Two years ago, Dave, Aurora, and Stephen received a generous invitation. A man at our yacht club offered to take them to the grasslands of the Connecticut River to see some birds—swallows. My family never refuses a ride on a boat and happily joined Paul for an evening on the river.
They came home from their excursion full of excitement and stories. “Mom, you have to see, there were a million birds.” Aurora reported, “You would love it, Mom. We saw a cloud of birds. It was amazing!” explained Stephen. Dave smiled at me and said, “You would have loved it, so many birds flying together. It just your kind of thing.”
Last fall passed with only a little talk of the swallows and their activity on the river. But this year was different. In July, we bought a little powerboat that is perfect for river excursions, such as a trip to Goose Island’s grasslands to see the swallows put on their show. Dave came home one day and said, “The swallows are back. When can we go see them?”
I was so excited, but then looked at our schedule. It would be almost a week before we had a free night. Instead of waiting, we talked the kids into skipping soccer practice, packed some dinner, launched the boat, and headed down the river.
I didn’t really know what to expect. People describe a cloud of birds—thousands of birds flying overhead. I had seen one picture of the swallows on a calendar at the bank a year ago.
In quiet anticipation I watched for the birds. I hoped they would arrive, but half expected them not to.
The birds did arrive. Large groups of birds flew in from all directions to become one enormous flock. The cloud of swallows swirled and gyrated in the sky. They flew high, then low, moved left, then right—250,000 swallows all moving in concert. Amazing! I was so overcome by the event—so many birds moving together in a mysterious dance that they alone understand—that I found myself saying, “Wow! Amazing! I can’t believe this! Here come more birds. Unbelievable,” over and over again.
We watched this performance for 15 to 20 minutes. I was mesmerized, wishing to take it all in and hold the experience forever. Then something changed. A message traveled through the flock, and the flock all understood and knew what to do next. The cloud of birds became denser and flew higher. Then a few swallows at a time flew into the marsh grass—phragmites. More swallows followed, creating a cyclone of birds heading for their night-time perch.
In less than a minute or two, 250,000 birds systematically disappeared and the world became silent and motionless. The next sound heard was applause from the appreciative onlookers sitting in boats and kayaks. The veterans compared the evening’s show to previous ones. One kayaker said, “Tonight was a good one.” He smiled when he heard this was my first time seeing the swallows and told me he came almost every night. Soon after the birds disappeared into their night-time roosts, the viewers pointed their boats and kayaks toward home. We also headed home, and while we traveled I started making a list of all the people I wanted to share this experience with.
A few days later, we took some friends out to see the birds. We packed dinner and warm clothes, boarded two boats, and again headed to Goose Island. Upon arrival, we anchored the boats, ate dinner, and then sat back to wait for the show. While we waited, our friends started to take in the sights. Someone said, “There’s a bird.” I laughed, knowing what was to come and also understanding how the newcomers felt—hopeful anticipation mixed with a worry that the birds would not appear.
And again, they did appear. They flew in from all directions. Thousands and thousands of birds flying low on the water and then higher and higher into the sky. I sat quietly this time, no emotional exclamations, just marvel and appreciation. It was fun to watch the birds and listen to the newcomers’ familiar delight and amazement. “Wow! Amazing! Look at all the birds. This is unbelievable! Fantastic!”
In the weeks that followed, we visited Goose Island often. I knew the swallows would eventually fly south and our fun would end, so we went out whenever we could and we took people with us whenever possible. I wanted to share the experience with everyone.
I loved every part of the journey to the swallows. Being on the water in the evening to enjoy the sunset was reason enough to launch our boat, Creek Seeker. The trip back to our dock was always wonderful. The lights on the shore sparkled in the dark as we zipped through the water. All passengers would fall silent, conversation difficult because of the engine noise. We were all left to our own thoughts. And then there were the swallows. This amazing act of cooperation by these incredible, beautiful birds. How do they do it? Where do they learn how to do it?
For part of the fall, while we were watching the swallows and their evening bedtime ritual, our government was shut down, everyone divided and looking out for their own interests. I often wondered if these inspiring birds could teach them something. Could we fill a boat with Democrats and Republicans, bring them down to the grasslands of Goose Island, and make them watch and see what can be accomplished when everyone works together for the basic needs of the entire group.
Links to more information about the swallows: