Year of the Bird

IMG-7955I have good news people: 2018 is the Year of the Bird! This year, all year, National Geographic, The Audubon Society, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Life International (and over 100 other organizations) are joining forces to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Throughout 2018, they will shine a spotlight on the 10,000 species of birds on our planet. The goal is to raise consciousness about them through a year of stories covering scientific research, conservation efforts, and the natural histories of birds from around the world. And they will share ways for all of us to help.

I knew this was coming, this campaign by these giants in the publishing and conservation worlds. I heard about it last month, but I didn’t get really excited until my sweet friend Michaela dropped off the January issue of National Geographic on my stoop, just before the new year. And since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how great this whole Year of the Bird thing is.

I also keep thinking of how I decided to throw myself deeper into birding last year, to help heal my broken (yet again) heart. Birds have always been a panacea for this, for me. So I woke early to seek out rarities. I went on trips, and on group outings where I met other birders, who are honestly some of the nicest people. I read a lot of books and articles and blogs about birds. I took a 6 week bird biology class at our local Audubon chapter. I learned about falconry, and had the thrill of briefly flying a Harris’ Hawk at New England Falconry in Vermont. I watched a half a million Tree Swallows swarm and dance in the sky over the Connecticut River, something I wrote about here, and will never forget.

2017 was my year of the bird. And I plan to take this into 2018, right alongside the YOTB campaign.

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Happiness

I keep thinking about this blog too, and of my writing. I’ve been writing since my teens, but until I started this blog 7 years ago, it was limited to  personal journals, letter writing, and an occasional essay gifted to friends. It was just something I enjoyed doing – a hobby, I guess – with no greater goal in mind.

The blog came about as a way to challenge myself and my writing. I figured if I liked writing so much, why not do a little something more with it? I guessed that the pressure of an audience would help me hone my skills, which it did, and continues to do so. It was a little terrifying at first, but the casual nature of this being a blog, and a personal one to boot, helped temper that pressure. It has allowed me to play with my writing while laughing and crying – or laughing ‘till crying, with my teeny-tiny-but-oh-so loyal audience.

I’ve never had any aspirations of making Eat Thru The Pain anything more than it is.  I’ve always seen it as a way to stay vulnerable and connected to you all, which is good because I kind of suck sometimes at doing so in real time. In real life. As you know. 

But if I’m honest, I get tired of hearing myself think, let alone trying to filter those thoughts into yet another Eat Thru The Pain post about yet another breakup. Blech. So, in order to keep myself writing, with something of a challenge to it, I’ve decided to write more about birds on the blog this year, and less about myself.

I won’t change the name to “Bird Thru The Pain” just yet, but it’s on the table.

I’ll shoot for a once a month bird post. I may write a personal one here & there too. Some of the bird posts may be infused with the personal, some may simply be informational. I’m not entirely sure how it will evolve.

I do promise to keep in mind that you all don’t share the same enthusiasm I do – but my hope is to spark some in you. And I hope that what you take away from my little bird musings is an understanding of the importance of preserving their place in our world.

Plus, writing will force me to learn more, and there is always so much more to learn about birds, and nature, and about how we can save this precious planet we call home.

I’m also doing this simply because I want to be part of the party! This bird-nerd is so totally pumped to see the avian world getting so much press!

I just got up out of my seat as I was writing this because I heard a Northern Cardinal outside. There’s two on the power lines in front of my house. During this dreadful cold snap we are having, they are fine, they’ve been through worse ones. Looking at them, I realized that the fact that some humans have deemed this their year means nothing to them. But I hope it eventually means something to their survival. And I want to contribute my small part of that here, in this tiny bloggy-corner of the internet.

More food birds, less pain,

xo-L

 

 

 

 

Connecticut River Tree Swallows

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Goose Island. Waiting for the birds.

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.

More Food Birds, Less Pain,

-L

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.