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Inky flecks in a dusky pink sky: Watching the swallows of autumn on the Connecticut River

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ON THE LOWER CONNECTICUT RIVER, Conn. - The first swallows appear at sunset, inky flecks in a dusky pink sky. A cloud of birds forms, then another and another. Soon the entire sky is teeming with tree swallows — hundreds of thousands of them — swooping and swirling and shimmying in a dazzling aerial ballet that paints the sky black.

Peering through binoculars from the river below, birders, boaters and tourists gasp.

But the swallows have only begun their nightly fall spectacular.

As if on cue, they form a long, streaky line. A momentary pause.

Suddenly they are falling, spiraling from the sky at speeds of up to 65 miles (105 kilometres) an hour in a dizzying, tornado-like funnel that, in a few breathtaking seconds, disappears into the reeds below.

For a short time the river is silent, except for the lapping of waves and cries of wonder from the boats.

Then another cloud of birds forms and repeats the performance. And another. The entire roosting ritual lasts about 20 minutes every night from late August to early October. Audubon Society experts and others estimate that it draws up to 400,000 birds.

When it is over, the river is dark except for the lights of the boats.

The reeds are dense and silent. The colony of swallows is asleep for the night.

As their vessels glide home in the moonlight, mesmerized viewers are left to ponder the mystery and magic of what they have witnessed.

"This is undoubtedly one of the most astounding natural phenomenons in the bird world that you can experience in North America," says Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation at the Connecticut Audubon Society. "It's more remarkable than the sandhill crane migration on the Platte River (in Nebraska), the snow goose migration in the Arctic and the hawk migration in the fall."

It's also more mysterious.

No one really understands why these dynamic little birds with their metallic blue-green feathers and white bellies, descend nightly on a small island on the lower Connecticut River in preparation for their long migration south. According to the Connecticut Audubon Society, the only other known location where swallows gather in such numbers is in southeastern Louisiana, where they plummet into sugarcane fields to roost. Smaller flocks have also been seen in Cape May, New Jersey.

"The mystery is one of the reasons the tree swallow is such a charismatic bird," says Andy Griswold of the Connecticut Audubon Society, who is a seasonal swallow guide on the river. "There are lots of theories of course, but we really don't know why they choose this spot or why they form tornadoes."

Safety in numbers is one theory. The swallows, whom experts speculate come from as far as 40 miles (64 kilometres) away, are far less likely to be killed by predators such as falcons and eagles when they mass in a blizzard-like cloud. The reeds in which they roost — called phragmites — are thick and invasive and almost impossible for predators to penetrate.

Until about 14 years ago, only birders and locals knew much about the phenomenon. Then a local couple, Mark and Mindy Yuknat, teamed up with the Connecticut Audubon Society to host "swallow cruises" on their 64-foot (19-meter) catamaran, RiverQuest. The boat, which seats about 50 people, ferries visitors from the dock at Haddam — opposite the historic Goodspeed Opera House — about 45 minutes downriver.

Cruising past the opera house, a stone mansion called Gillette Castle and colonial waterside homes, the Yuknats offer lively commentary on the history of the 410-mile (660-kilometre) river, which flows into Long Island Sound. Visitors learn about blue herons wading in inlets, bald eagles soaring above, falcons and red-tailed hawks, osprey, egrets, swans and geese.

And, of course, they learn about tree swallows — how these acrobatic little creatures are among the first migratory birds to return in the spring and the last to leave in the fall. After the first cold front in October, they head south to Florida, Cuba and Central America.

Tree swallows are endlessly entertaining. They play a kind of aerial chasing game as they swoop and dive after insects for food, and feathers which they use to line their nests. They bathe on the wing, quick little belly skims over the water.

"Everything about them is amazing," says Mindy Yuknat, "including the fact that they are one of Connecticut's most stunning natural wonders."

At first RiverQuest was one of just a few of boats cruising to see the swallows. Nowadays a small flotilla gathers at sunset — kayaks and old wooden sloops, power boats and sailboats. People bring picnics and wine, cameras and binoculars. There's a festive sense of anticipation as the sun goes down.

"It's different every night," Mindy told passengers on a cruise last October, referring to the birds' route, how high or low they fly and when they descend. "But they always come".

Moments later the first swallows appeared. Soon the sky was a frenzy of black flapping wings, causing even seasoned birders to cry out in delight.

"It's like the sky is raining black pepper," exclaimed one passenger.

Another pulled out a well-worn book. As the last birds disappeared and RiverQuest chugged home under the stars, he read from the late Roger Tory Peterson, a world-renowned ornithologist, who lived nearby in Old Lyme.

"I have seen a million flamingos on the lakes of East Africa and as many seabirds on the cliffs of the Alaska Pribilofs," Peterson wrote, "but for sheer drama, the tornadoes of Tree Swallows eclipsed any other avian spectacle I have ever seen."

___

If You Go...

HADDAM, Connecticut: Located about 27 miles (43 kilometres) from Hartford, 115 miles (185 kilometres) from New York City.

RIVERQUEST SWALLOW CRUISES: Cruises offered through Oct. 6. Tickets, $40. Cruises take about three hours. No children under 10. Binoculars provided; http://www.ctriverquest.org/index.php/about/the-boat

CONNECTICUT AUDUBON SOCIETY: http://www.ctaudubon.org

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