Duck! Here come the swallows!

Whoosh … whoosh ... whoosh …

As a fiery sun sank toward the western bank of the Connecticut River earlier this week, my kayaking pal Phil Warner and I drifted in Lord Cove a few yards off a small island near Lyme.

Whoosh … whoosh ... whoosh …

A flurry of tree swallows shot by like bullets from a Gatling gun.

Whoosh … whoosh ... whoosh …

I was so transfixed by the blur of feathers at eye level I momentarily forgot to view the main attraction.

“Look up!” Phil exclaimed.

I gazed heavenward at a swirling cloud of birds, smiled and leaned back to enjoy the show.

The annual swallow migration is a breathtaking, almost spiritual phenomenon that I never tire of watching.

In late summer through early fall, hundreds of thousands of swallows winging south for the winter pass through the lower Connecticut River valley, stopping each sunset to feed on insects at Goose Island.

Some evenings, the birds form vortex-like flocks that circle for half an hour or so before streaming in seconds to the island’s tall grasses as if sucked by a giant vacuum; other times, they flit around haphazardly and gradually settle to Earth. No matter — it’s always overwhelming.

As I’ve reported in past years, Roger Tory Peterson, the renowned naturalist and ornithologist who, before his death in 1996, 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.”

The swarm that Phil and I witnessed this week — called a murmuration — may not have culminated in a tornadic descent, but through pure luck, it turned out to be a satisfyingly dramatic pageant.

It’s always a guessing game exactly where the birds will congregate around the island, which measures barely two-thirds of a mile long, so we chose a spot at roughly the midway point. Turns out we picked that evening’s epicenter.

Whoosh … whoosh ... whoosh …

Scores of swallows rocketed past, then hundreds, then thousands, tens of thousands … a veritable swallow blizzard.

“This is crazy!” I exulted.

We froze in place, fearing that any sudden movement on our part would cause a feathery pileup. Although the darting birds cut it pretty close, they somehow avoided slamming into us.

Whenever friends and I observe wildlife in their natural habitat, we’re acutely aware that humans can be disruptive. We keep our distance in winter when kayaking out to Fishers Island to watch seals off Hungry Point, as well as when paddling among bald eagles on an ice-choked Connecticut River.

But these swallows were so fixated on their murmuration they appeared oblivious to our presence. If they thought anything, it probably was something on the order of, “What the heck are those weird-looking, floating creatures looking at? Don’t they have anything better do to?”

On some evenings, dozens of kayaks, canoes, sailboats, small outboards and tour boats show up, but in this week’s hot, muggy conditions, only two or three other vessels came out.

If you’d like to witness the spectacle, which should peak during the next week or two, the closest public launch to Goose Island is at the end of Pilgrim Landing Road off Route 156 less than a mile north of the Baldwin Bridge. There’s a tiny lot for cars, so plan to arrive at least an hour before sunset in order to secure a parking place. If the lot is filled, you may have to drop off your boat, park at a shopping center a mile or so away and hitch a ride back to Pilgrim’s Landing Road.

Goose Island is only a few hundred yards north of the launch site. You can either hug the shore in Lord Cove en route to the east side of the island, or venture to the west side that borders the Connecticut River. The river attracts big, fast-moving powerboats, so stick to Lord Cove if you’re in a kayak or canoe to avoid noise and wakes.

Bring a flashlight or headlamp for the return paddle, when darkness will have descended if you stay for the whole extravaganza.

Enjoy the show!




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