Refusing to swallow defeat
You may think my senses have taken flight lately because I’ve spent way too much time chasing tiny birds.
My Ahab-like obsession started when I persuaded a group of friends and family to join in on what I promised would be a life-changing experience: the murmuration, or swirling flight, of hundreds of thousands of migratory tree swallows on the Connecticut River.
For years, I’ve ventured by kayak to Goose Island in Old Lyme just before sunset in late summer/early autumn to witness this breathtaking natural phenomenon.
But when our crew paddled out to the island a few weeks ago, we observed only a minuscule flock — teensy even by swallow standards. The spinning, swooping maneuvers that have mesmerized generations of bird-watchers were nearly invisible against a dense cloud cover.
I took this disappointment personally.
“Must be too early in the season,” I apologized. “Next time will be amazing.”
A day after writing a column describing this less-than-inspiring show, I received phone calls and emails from readers: Hadn’t I heard that the swallows moved from Goose Island to Great Island, farther south near the mouth of the river?
WHAT!!! The least they could have done was tweet me.
Swallows passing through Connecticut have been stopping at Goose Island as reliably as their California cousins have been returning to San Juan Capistrano. The birds here feed on bugs that settle in the island’s tall grasses; legend has it that cliff swallows made their first appearance at Capistrano because a kindly pastor offered them shelter after a heartless shopkeeper destroyed their nests with a broomstick.
Anyway, no less an authority than Roger Tory Peterson, the world-renowned ornithologist and bird guide author who lived in Lyme, specifically identified Goose Island as ground zero for the migration. He rhapsodized, “For sheer drama, the tornadoes of tree swallows eclipsed any other avian spectacle I have ever seen.”
Uncertain of whom to believe and where to launch, I called the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, which organizes sunset swallow paddles during the migrating season.
“Your best chance of seeing swallows is from Great Island,” I was told over the phone.
Still harboring doubts, my son Tom phoned the Connecticut Audubon Society and received the same message: Don’t bother with Goose Island; steer for Great Island.
So a couple days later, I organized a second expedition, this one departing from the Great Island boat launch at the end of Smith Neck Road in Old Lyme.
It was a glorious time to be on the water, with a setting sun bathing us in golden luminescence. Five of us kayaked south past Griswold Point into Long Island Sound, then doubled back a short distance up the Blackhall River before rejoining a narrow tributary of the Connecticut on the east side of Great Island.
We saw quite a few osprey, great blue herons, sandpipers, terns, gulls, ducks and Canada geese.
But not one swallow.
As the sun dipped below the western shore, we headed back to the boat launch.
Just then, Tom peered north and noticed a faint cloud in the distance.
“Hey! Check it out!” he called.
Sure enough, it appeared to be a flock of swallows circling over what must have been Goose Island, hidden behind a bend in the river more than three miles away.
Two women happened to be kayaking, and I called over to them.
“Say, did you happen to see any swallows?”
“Yeah, the other night — at Goose Island,” came the reply.
I turned to the paddlers in our group.
“OK, we’re going back,” I announced. This would be my MacArthur moment.
It took the World War II general two years to fulfill his promise to return to the Philippines in 1944; I was back at Goose Island in less than a week.
Several dozen other kayaks already were paddling toward Goose Island from Pilgrim’s Landing when we launched our third expedition last Sunday. I hoped this was a good sign.
On the other hand, “At least we’ll all be disappointed together,” I quipped to my buddy, Chris Stetler, paddling nearby.
“That’s the spirit,” he replied. “Misery loves company.”
But just as the western sky began to glow orange, a scattering of swallows shot past.
“Here they come!” someone shouted.
In minutes, a feathered blizzard exploded, with great swarms of birds filling the air.
We gazed heavenward, mouths agape.
For nearly half an hour, the swallows swooped and swirled, forming intricate, aerial patterns.
Then: WHOOSH! They compressed into whirling, corkscrew columns and plunged to earth, as if sucked by a giant vacuum.
I smiled. Once again, swallows had returned to Goose Island.
Note: I’m still confused about reports by authoritative sources of swallows moving to Great Island. Perhaps one or two squadrons detached from the main Goose Island murmuration and drifted farther south.
If, like me, you’re determined to see the birds, I’d check out Goose Island first. Worst case, you’ll have a rewarding outing on a beautiful section of river.
Same goes for Great Island. Birds or no birds, it’s a great place to kayak.