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

A Tornado of Birds

Air Date: Week of

Salt Marsh Diary writer Mark Seth Lender heads to the marshes of the Connecticut River to witness an extraordinary event: a funnel of migrating tree swallows.



GELLERMAN: Call it – the swallows’ swan song. As a prelude to migration, Tree Swallows gather this time of year at the Connecticut River where they merge into a massive cloud, called the Swallow Funnel. Writer Mark Seth Lender lent an ear to their symphony.

LENDER: On the fly-out the tree swallows rise with a roar. Up and up and up and fold into a single form, then spread then crash then break apart and drop down low, just above the island’s shore. Five hundred thousand muted bells, toll left, and toll right, and dive into the tall reeds: No sign; No sound; Not come to rest but a vanishing. Consumed. Then spit out, chord by phrase by crescendo, an echo of birds, dark and brilliant notes upon the sky.

Allegretto. The cloud of Swallows rolls and lofts, a C above High C, clarion to passing hawks and falcons. How it turns their predatory ears and eyes. Passing through and through this great music made by the living flesh of birds their talent fails them.

Finale. In the last descent the swallows funnel down, a grand cacophony. Here they feel most vulnerable, each phrase tutto presto as speed replaces virtuosity. But nothing can follow them, can capture more than a blur. Wings folded back like sixteenth notes cascading in slurs and in staccato. Only a shiver marks their entrance into the phragmites, a fall that should have broken bones. Perhaps, like the conductor’s stern baton - abruptly pianissimo - it is the reeds themselves which bring them to a stop and this safe cushion is why they come here, for the coda of soft landing. To sleep. To wait. To arise once more…

Tree Swallows go their separate ways. They will stop for bayberry when they can find it but mostly they will feed on insects plump with the indulgences of summer and the mild days of early Fall. Over water they gather the all-but-invisible life which hovers there, scooping with open mouths and tiny tongues.

The Connecticut River is an ancient parchment, its ebb and flow a score long studied and well known. Winter is the great river’s last movement, a measure tree swallows can never master, a chorus they must not sing on pain of death. Acclaim will therefore be late, sung by Tree Swallows only at their grand Return to this once and still untrammeled place -

Encore! Encore! Encore...


GELLERMAN: Mark Seth Lender's is author of the soon to be released book "Salt Marsh Diary, A Year on the Connecticut Coast.” And while you’re at our website, L-O-E dot org, see a slideshow of some of Mark’s photos.



Salt Marsh Diary


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