Early Monday evening I boarded the River Quest, a 64’ catamaran at Eagles Landing in East Haddam, CT. The purpose of the cruise was to watch a large flock of Tree Swallows descend onto Goose Island at sunset, where they roost overnight. For a few weeks every late summer and into early fall, the swallows gather here, near the mouth of the Connecticut River, as they ready for their migration south.
This behavior is known as “staging.” The swallows choose this particular spot for a variety of reasons, such as the ample food source of flying insects (they dine on the wing), which they load up on before their long flight. Another reason is for the protection from predation that Goose Island provides. It is dense with Phragmites, an invasive marsh reed, making it nearly impossible for predators to approach from anywhere but above.
It is not completely understood why they join forces in these massive communal roosts, but it is likely for the safety in numbers. And the numbers are impressive. Estimates vary. They are difficult to count. But it is generally agreed that between 250,000 and 500,000 gather here annually in flocks so dense that they regularly show up on radar.
After an hour’s boat ride down the river, where we saw Bald Eagles, Osprey, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets and Belted Kingfishers, the captain positioned the vessel for the best view of Goose Island. The naturalists on board turned our attention to the incoming swallows.
In this half hour before sunset, the Tree Swallows started flying in from all directions, from their daytime feeding grounds. In the span of 15 minutes or so, dozens of birds turned into hundreds, then thousands. There were ribbons and clouds of them coming from every direction. We saw groups flying in low over the river, skimming the water for a final drink before joining the others in the sky above the island. Just before sunset, there were tens of thousands.
Through my binoculars, the view was almost more birds than sky, and I could see individual birds twirl and dip and dive. Still looking through the binoculars, I pulled the focus in closer. More birds. And when I pushed the point of focus out further? Still more birds. These adjustments revealed just how deep and massive the flock was.
At this point, the captain announced that the mass of birds was showing up on his radar, and invited us into the cabin to take a look. I made a quick dash there to see, then back to the deck, not wanting to miss the finale.
For a few more minutes after sunset, the cloud of birds twisted and shifted above the island. The flock would tighten, float up, then down, then swirl back up, loosen, and then do it all again in a new pattern each time. Aerial acrobatics.
Then, in groups, they began their descent.
It seemed that one bird would cue a group, then they’d form a vortex and funnel down. Then, when the funnel got lower in the sky, the birds would suddenly drop and dive straight down, careening towards the Phragmites at 60 miles per hour. It seemed impossible that they could land safely at that speed. But of course they could – they were built for this. Still, it was stunning.
It literally took my breath away. And with each group’s descent, I inhaled sharply again and again. I had tears in my eyes as I watched, and goosebumps all over. The man to my left kept whispering “Oh wow. Just wow.” despite the fact that he’d seen this 5 times before. I was glad I wasn’t the only one so deeply in awe of the sight.
Then, abruptly, it was over. We all stood there in silence for a moment. A moment later, I could feel a collective breath of release, followed by a quiet chorus of “wows” and “oh my gods”. I think some people clapped. I can’t remember. I just stood there smiling and silent, my chest bursting with excitement, overwhelmed by joy and wonder.
I’ve known for a long time that this is a bucket-list item for a lot of birders. What I didn’t know, was that Roger Tory Peterson, the world-renowned naturalist and artist, wrote about the Goose Island swallows in 1995, just a year before he passed away at the age of 87. He lived in Old Lyme, not far from the CT River. He wrote this:
“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’m so grateful to have seen it.
Food Birds, Less Pain,
Note: I am not a birder who takes pictures or video. I tried to get a few with my iPhone on this trip, but they were no good. But if you search for “Connecticut River Tree Swallows” on YouTube, there are some good videos to be seen.