Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Swallows Begin to Gather on Plum Island
August 04, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     The annual sign is up at the gate to the Parker River Wildlife Refuge reminding visitors to drive slowly because the swallows are gathering and they could be congregating along the refuge road. Large numbers of tree swallows are already swarming over the dunes, feeding on the bayberry that is ripening. From the Hellcat Dike, one can see large clouds of swallows over the marsh, like large swarms of bees, with some birds occasionally skimming the pools for insects.

     August is the month when the swallows gather on the island, ?staging?, building in numbers as they feed to build up their fat reserves in preparation for their long flight south. The ten to twenty thousand swallows that are there now, will swell to fifty or a hundred thousand birds or more before they begin to head south later in the month.

     It is, therefore, appropriate that I repeat Doug Chickerings description from last year of this phenomenon in the hope that it will inspire to to go and experience it for yourself:

     “I was on Plum Island today and witnessed a sight that occurs every summer. I realize that the gathering of rarities is pretty much the central theme of birding and I readily admit to being as excited about a life bird as the next person. But there are other things, in many ways as grand and moving, as any lifer. To my mind the great staging of the Tree Swallows on Plum Island is one of those. No two years are alike; and some years produce more spectacular stagings than others. But every year is an event not to be missed. Starting at Parking Lot#1 and on down to stage island pool there were Tree Swallows. I don’t feel qualified to make an adequate guess as to their numbers but it has to be over five figures and it’s certainly possible that another zero could be added.

     “At some locations there were only a few flying over the tree tops, at some there were many and in places swarms. There are few sights in birding as stirring as driving down the road and suddenly seeing the thick underbrush come alive with the frantic fluttering of wings, and a sweep of birds rush out at eye level in a frantic whirlwind spreading up and out; high and low; a confused storm of wings that is dazzling and tinged with an almost unreal dreamlike quality. They move in and out of the bayberry bushes; settling in to gorge themselves, then flushing out in a swarm to move down a little bit and settle back into their movable feast. They were amazingly thick just south of parking lot#1, down by the wardens, at the Grape Island marshes and down by Stage Island. At Stage [Island Pool,] many rested in a wide carpet upon the recently exposed island in the middle of the pool.

     “Every year it is the same, and every year it is different. There have been years when I have been concerned at their penchant of taking their ease by spreading out on the road in defiance of the impatient drivers who want to get to the beach. Today this was not the case; in fact I only saw one Tree Swallow on the road in the midst of fellow fliers who seemed to be considering similar action. One of the things I find most amazing is the way they cluster together in tight, some times intersecting flocks and never seem to collide. Their control and alacrity in the air is truly one of the wonders of nature.

     “The staging is at its height now and I know that this takes place at other locations on the coast. Even if you have seen it before I recommend you see it again. I, for one, never get tired of it.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
Like us on Facebook! www.facebook.com/birdwatcherssupply