration) and their yellow gape. It was a dream come true to experience breeding success at Roselands, which is exactly what this conservation story needs year after year!

One of my favourite images of the male Blue Swallow from the “Florida Dam” nest site. Watching this male glide into his nest with a mouthful of flying insects was a dream come true.

What Is Being Done To Conserve Them and What Is Required Going Forward?

Roselands Nature Reserve provides a good summary of what is required in order to protect these precious birds as well as the level of dedication needed to be successful. Firstly, you need a landowner who is conservation minded and can work with organizations like Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Birdlife South Africa and Conservation Outcomes to protect the Mistbelt grasslands from further destruction and degradation. Birdlife South Africa calls this “Biodiversity Stewardship” and describes it as “supporting the ongoing and additional habitat conservation work through negotiation of legally binding conservation agreements with landowners, resulting in legally secured areas conserving Blue Swallows.” In Roselands case, the Nicholson family have been exactly that and were instrumental in supporting these efforts.

Secondly, you need passionate conservationists like Steve McKean and Brent Coverdale to monitor the birds and use these efforts to ensure that their environment remains conducive to breeding and supports population growth. Birdlife South Africa describes this as “enabling additional Blue Swallow breeding monitors to be supported, thereby improving the monitoring effort, and expanding the reach of the current monitoring effort.”

A male Blue Swallow does his version of the splits at Roselands Nature Reserve. It was such a privilege to observe these incredibly relaxed Swallows as they went about their daily stretching and preening.

Thirdly, you need someone like Nathan Bam, working with Steve and Brent, to continually manage and support the site and have the necessary means and labour to do just this. This includes removing alien vegetation and ensuring that the nest holes don’t become too overgrown. You also need the funding support of organizations like Birdlife South Africa, Conservation Outcomes and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, to provide the needed but expensive chemicals to Roselands to kill invasive species, like brambles, and stop them taking over the grasslands. Birdlife South Africa describe this as “supporting the ongoing and additional management and site support for Blue Swallow habitat areas already working to conserve these birds and their habitat.”

And finally, there is also a need for funding to conduct further research; to understand why the birds have vanished from certain areas, why birds aren’t returning to nest sites and what is happening to these birds across their migratory routes, non-breeding grounds and other key breeding sites; such as Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. This research will enable coordination of conservation efforts as well as for funds to be channeled in the most meaningful way to protect the Swallows.

A male Blue Swallow takes flight from his favourite perch at Roselands Nature Reserve near Richmond, South Africa.

In the below image, you can see Brent Coverdale, the Animal Scientist for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, monitoring a nest site at Roselands known as “Sapekoe” nest site. The nest is situated in a very deep and narrow sinkhole (which is the dark hole directly in front of Brent). The opening is much smaller than the other sites; making monitoring of the birds a whole lot trickier.

Brent has been monitoring the four nest sites (Flordia Dam, Dip tank, Taffen and Sapekoe) at Roselands for 14 years and during the summer breeding season he visits each nest site once a week (often during his own leisure time on weekends). Brent’s passion for and knowledge of the birds is incredible, and it was special to spend time with him in the field understanding why monitoring is so important for the bird’s survival and why he feels Roselands is such a special site for them. Brent’s observations of these birds are amazing to listen to, for example, he has seen that certain nest sites, like Taffen, often have up to 5 birds raising the chicks, which is known as cooperative breeding, while at sites like Florida Dam it has only ever been 2.

Brent uses a selfie stick, which he stretches into the dark sink hole, to photograph the nest and determine whether any breeding activity is happening and at what stage. This ensures that the nest and the birds are not disturbed while he carries out his important work. As Brent was showing me the image of the nest he had just taken, the “Sapekoe” Blue Swallow (male) did a quick flyby.

In addition to Roselands, Brent also oversees the monitoring of the species throughout KwaZulu-Natal. This monitoring is extremely important as it tracks the Swallow’s breeding success, which serves as an indicator of any environmental challenges or changes at Roselands, and other breeding sites, that may be impacting the birds. This enables Brent to intervene and advise changes before it is too late. Moreover, this work helps determine the population of Blue Swallows within KwaZulu Natal. Brent is also looking to use DNA analysis to see if there is a genetic connection between the birds at the different nest sites at Roselands, and possibly to see whether these birds can be linked to any other birds in their non breeding grounds. This “joining of the dots” across the bird’s migratory route will help conservationists know how to coordinate their efforts and may unlock some key pieces to the puzzle.

How Can We Support the Conservation of Blue Swallows in South Africa?

Firstly, we can donate to the Blue Swallow Conservation Project. The funds will go towards looking after these birds and doing what is possible to secure their future.

Birdlife South Africa have set up a dedicated donation link for this purpose:

Birdlife South Africa is a registered non-profit public benefit environmental organization and the only dedicated bird-conservation organization in South Africa.

In terms of specifics, the funds will go towards:

  1. Enabling additional Blue Swallow breeding monitors to be supported, thereby improving the monitoring effort, and expanding the reach of the current monitoring effort;
  2. Supporting the ongoing and additional habitat conservation work through negotiation of legally binding conservation agreements with landowners, resulting in legally secured areas conserving Blue Swallows and their habitat, this mechanism is called Biodiversity Stewardship;
  3. Supporting the ongoing and additional management and site support for Blue Swallow habitat areas already working to conserve these birds and their habitat. This includes Roselands Nature Reserve, which will use these funds to continue safeguarding the nest sites and the surrounding Mistbelt grassland environment; and
  4. Additional research to understand why the bird’s populations are dwindling and what can be done to stop this.

Please consider donating to this worthwhile cause.

Secondly, we can visit Roselands and support their conservation efforts. Nathan can be contacted on +27 63 697 7225 should you want to arrange access. There is a small fee payable to visit the birds (R200 per birder/photographer with maximum of 5 birders per visit. A whole morning time slot can be secured for R1000). The birds have almost departed for their winter breeding grounds, but will be back in town around September/October to begin their breeding efforts again.

Thirdly, we can use our images of Blue Swallows to drive awareness of their plight and encourage people to get involved in their fight for survival.

After a successful visit to Roselands in January, this was the first photograph that I shared on social media, which helped drive awareness about Roselands Nature Reserve and its incredible Swallows.

The above photograph is one of my favourite portraits from the first day at Roselands. It not only displays the bird’s beauty but also shows the white under-wing feathers, which are used to line the bird’s nest and help the adults know when to stop in their dark nest holes. When this image was first posted on social media it reached over a million people and together with other social media efforts (by various supporters) started birders and bird photographers booking paid trips to the site. This small effort really demonstrates how photography can support conservation by driving awareness, education and action, as well as creating an emotional connection between the conservation subject and those who need to save it.

I truly hope that this newsletter has touched your heart in terms of these amazing birds and the efforts that are being made to save them. Please share this newsletter far and wide! It will be appearing in other blogs, competitions and publications with the hope that it gets the birds both local and international exposure and support.

As always, I look forward to hearing from you!

Yours in bird photography