Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Lessons of Nature Learned from Swallows
August 18, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the massive number of swallows that are staging at Plum Island. This spectacle is still going on so if you haven’t treated yourself to this event of nature you should do so soon before they depart. Doug Chickering was on the island this past Monday and files the following report:

     “Lois Cooper and I were on Plum Island this morning, to see what the tides and shorebird migrations had brought in. We went to the new blind where we were joined by Ida Giriunas and three of her companions. There were a lot of peeps and Plovers in the Bill Forward pool. In the bright morning light they were seen well and in comfort, as a gentle west wind kept the temperatures down and the biting bugs away. The Stilt Sandpipers were still industriously working away in the shallows; there were a scattering of Greater Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers and we had a Spotted Sandpiper among the usual array. Everyone searched diligently for the reported Western Sandpiper without any luck. As it would turn out, the most interesting events of the morning, however concerned the Swallows. There were the usual flights of Tree Swallows – still spectacular if not unusual.

     “For the last several days Lois and I had been watching the progress of a second brood of Barn Swallows on a nest at the garage on the right at the Wardens. We knew there were four of five fledglings. Saturday we counted four fledglings leaning precariously at the edge of their nest as the adults tried to keep up with their hungry demands. Yesterday when we pulled up, the nest was empty. From what I had been observing it didn’t seem that the birds were ready to take wing.

     “Feeling that something was wrong here I approached the area with a little dread. Sure enough, below the nest I found one dead nestling, and a foot or so away, one that was alive but clearly struggling. He had some flight feathers but it appeared he was probably doomed. About ten feet away, also on one of the concrete apron in front of the garage door, was another fledgling. This one seemed in much better shape. Although still flightless it had all of its flight feathers and was alternately preening and taking food from a parent that occasionally came down with some food.

     “Today when we visited the wardens I found two fledglings, about five feet out in the dirt; two together, both seemed to be in good shape, moving around and preening and with very little fuzz. An adult came down to feed them, so I can only hope they survive. I think that if they can only get through the day they will be able to take flight.

     “The other event concerning swallows we witnessed from the new blind, along with Ida and her party. We were looking for the Western Sandpiper when one of the group drew our attention to the steady stream of Tree Swallows passing by: “What is that small white bird in with the swallows? Look it’s being attacked by the Tree Swallows. Sure enough in among the swarming Tree Swallows was a small pure white bird; moving and diving in the flock, and all the time being mobbed by the swallows around it.

     “At first I thought Least Tern – right size and color, but this bird was not hunting like a Least Tern. It was clearly running with the Swallows. Upon closer look, it was clearly not a Least Tern. It was pure white and too small to be a tern. Even though it was constantly being attacked by its immediate neighbors, it kept flying with them.

     “After a while, we all decided that it must be an albino Tree Swallow. A pure white Tree swallow that just wanted to be one of the flock. His fellows would have none of it. They never drove him away, and even as he moved out of sight; the constant object of their collective wrath, they couldn’t drive him off, or knock him down. He persisted and didn’t try to break off. He just wanted to fit in.

     “The Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows [provide] two strange examples of both the cruelty of nature and the persistent courage of these little creatures. Every day you go out birding, you get to witness the wonders of nature. Exhilarating or horrifying, it is definitely not virtual; but real.

     This time last year, at the peak of the swallow event, I received an e-mail from Jean Adams of the Parker River Refuge staff. She told me about a white swallow in among the tens of thousands that were on the refuge. Could Doug’s white swallow be the same bird? Certainly the sheer numbers favor the possibility of a second bird this year, but it also must make one want to admire the persistent courage of this outcast individual if, indeed, it survived the year and returned to amaze the birders, and the other swallows, of Plum Island!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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