Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Care Needed with Swarming Swallows on Plum Island
August 17, 2019
by Steve Grinley
Last week I wrote about the tree swallow spectacle on Plum Island. Their numbers continue to build, and one has to be careful when proceeding down the island, driving slowly to avoid collisions. Doug Chickering shares with us his poignant story of his tree swallow encounter this past week:
“The annual, spectacular staging of the Tree Swallows on Plum Island has ben building for over a week and now appears to be working to its crescendo. Prefer to walk the road on the island when time and weather permit. Today was a near perfect day as the temperature was bearable and a nice dry cool wind wafted down from the north.
“The sky was an endless blue and I stopped and watched a male Baltimore oriole at hellcat at the start of my walk. It hadn’t lost any of its color, and it fed leisurely in a tree in the sun allowing me to pause and take in the vibrant glowing show.
“But the most arresting aspect of the island today were the tree Swallows. They were everywhere I walked. Of course, I couldn’t count them, and I am poor at estimating numbers. Also, I didn’t endure the dust clouds south of hellcat and I knew there were many more Tree Swallows on the southern half of the island. I cannot give an even approximate numbers; which to me didn’t matter. They were everywhere.
“High and low they were in flight at all parts of the island, sometimes only a few and other times in heavy flocks. They landed on the phragmites and in small dead trees, and even in few places gathered in frantic fluttering hordes in the Bayberry bushes; gorging themselves on the berries that were just becoming ripe. The dull thunder of their wings mixed with barely audible grunts to provide background music. All in all, a very spectacular sight that I eagerly await every year.
“I carried my binoculars and, on more occasions, than I expected people would pull their bikes over to the side of the road or pause in their running to ask me what those little birds that they saw everywhere, were. When I explained that every year at this time the Tree Swallows would gather to gorge themselves on the bayberries, to build up their fat reserved for their long migration ahead. The people all seemed interested, and properly impressed with the scene and the birds.
“All wasn’t wonderful. At one point I approached a point in the S curves where a particularly large dense flock were feeding at the edge of the road, and at the approach of a large white Chevy pick-up truck, the birds began to leave their meal. The truck paused as the birds flew across the road in a frantic dense flock and then, way before they had all passed, just pushed his way through. Of course, he couldn’t wait – that would be too much to ask.
“My mind made a quick judgment. Damn beach-weasels. A pox on them all!
“As the pick-up passed me, I investigated the grill and was somewhat relieved not to find any unfortunate Tree Swallows. But after the truck went by and as I approached the spot where the swallows had been, I spotted a bird sitting on the middle of the road.
“I knew immediately that something was amiss because as I approached the bird didn’t fly off. I knew it was alive for it moved a bit. When I got to where it was it still moved a bit but didn’t display any sign of a catastrophic injury like a wing flared out unnaturally.
“The little Swallow still held a bunch of Bayberries in its bill and seemed to look up to me with a mixture of fear and a plea for help. Perhaps it was only dazed. I reached down and slowly gathered into me hand. It didn’t resist. Of course, I knew my ability to help it was limited, but the least I could do was to get it off the road.
“In my hand the bird was so soft and light; almost weightless. It didn’t struggle but seemed to arrange its posture to aid me. On the way over to the side of the road I spoke softly to it; as much to comfort myself as to comfort the bird. I did what I could, laying the bird in an area hidden and in the shade, and then moved on.
“I walked on feeling deeply incompetent that I couldn’t do more, and ashamed that I shared this world with people who were so careless, clueless and ignorant.”
The swallows, egrets, and shorebirds continue to gather on the refuge, building up their energy for the long migration ahead of them. If you need binoculars or a spotting scope for better views of these birds, we invite you to visit our FREE Optics Fair tomorrow, Sunday August 18, 10am to 3pm at our store. Manufacturers will be there to demonstrate their products and answer your questions, and they will have special pricing on products at all price levels. Plus it is the Massachusetts Tax Holiday Weekend and you will save even more! Hope to see you Sunday.
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