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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tornado of Birds

Air Date: Week of

Tree Swallows fill the sky (Photo: Noble Proctor)


CURWOOD: The tidal marshes of the lower Connecticut River that feed into Long Island Sound are popular spots for migrating birds to rest up, feed, or spend the night. Producer Laurie Sanders went to one of these marshes to witness one of the most spectacular – yet little known – events on the Eastern flyway.


SANDERS: It is about 6 o’clock, dinner time, as we head out into the marshes of the Connecticut River. We’re in Old Lyme, in Lord’s Cove, about half a mile from Long Island Sound. It’s low tide right now, and the exposed mudflats and extensive shallows are perfect feeding grounds for herons, sandpipers and other shorebirds. The water is mirror still, and in the intense, angled light of the late afternoon, the marsh plants look like they’re glowing.

PROCTOR: So we just watch the edges here for Least Bitterns and Sora Rails.

SANDERS: That’s Noble Proctor, one of Connecticut ’s best birders and all-around naturalists. His friend and fellow-birdwatcher Hank Golet is at the wheel. During the next half hour or so, the two spot lots of great birds. But as nice as those birds are, they’re not the reason we’re here. Golet jokes, they’re just the pre-show. We’re here to take in the gathering of hundreds of thousands of tree swallows - an avian event of unrivalled proportion that Golet is credited with discovering back in the mid-1970s.

GOLET: There are a few swallows over there I guess, but that’s nothing.

PROCTOR: It’s just a taste of what lies ahead. You really know it’s going to happen when you look up river and as far as you can see on the horizon, there will be black bands of swallows coming. It’s like a flood wave coming down.

SANDERS: As the sun sinks lower on the horizon, the tree swallows begin to arrive. Where there were just a few a minute ago, now there are thousands, coming from every direction.

PROCTOR: Take a look at that through the binoculars. Just look into that and see the density. It’s incredible…

GOLET: And that’s nothing yet.

PROCTOR: That’s a warm up group. They look like gnats. It’s interesting because even after doing it for 15, 16 years, I still get excited as coming down the first time.

SANDERS: Fifteen or sixteen years ago is when Proctor first came out with Golet and their mutual friend Roger Tory Peterson. Peterson has been called the John James Audubon of the 20th century. An artist, educator, and supreme naturalist, his field guide series is credited with rekindling America ’s interest in natural history.

Tree Swallows fill the sky (Photo: Noble Proctor)

PROCTOR: I mean to have Roger Peterson, who has seen half a million flamingos on a lake on one time, to come over and say this is one of the greatest ornithological phenomenon he’s ever seen, says an awful lot about what we’re about what we’re getting a chance look at.

SANDERS: Proctor and Golet remember that outing vividly. Everything worked. The weather, the swallows. Peterson would later write in Bird Watcher’s Digest, that in his entire lifetime of birding, he’d never witnessed a spectacle more dramatic than the twisting tornadoes of tree swallows, plunging down into the marsh from the sky after sundown. And he’d never known about it, even though he’d lived only a few miles away for 40 years.


SANDERS: Golet cuts the engine. We’ve arrived at his favorite viewing spot. In front of us is a low island covered with Phragmites. This tall reed can grow 12 feet in a single season and form dense stands that for us, are virtually impenetrable. And in the lower Connecticut River, this is the largest and densest stand of Phragmites. And it’s where the tree swallows prefer to roost.

By roosting here together, the birds gain some protection. Proctor says it’s basically a numbers game. The more birds in the roost, the less likely it is that you’ll be the one that gets picked off by a Cooper’s hawk or peregrine falcon.


SANDERS: Now as the sunset peaks, so do the swallows. They fill the sky, from the horizon line to the clouds. Proctor estimates there are more than 100,000 tonight. By mid-October, the number will swell to more than 500,000.

PROCTOR: They’re starting to spin a little.

SANDERS: As the colors of the sunset fade, the swallows have formed a tighter and tighter mass over the marsh. Their flight has become more organized. Whirling, en masse. And then, all of sudden, responding to some unknown cue, they start diving down into the marsh.

PROCTOR: There they go, they just dropped down. The upper group is dropping out right now. Just watch them go straight over the Phragmites down low. Here comes another big group in.

SANDERS: We watch, without speaking, as this swirling mass of birds descends into the marsh before us. It is not gentle gliding. They’re plummeting into the reeds. And in five minutes, it’s over. The sky is empty of swallows, and all hundred thousand are so, are in the Phragmites. Proctor says whenever he watches the descent, he always wishes he could have a different vantage point.

PROCTOR: What I would really like to see, is I would love to be at the bottom of the vortex and see where that many go. Because the bottom of the vortex is just 100 feet across, if that.

SANDERS: There are still so many questions about this phenomenon. What initiates their descent? How do the swallows know to come here? Do they come back night after night? And, where are they coming from? Based on the fact that they can fly 25 miles an hour, Proctor guesses these birds are coming, not just from other parts of Connecticut, but also Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and definitely, flying across the Sound, from Long Island.
PROCTOR: So, what we saw tonight is stunning. But five times that is gonna appear, or even more, eight times that, so that it will be a perfect jet black V against that sunset.

SANDERS: Proctor says until you’ve seen that, you want to keep coming back. And even after you’ve seen it, you’ll want to see it again. For Living on Earth, I’m Laurie Sanders in Old Lyme, Connecticut.



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