Nature is most beautiful when it gives way to instinct, which is the impetuous for the magical occurrence which happens each year on Goose Island, just off the shore of Old Lyme, on the Connecticut River. Driven by an inner need to protect themselves, Tree Swallows seek safety in numbers. Beginning in early September and lasting until October, a natural phenomenon, known to locals as the “swallow swarms,” take place each night, as the light of day disappears beyond the horizon and the sun sets.
At the glow of dusk, hundreds of thousands of petite sized Tree Swallows unite in the sky above Goose Island, to perform a uniquely, elegant, avian acrobatic show that only nature could produce. The multitude of birds unites and flies together as if one. Twisting and turning, to and fro, in perfect unison, darkening the sky with their sheer numbers. Then, as if a button is pushed on some far off control board, the birds dive down in a tornado like funnel, all hundreds of thousands of them, swiftly plummeting into the safety of the reeds; they roost together, for the night, on the island.
From beginning to end, the fantastical, awe inspiring, perfectly choreographed dance only last a few minutes, but the experience of its breathtaking beauty stays with on-lookers for a lifetime.
“It is truly like nothing I have ever seen before,” said Jerry Connolly, owner of The Audubon Shop in Madison and former president of the Menunkatuck Audubon Society. “It is so impressive; the swallows form such a massive flock.”
He added, “The liquidity of the descent is what I love the most. I have never seen birds go down in such a way as the swallows do; it really looks like they are getting poured into the ground when they roost. They remind me of a nuclear bomb going off in reverse.”
Although Goose Island is the prime location to witness this extraordinary site, Connolly does take people, every Saturday, on walking tours at Hammonasette State Park, in Madison to witness small swarms there.
The Tree Swallow, named for its tendency to nest in hollowed out trees, near open spaces and bodies of water, is an insectivore. They meet up for the swarm, when summer ends and colder weather moves in killing their food source of insects. Leaving the Northern states, they migrate down to the southern parts of Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Central America. Beginning in March, they return North, to breed and raise their young.
This centrifugal, natural cycle repeats itself each fall, giving New Englanders, bird lovers and nature enthusiasts a spectacular show of combined beauty, athleticism, instinct and survival.
Roger Tory Peterson, Old Lyme resident and author of the “Field Guide to the Birds, wrote of the swallow swarms: “I have seen a million flamingos on the lakes of East Africa and as many seabirds on the cliffs of the Alaska Pribilofs, but for sheer drama, the tornadoes of tree swallows eclipsed any other avian spectacle I have ever seen.”
During the months of September, Tree Swallow Sunset Tours are given aboard the RiverQuest, for more information go to riverquest.com. The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat also give Swallow Sunset Cruises aboard the Becky Thatcher, for more information go to essexsteamtrain.com.