Swarms of Swallows

Migrating tree swallows are gathering for a big party, before heading south, at the mouth of the Connecticut River.  So I jumped on board our birder boat, and we headed down river toward Long Island Sound.  2014-09-14 17.25.34

Along the way, we saw familiar sites, like kooky Gillette Castle…

…and several bald eagles, probably residents, not early arrivals for wintering over…

—and osprey, egrets, herons, cormorants, kingfisher…

it was a busy evening on the river.

Soon I noticed yachts were following us, and the number of kayakers was thickening.  By 6:10 p.m., we have found a spot with a good view of a channel where the tree swallows, along with their friends the purple martens and barn swallows, come to roost.  This means settle in for the night and go to sleep, after a day feeding to build up their weight to get ready to fly south.

A mature tree swallows weighs the equivalent of 2 quarters and has a wingspan of only six inches.  So they have to bulk up for their long trip, perhaps as far away as Mexico.

This is an especially pretty bird, with shimmering color that ranges from turquoise blue to iridescent purple.



Not long after we arrived, the birds did, too.  They swooped in and around from all directions, numbers increasing.

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If you enlarge this image, you will begin to get a sense of the swarm that’s about to happen.  As we looked through our binoculars, one leader said, “it’s like a spray of ground pepper across the sky.”

The swallows gather together for a sense of safety, congregating at night.  In the morning, they will burst from their perch and travel up to 30 miles before returning to just this spot at sunset.

The masses of birds begin to form in what has been called a ballet.  With the naked eye, I could see patterns forming and disbanding and changing and re-forming.  Sometimes a band would dive down, skimming the water for a drink or a bath-before-bed, then do a “fly-up” en masse.

I hope you can hear the commentary in this video.  This is the most birds the leaders had seen “in a long time.”

Estimated number of birds?  500,000.  Yep, a half a million.  And if you could see the swarm, you’d believe it.

Sunset.  7:01 p.m. The sky was so gorgeous, with different colors from each direction, that I put together this slide show.  What to watch?  The birds or the rapidly-shifting sky?

If these were paintings, they would be called fake, overly-sentimental, cloying.  But really.

Meantime, many birds are still flying overhead at sunset.  As if they had an internal alarm clock, in ten minutes, they had all found a place to roost.  But these little dive bombers did not go gently.  They literally formed a tight funnel, like a tornado, twirling and whipping, then plunging down.  I have never seen anything like it.

“Astounding.”  “Astonishing.”  “Amazing.”  The adjectives multiplied.

Then, suddenly, it was over.  We all burst out in applause.  What a performance.