Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Cave Swallows Invade Massachusetts Coast
November 15, 2008
Steve Grinley

     With the colder weather arriving, it may be hard to remember back to August when thousands of swallows were gathering on the Parker River Wildlife Refuge to head south. After a few weeks of congregating there in great numbers, fattening up on berries and insects for their journey, they headed south A few lingering swallows may have followed in September, but by October most all the swallows have migrated through.

     About six years ago, a new phenomenon has occurred whereby cave swallows, which are not from our area at all, have been migrating through Massachusetts in November. These are birds of Texas and Mexico that have ended up in the Northeast, following southwest and westerly winds in early November. They then migrate south along the coast to get back to their winter residence in the Caribbean and Central America.

     Cave swallows invaded coastal Massachusetts this week, and were reported from Salisbury to Cape Cod. Last Saturday, Margo and I were having lunch in our car at Lot 7 on the refuge when Margo lifted her binoculars and asked, “What’s that?” I picked up my binoculars and immediately recognized the bird flying away from us as a swallow. Knowing that most swallows are long gone by now, and given this recent November trend for cave swallows, I jumped out of the car, almost dropping my sandwich on the ground, and tried to get a better look. We actually saw three swallows turning and twisting their way over the dunes toward Bar Head at Sandy Point.

     The clouded skies made viewing difficult, and they just looked like dark swallows to us. I tried getting out the scope but I wasn’t able to get on them before they disappeared. We quickly climbed the Stage Island tower and searched frantically, but we saw no further sign of them. Given the time of year, and the fact that we didn’t see any obvious bright white bellies (which we may have despite the poor light conditions) of tree swallows, they were likely cave swallows. But lacking any further defining field marks, we only could list them as “swallow species.”

     On Monday, another swallow was seen on Plum Island. Again the observer didn’t see it well enough to determine if it was a cave swallow, but it was highly suspected to have been one. Then on Tuesday, the holiday, many birders were treated to several cave swallows feeding around the Bar Head area at Sandy Point on Plum Island, including one bird that perched for some viewers. I was not one of the lucky ones to have the day off, and I was frustrated not to be able to rush down to see these birds that I had never seen in Massachusetts before.

     Later that day, I received a report of a number of cave swallows flying around the Salisbury Beach State Reservation. This was near dusk and the observer thought that the swallows may try to roost in the pavilion covering the picnic area. I decided to go there after work and follow-up on that report.

     I headed for Salisbury as soon as I could, but it was well after sunset. I parked in the last parking lot and then walked toward the picnic area armed with binoculars and a flashlight. I went under the pavilion and search the under roof, but didn’t see any eaves that would logically hold swallows or any other roosting birds. There was a hollowed area in one beam at either end of the structure which I scanned with the flashlight, but I saw nothing. I then walked down the path toward another building, but there were no eaves on that one. I checked the kiosk signs that had roofs, and found nothing. I guessed that maybe the birds didn’t stay and roost after all.

     I then decided to recheck the pavilion one more time. With a more careful scan of the flashlight, I finally saw what looked like a clump of feathers in the corner of the indent on one of the beams. At first it wasn’t clear to me what I was looking at. I put my binoculars on it and still I couldn’t tell. Was it a bird? It didn’t look like a swallow from that angle. Was it a little owl? I could tell it was breathing, so it was more than just a “clump” of feathers.

     I climbed up on a couple of the picnic tables to get different angles without getting too close. I could finally make out tails and wings of what had to be two or three cave swallows huddled close together to keep warm in the forty degree weather. I saw some color, including the light buff rump patch and buffy neck of one of the birds. They were so compacted that I still couldn’t be sure how many birds were there. It was going to be a cold night in the thirties and I didn’t want to disturb them from their night haven, so I backed off and let them be. These were my first Massachusetts cave swallows.

     I still wanted to get cave swallows on my Plum Island list. Knowing that these birds were roosting in Salisbury, I decided to get out before dawn and try to see these birds either flying over Plum Island, or from Plum Island. Thinking that they may feed around Salisbury for a while once they left the roost, and that I may not have enough time before work to see them head south over Plum Island, I decided not to go back to the Salisbury Reservation, but rather to the north end of Plum Island. I arrived at 6:15, just before sunrise and set up my scope. With a clear view of the pavilion and the Salisbury dunes, I continually checked for swallows.

     After about an hour and a half of daylight, I was beginning to think that this was a really bad idea. I should have had someone on the Salisbury side who could have told me if the swallows were still in the roost. At least I wouldn’t be freezing in thirty degree weather for nothing. Or I should have just gone to Salisbury and looked from there. But then, at 7:45, just as I was about to give up, I caught sight of three swallows flying around above the pavilion. I watched them for fifteen minutes feeding around the dunes of Salisbury before I had to leave for work. It was a better day at work, having now seen these swallows that so many others had reported.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
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Newburyport, MA 01950
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