Connecticut River Tree Swallows

Originally written in 2017 for my other blog, Eat Thru the Pain.

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

9/21/2017

Dumb Luck and the Glaucous Gull

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Glaucous Gull | March 22, 2019

I had some dumb luck a couple Fridays ago, when I pulled in to a parking spot at Seapowet Cove in Tiverton, and saw this RI rarity: an immature (1st year cycle) Glaucous Gull.

I didn’t have a solid plan to go birding that Friday after work. It was a vague notion in my tired brain. I was so burnt out from a week of  too much work and not enough sleep that all I wanted to do was go home to my couch after I finished my errands in Fall River, even if the drive did take me by at least a dozen easy spots for birding. But I wasn’t in the mood for the cold or the whipping wind, never mind the fact that I forgot my hat and gloves.

For weeks, I hadn’t been feeling the itch to bird – the one that I usually feel on a daily (ok, hourly) basis. It was a combination of the stress of work, coupled with some late winter (ok, early spring) blues. As I ran my errands, the opportunities to stop dwindled, as did the remaining hours of daylight, and on the return leg of my drive, I went grim with worry. What if this thing that I love so much, this thing that has become so life enriching, and so central to my happiness – what if it is simply no longer interesting to me? What if it’s gone?

Determined to prove my worries wrong, I took the next exit, the one for Tiverton, and drove straight to Seapowet.

I hadn’t even put the car in park yet, when I saw this big white gull among a group of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. It took one second for my flagging interest to reignite. I turned off the car and began fumbling around for my binoculars and camera, saying “What the fork is THAT?! Don’t screw this up, Ruggeri. Get a picture, jackass, even if it’s a shitty one!”

Yeahhhh. I may need to work on the self talk thing.

Anyhow, I jumped out of the car, took a quick photo and posted it to “What’s this Bird?”, an American Birding Association Facebook group. And while I waited for input, I consulted my Sibley Guide and some apps on my phone, while keeping an eye on the bird. Everything checked out – it was indeed a Glaucous Gull.

***

As a kid, I inherited the disdain that coastal dwelling folks tend to have towards gulls. They were all just “seagulls”, and all they seemed to do was make a lot of noise and steal our sandwiches while we swam in the waves.

As a budding nature-nerd living in Utah in my 20’s, I gained a faint appreciation of them –  the California Gull is the state bird of Utah, after all. There’s even a statue dedicated to them, in Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

The story goes like this: Mormon settlers in the mid-1800’s survive their first winter in the Salt Lake Valley, only to have their spring crops threatened by swarms of shield-backed katydids (now commonly known as “Mormon Crickets”.) But then the large flocks of gulls arrive and save the day by eating the katydids. It’s known as “The Miracle of the Gulls,” and is an important piece of history, folklore and faith, for Utahns and Mormons alike.*

As birder in my 40’s, I have gained a deeper appreciation of gulls. They are tenacious and adaptable, curious and intelligent. They can drink both salt water and fresh water, and are opportunistic, omnivorous feeders. They are monogamous, and mate for life. They are highly social birds that form complex nesting colonies. They are doting, protective parents, and will even look after their neighbors offspring.

Even still, it wasn’t until very recently that I started to take a closer look, and to try my hand at ID-ing them. They are notoriously difficult in this regard, so much so that a lot of birders (myself included for many years) avoid them full tilt. When I started birding regularly a couple years ago, I had too much to learn, and gulls just didn’t seem all that sexy. I didn’t want to go messing around with their confusing multi-year plumage patterns. I wanted rarities, and pretty things.

But I bought a couple books this winter, and am slowly learning how to identify them. And that’s the thing about birding – I will never be bored, will never not have something to learn. There are 10,000 species of birds in this world, and nearly 1,000 in North America alone. And there’s no lack of gulls around here in RI. Even on a slow day, there are gulls, and a closer look at them reveals so much more than the sandwich stealing pests of my childhood.

***

Of course the Glaucous Gull wasn’t that difficult to ID, there were really only a few possibilities, but I am too new at this game to trust my own judgment. And I’d be foolish to not utilize the community of generous and way more knowledgeable and experienced birders out there.

It was dumb luck, finding that Glaucous Gull. For a birder, these moments are gold. For me, it was more, because it re-sparked my desire to get out more and see more. It was my own little “miracle of the gulls”, reminding me to have faith again in my love of birds and the natural world.

More birds,

-Louise

 

*I enjoyed reading these different perspectives about the “Miracle of the Gulls”:

From the viewpoint of LDS historians, written by Trent Toone, for LDS Living: Was the Miracle of the Gulls Exaggerated?

From a more secular viewpoint (though I kinda resent his use of the term “trash bird” in the title) it’s still an interesting take, written by Ryan Cunningham for (Salt Lake) City Weekly:  A Seagull Story: Why a bug-eating trash bird makes Utah proud

 

One Lonely (5MR) Birder

Back in December, when Jen Sanford, Oregon birder and blogger of I Used to Hate Birds, proposed a year long 5 Mile Radius challenge, I didn’t hesitate to sign myself up. The idea of a 5MR was conceived by her a couple years ago, and the point is to try to see as many species of birds within a 5 mile radius from your home.

I didn’t know about Jen’s blog, or the 5MR concept, until last spring, when both were mentioned in a a blog I’d just discovered called – I kid you not – Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds. The downside to finding Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds was that I had to cross “Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds” off my list of possible memoir titles. The upside was that I found two great blogs on the same day.

In early January, Jen Sanford put together a USA participation map for the 2019 5MR challenge. I just about died when I saw the map legend. And then, just like that, I had a new possible memoir title: “One Lonely Birder”.

The (bird-blog) lords giveth and taketh. Amen.

49938882_10155635344670738_1299381534372921344_o

IMG_4829Anyhow, 5MR birding is a variation on something called “patch birding”, which is just a term for birding your favorite, local spots on a regular basis.

Patch birding just sort of happens when you’re a birder, whether you mean to do so or not. In my case, I work a 9-5 job, but on my lunch break I can be at Easton Pond, or Sachuest Point NWR within minutes. Boom. These are two of my patches. And because I visit these places often, I’m gaining knowledge that I wouldn’t if I only hit them up once in a while.

The appeal? Birding more in your 5MR means less driving, which is a good thing for the environment. So there’s that. But less driving also leaves more time for birding. And more time in the same area means you gain a greater sense of intimacy with a place and its birds.

And even better, if you’re an eBird* user, you get to feel good about contributing data from places that might be otherwise be overlooked in favor of more exciting, more bird-y birding spots.

But truth be told, I signed up for a 5MR challenge because I needed the focus that it offered. 2018 was my first full year of birding on a regular basis, and it was nothing short of amazing. I saw a lot of new birds, and visited a lot of new places. I even broke down and got a camera, something I’d resisted for too long, for dumb reasons.

In 2018 I added 108 new species to my life list, which was just 139 at the start of the year. It was so thrilling for me to see that number reach 200, then 225, then 247 by the year’s end.

I saw some memorable things in 2018: a Great Blue Heron rookery, a butt-load of warblers, my nemesis bird (Black Skimmer), Turkey Vultures picking a seal carcass clean on Cape Cod. I drove all over New England, chasing whatever sparked my interest.

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Turkey Vultures| Truro, MA | October 2018

I capped off the year with a Christmas Eve drive to Portland, ME to see a rare vagrant – a Great Black Hawk. Watching it dine on rat in a neighborhood tree was a Christmas wish come true.**

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Great Black Hawk | Portland, ME | December 24, 2018

Oops, sorry for all the gore – here’s a pretty one!

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Whimbrel | Westerly, RI | September 2018

But by December’s end, I was a little burnt out on all the chasing. And my energy was dipping, thanks to the Seasonal Affective Disorder I struggle with each winter. I knew what I needed to do: continue to get outside, keep moving, keep birding –  but I needed some motivation, and structure.

I liked how focused the 5MR Challenge seemed, and how unintimidating it sounded. No pressure, no long drives – just roll down the street and see what you see. Deciding to take on the challenge was kind of a relief – but I’m not going to lie, I was a little worried I’d suffer from birding FOMO, or get bored. But I didn’t.

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My radius involves island hopping.

The monthly challenge for January was to bird under-birded Ebird hotspots. A point was gained each time you birded a spot that previously had no data in that particular week of the year. Out of a possible 49 points in my 5MR, I got 33. About 45 people participated. And guess what? I CAME IN THIRD.

Not that that’s what it was about for me, but it still felt pretty good. What felt even better was getting outside every single day. Those 33 points were 33 visits to places that I had either never been to before, or had, but only once or twice. Either way, they were places that I’d overlooked in the past, in favor of prettier, birdier places.

And what happened is that I noticed that there was far more going on in these places than I’d assumed. I didn’t expect to see a lot of what I saw. It slowed me down. Made me more aware. And I was never bored or disappointed.

Some of the highlights for me:

  • A pair of Northern Harriers hunting in the brush behind a supermarket.
  • A Bald Eagle at the reservoir near my house (not unheard of, but new for me!)
  • A group of Great Blue Herons hanging out all month at that same reservoir.
  • 3 lifers: Fox Sparrow, Horned Lark and an Orange-crowned Warbler.
  • The Eastern Bluebirds at Godena Farm – a cheerful sight in January.

But the best part was that I ended January with more energy than I entered it with. The numbness and exhaustion of December were a distant memory. And my enthusiasm for another great year of birding was renewed.

February birding was a bust, between work projects and some (very fun) birthday month travels. Though I did get a birthday lifer: a Canada Jay, near Flagstaff Lake in Maine.

But it’s March now, and I’m back at it!

More birds, less pain,

-L

*eBird is a Citizen Science app designed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It allows users to create and submit lists of the birds they observe on their outings. Cornell uses this data for research on bird migration and distribution, and those studies are often used for conservation efforts. This data is freely available to the public. In return, we birders get a free place to keep our lists, and a network of birders to communicate our findings with. Check it out here: https://ebird.org/explore

**This was only the 2nd record of a Great Black Hawk in the US. They usually live in Mexico and South America. He was thriving for a while in a local park, but got frostbite, was rescued but then sadly had to be euthanized. Avian Haven did an amazing job trying to save this beautiful bird. Equally amazing were the detailed and eloquent updates they gave during their efforts. 

You can read them on their Facebook page:

And this is a good article explaining the hows/whys the Great Black Hawk ended up in Maine: https://www.maineaudubon.org/news/why-are-rare-birds-coming-to-maine/

 

 

Birding Thru Begins

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Bobolink Page 331” by perpetualplum is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“…the best way out is always through.”                                                                                              -Robert Frost, A Servant to Servants

In June of 2017, in the wake of an especially painful breakup, I became a birder.

I didn’t mean to.

But a few days after the split, in a desperate attempt to feel normal, I woke up early on a Sunday, willed myself to stop crying, dusted off my binoculars, and joined a local, guided bird walk.

During the 2 hour walk, I politely conversed with the group, but I was feigning interest in the chit-chat, as well as the birds. Everything hurt. I couldn’t stop my thoughts from looping over the details of the breakup. And I kept plotting an early exit.

But I pushed through. And on the last leg of the walk, at the edge of a meadow, our guide pointed out a small songbird called a Bobolink. It was a male, decked out in his breeding plumage of black, white and yellow, and perched on a birdhouse in the middle of the field.

I knew what was next: the flight display that Bobolinks are famous for. The one where they fly out and back, rapidly flapping their wings, and singing an ecstatic, tinkling and rambling song. I had seen and heard my very first Bobolink just a week before, and it had thrilled me. But that was when I was happy and in love, and unaware that the end was only days away.

It felt impossible that I’d ever feel that happy about anything again. But I held the bird in view anyhow, and waited. And when the Bobolink lifted off, I snapped to attention, and I put all my effort into keeping the bird in my binocular’s field of view. I was suddenly rapt, and didn’t want to miss a moment.

For those few minutes, I was no longer aching. I even smiled a little. I was fully present, and happy to be sharing a moment of quiet awe with a group of strangers who knew nothing about my broken heart. 

It was only a short spell of reprieve, but a powerful one. I was in that early stage of grief where the pain felt pervasive, and permanent. The fact that I got a break from it amazed me even more than the Bobolink did. And it didn’t matter (or bother me) that it was only a few minutes. What mattered is that it was possible. I decided to hang my hopes on that, and to start birding more. 

****

Full disclosure: I’ve been into birds since my early 20’s. But until that day in June of 2017, any birding I had done was sporadic, casual, and unfocused. I owned a decent pair of binoculars and field guide, but I rarely got out. I barely knew a sparrow from a swallow.

But in the 18 months since that day with the Bobolink, I’ve learned so much. I’ve gone birding as often as possible. I’ve taken classes, read books, and gone to lectures. I’ve gone on guided walks, joined bird clubs and listservs and social media groups. My life list grew from 96 to 250 species. I’m fully hooked now. I am never bored, because there is so much more to learn. 

I wanted to start this blog last year, during the Year of the Bird, but I lacked confidence in both my writing and birding abilities, and kept losing my nerve. In all my mulling about it, I kept re-reading a passage from a David Gessner essay titled “Sick of Nature“, where he makes a plea for amateurism, sloppiness, and honesty in the genre of nature writing. These things I can do. So here goes. 

The bottom line is there is so much about birds and the natural world that I want to share with you.

And, really, why not have a birding blog? I mean, I’ve kept a personal blog about nothing for 7 years, and some of you people actually like it. This blog’s title – Birding Thru – pays homage to that other blog, Eat Thru the Pain. Granted, the content of Eat Thru the Pain hardly deserves the honor, but keeping that blog helped me get through some difficult times. It kept me writing, and connected, and laughing with the people I love. I left the word “pain” out of this blog’s title though, because there is mercifully much less of it in my life these days.

At the very least, I hope to entertain. Best case scenario is that I somehow manage pique your interest in the birds I love so dearly. They are worthy of the attention.

More birds, less pain,

-Louise

The drawing of the Bobolink is originally from “The Home and School Reference Work, Volume I” by The Home and School Education Society, H. M. Dixon, President and Managing Editor. It was published by The Home and School Education Society in 1917.