I was pleased to find a couple of sizable cliff swallow colonies at Cabarrus County's Lake Don T. Howell last week. Ten years ago, cliff swallows could be found breeding locally only around the McGuire Nuclear Plant at Lake Norman.
The species is now rapidly expanding its range to the east, and can now be found breeding under many large bridges throughout North Carolina. At Lake Don T. Howell, the birds are easily seen around the bridge over Coddle Creek at the north end of the reservoir, and the dam at the south end.
They build odd, gourd-shaped mud nests, completely enclosed except for a narrow entry access. As a group, swallow species are generally expanding their breeding ranges in North Carolina.
Tree swallows are moving eastward, and barn swallows have become established throughout the state in the last few decades. Three other swallows breed in the state – the northern rough-winged swallow, bank swallow, and purple martin – and cave swallows are rare fall migrants mainly along the coast. In my opinion, cliff swallows are the most attractively plumaged.
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The throat is chestnut, the forehead pale, and the rump is conspicuously buff, contrasting with a dark back. Birders pick out cliff swallows in large mixed swallow flocks by looking for that field mark, conspicuous even at great distances.