Years ago, my wife and I took a ride along the coast. We ended up at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Massachusetts. It was late fall and a cold, blustery day with occasional snow flurries – not a good day for bird watching. As we drove down the access road along the marsh, a flock of birds suddenly appeared out of the reeds and swirled around us. The birds, many hundreds, swirled in a tight cloud around and over the car. They were so close I stopped the car and we watched, mesmerized as the birds, like leaves in the wind, swirled. How they avoided colliding with each other or our car is a mystery. I’m sure this all happened in 30 seconds or less, but it seemed like forever. Almost as quickly as they had appeared, they dropped into the reeds along the road. We were left with the windblown snowflakes where before our vision was almost blocked by a mist of green and cream-colored birds. In all of my years of bird watching, I don’t think there are many experiences more spectacular than what we saw that day.
Since then, I’ve learned that these birds, Tree Swallows, migrate south in loose, sometimes large flocks and at dusk, seek roost sites. Reeds in marshes are good habitat for these migrating birds. Tree Swallows (photo by Peter Wilton) are iridescent green on their head and back. Their underparts are a soft white. They migrate into our area during nesting season and can be seen catching insects over fields, ponds and marshes. When you see one tree swallow, there are usually more. When nesting, the breeding pair can often be accompanied by other non-breeding birds.
Tree Swallows get their name because they nest in holes and other cavities in trees. Although they use old woodpecker holes, they also readily use nest boxes. At my house, I put up nest boxes for Bluebirds. The Bluebirds visit every year but never nest. The Tree Swallows are more aggressive and tend to win the right. Each year when I clean out these boxes, I can always count on finding large white feathers woven into the Tree Swallow nest. They use feathers of other birds to line their nests.
Visit Valentine Farm this time of year for a chance to observe these birds pirouetting above the fields or peeking from a nest box.
James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails firstname.lastname@example.org.