It's Swallow Time Again On The Connecticut River

As the moon rises, swallows descend on Goose Island on the Connecticut River in Lyme on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Photo by Lisa Brownell)
As the moon rises, swallows descend on Goose Island on the Connecticut River in Lyme on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Photo by Lisa Brownell)

Early Thursday evening was a magical time to paddle on the lower Connecticut River near Lyme.

First of all, a gentle breeze and flooding tide helped propel a fleet of kayaks and canoes from a public launch at the end of Pilgrim Landing Road northward, toward their intended destination.

Then the sun dipped behind cirrus clouds the sky glowed with radiant iridescence.

As if that weren’t enough, a nearly full moon rose above the reeds on Goose Island, where boats assembled for the main attraction, which took place right on cue as the sun set.

“Here they come!” a paddler cried, pointing to what appeared to be a black cloud to the north.

Moments later hundreds of thousands of migrating tree swallows filled the air – flitting, swooping, diving and swirling. For more than a month these tiny birds gather nightly at the uninhabited island to feed on insects, much to the delight of spectators in small paddle boats, large power vessels, sailboats and even paddleboards. No one goes ashore except the swallows.

“A great show!” my pal Phil Warner exclaimed as the tiny, chirping birds shot past. Phil joined my wife, Lisa, and me for the spectacle, a repeat performance of the phenomenon, called a “murmuration,” that we witnessed last year.

No one knows why or for how long swallows have been massing at Goose Island in late summer, but they are a wonder to behold. As I reported last year, The late Roger Tory Peterson, one of the nation’s most celebrated naturalists, ornithologists, artists and bird guide authors who lived not far from Goose Island, once remarked, “I have seen a million flamingos on the lakes of East Africa and as many seabirds on the cliffs of the Alaska Pribilofs, but for sheer drama, the tornadoes of tree swallows eclipsed any other avian spectacle I have ever seen.”

I learned about the swallows a couple years ago and paddle out to Goose Island a few times each season. Two years ago I brought The Day’s videographer Peter Huoppi, who along with photographer Tim Cook produced this wonderful video:

http://www.theday.com/article/20141008/MEDIA0102/141009733/0/search

Each time it’s different. On some evenings the birds race to the island and roost in minutes; sometimes they form an enormous vortex high in the sky and descend instantly in a funnel cloud; other times, as was the case Thursday, they whoosh around for 15 minutes or so before settling among the tall grasses.

The Connecticut River Museum (ctrivermuseum.org) and a few commercial operators offer powerboat and guided paddle excursions through the end of the month but you can watch the nightly show for free for a few more weeks, when the bugs disappear and the swallows continue their southern migration.

Some advice: there’s only a tiny parking lot at the launch on Pilgrim Landing Road, which is off Route 156 less than a mile north of the Baldwin Bridge, so if possible drop off your boat and arrange with a friend to shuttle to and from a nearby supermarket parking lot on Route 156.

Goose Island is less than a mile north of the launch site, and the eastern shore close to land is more protected against wind, tide and boat wakes. Make sure you bring along a headlamp or other lights for your boat because the paddle back will take place after the sun has set.

One final note: While the evening murmuration is most popular among spectators, you can also watch the swallows fly away from Goose Island en masse at dawn.

The early bird catches the departing swallows

 

 

Early Thursday evening was a magical time to paddle on the lower Connecticut River near Lyme.

First of all, a gentle breeze and flooding tide helped propel a fleet of kayaks and canoes from a public launch at the end of Pilgrim Landing Road northward, toward its intended destination.

Then as the sun dipped behind cirrus clouds the sky glowed with radiant iridescence.

As if that weren’t enough, a nearly full moon rose above the reeds on Goose Island, where boats assembled for the main attraction, which took place right on cue as the sun set.

“Here they come!” a paddler cried, pointing to what appeared to be a black cloud to the north.

Moments later hundreds of thousands of migrating tree swallows filled the air – flitting, swooping, diving and swirling. For more than a month these tiny birds gather nightly at the uninhabited island to feed on insects, much to the delight of spectators in small paddle boats, large power vessels, sailboats and even standup paddleboards. No one goes ashore except the swallows.

“A great show!” my pal Phil Warner exclaimed as the tiny, chirping birds shot past. Phil joined my wife, Lisa, and me for the spectacle, a repeat performance of the phenomenon, called a “murmuration,” that we witnessed last year.

No one knows why or for how long swallows have been massing at Goose Island in late summer, but they are a wonder to behold. As I reported last year, The late Roger Tory Peterson, one of the nation’s most celebrated naturalists, ornithologists, artists and bird guide authors who lived not far from Goose Island, once remarked, “I have seen a million flamingos on the lakes of East Africa and as many seabirds on the cliffs of the Alaska Pribilofs, but for sheer drama, the tornadoes of tree swallows eclipsed any other avian spectacle I have ever seen.”

I learned about the swallows a couple years ago and paddle out to Goose Island a few times each season. Two years ago I brought The Day’s videographer Peter Huoppi, who along with photographer Tim Cook produced this wonderful video:

http://www.theday.com/article/20141008/MEDIA0102/141009733/0/search

Each time it’s different. On some evenings the birds race to the island and roost in minutes; sometimes they form an enormous vortex high in the sky and descend instantly in a funnel cloud; other times, as was the case Thursday, they whoosh around for 15 minutes or so before settling among the tall grasses.

The Connecticut River Museum (ctrivermuseum.org) and a few commercial operators offer powerboat and guided paddle excursions through the end of the month but you can watch the nightly show for free for a few more weeks, when the bugs disappear and the swallows continue their southern migration.

Some advice: there’s only a tiny parking lot at the launch on Pilgrim Landing Road, which is off Route 156 less than a mile north of the Baldwin Bridge, so if possible drop off your boat and arrange with a friend to shuttle to and from a nearby supermarket parking lot on Route 156.

Goose Island is less than a mile north of the launch site, and the eastern shore close to land is more protected against wind, tide and boat wakes. Make sure you bring along a headlamp or other lights for your boat because the paddle back will take place after the sun has set.

One final note: While the evening murmuration is most popular among spectators, you can also watch the swallows fly away from Goose Island en masse at dawn.

The early bird catches the departing swallows

 

 

 

 

Paddlers gather as the sun sets. (Photo by Steve Fagin)
Paddlers gather as the sun sets. (Photo by Steve Fagin)
Kayaks raft up to wait for the swallows.
Kayaks raft up to wait for the swallows.
The sun disappears behind clouds.
The sun disappears behind clouds.
Steve paddles as the sun sets over Essex.
Steve paddles as the sun sets over Essex.
Swallows fill the air.
Swallows fill the air.
Spectators watch from the Becky Thatcher tour boat.
Spectators watch from the Becky Thatcher tour boat.
Spectators watch from the Becky Thatcher tour boat.
Spectators watch from the Becky Thatcher tour boat.

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