Bear River Cliff Swallows

I don’t believe that I photograph any species more pugnacious than the Cliff Swallow. Their combative nature can lead to some interesting photo opportunities but they’re so darned quick that doing it well is very difficult.  Two days ago at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge I spent a few minutes attempting to photograph Cliff Swallows in flight but quickly abandoned the effort because they’re so difficult to lock focus on in the air.


cliff swallow 9794 ron dudley

1/2500, f,6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

But some of them were perching in a stand of last years phragmites allowing for some clean shots with a background I like. The swallows were so thick in the air that at least a third of the images I took of perched birds had other blurry birds in the background or foreground.



cliff swallow 9878 ron dudley

1/2000, f,6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, partial blurry bird removed, not baited, set up or called in

This swallow took off from the vertical stem in an attempt to turn defense into offense. It was being attacked by another bird from the left so it flew directly at the aggressive swallow. The antagonist was partially still in frame but it was very blurry so I broke down and removed it but you can tell approximately where it was by following the direction this swallow was looking. I wish I’d had just a little more shutter speed to get this bird slightly sharper.



cliff swallow 9824 ron dudley

1/2000, f,6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, partial blurry bird removed, not baited, set up or called in

The action was fast and furious and I never knew what to expect next so it was difficult to know what camera settings to use in a given situation. Here there were two birds perched on a vertical stem, one directly below the other. Suddenly a third swallow viciously attacked the lower bird from the left and I didn’t have enough depth of field or shutter speed to get the combatants sharp but their beak-tip to beak-tip fighting postures are clear enough.

In the previous shot it’s obvious that the top swallow saw the incoming bird but it apparently knew the attack would be directed at his companion below him. I like its nonchalant pose with the skirmish going on directly below.

I’m anxious to try this again with a different strategy. I had enough light to shoot at ISO 1600 with the 7D Mark II which could have given me significantly more shutter speed and depth of field. I’d like to shoot these birds for an hour or so and take lots of shots to give me a better chance of catching action where all the participants are sharp.

Live and learn…


22 comments to Bear River Cliff Swallows

  • Rather a lot of our smaller birds suffer from ‘little man syndrome’ and are constantly picking fights and attempting to punch well above their weight.
    I am in awe at how well your hypercritical self caught some of this action. Even without pugnacious aggression in the mixture I find small birds move more quickly (and as predictably) as greased lightening.

    • “small birds move more quickly (and as predictably) as greased lightening.”

      You’ve got that right, EC. And even for their size swallows move ahead on that scale a notch or two, partly as an adaptation to catch flying insects.

  • Jane Shipp

    Absolutely fantastic shots!! Thank you!

  • Dick Harlow

    Great shots of fast and furious action Ron. Well done. Swallows have been very difficult subjects for me unless they are perched.

    • “Swallows have been very difficult subjects for me unless they are perched.”

      That says it all when it comes to photographing swallows, Dick. Thank you.

  • Patty Chadwick

    I wonder if Barn swallows are less aggressive. We used to have several of their clay nests glued to the eaves and wallls of the barn…my sisters and I raised a few…dainty little things…beautiful blue-black and rusty brown….

    • “I wonder if Barn swallows are less aggressive”

      I’m not sure, Patty, but based on my own observations I’d say it’s possible, though according to BNA Online Barn Swallows have their fair share of squabbles too.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Interesting shots of a beautiful fast moving little bird…kind of like trying to photograph lightning….we used to have a sand mound nearby, thoroughly punctuated by cliff swallows…I loved watching them swooping in and out of their nesting cavitiies…the mound was riddled with them. The property changed hands, the mound bull dozed, and the land “developed”. The mound was at the very rear of the parking lot and could have remained.

    • We keep chipping away at nature (and ourselves) don’t we, Patty. For a species that’s supposed to be so intelligent we’re an utter failure. And in the intelligence department I think on average we’re actually regressing.

      • Patty Chadwick

        “INTELLIGENT”!!!!???? Looks at the recent election results…who’s making the laws and who’s “representing” us in Wahington!!! “INTELLIGENT”???????? Have another cup of tea…..

  • Arwen

    I really love the buff coloring on the bird that is launching from the stem. These are really attractive creatures, aren’t they?

  • Wonderful photos, Ron. Swallows are never easy to capture, and you’ve really done a fantastic job here!

  • Susan Stone

    We watch Cave Swallows and Barn Swallows, and they are indeed fast fliers. I think you did an excellent job of capturing the Swallows in these images.

    • Thanks, Susan, but my goal is to improve on this. I do like the first shot and the last two are interesting for the behavior but their imperfections are glaring to me.

  • Jorge H. Oliveira

    I understand what you mean… they are fast indeed. And with a lens like the one you have is almost impossible. I did catch one once but still slightly out of focus and my lens was a 70-300mm.
    I like the first shot. It’s beautiful.
    I wish you good luck on the new strategy.

    • Jorge, I’d have had a better chance (on several levels) if I’d removed the teleconverter but then I’d have had less detail. There’s always a tradeoff, isn’t there?

  • Charlotte Norton

    Sensational shots Ron! Thanks for sharing!