The mass migration of tens of thousands of Tree Swallows on the East Coast is a migration event I look forward to every year. It happens towards the end of September right along the coast. Sometimes the flocks are flying south low along the beach near the dunes – identifiable by flashing white underbellies and the shock of iridescent blue on their backs. These birds will stop to rest on anything that is available – twigs, ocean debris, stair railings, or just sand if there is no other option.
My favorite place to be when Tree Swallows are migrating in full force is in Cape May where most years I manage to time it correctly –somehow being there when they are swirling their way south in a series of low level tornadoes. Standing still, it’s possible to hear and feel the air through their wings as the bird vortex starts just a few feet off the ground and engulfs everything in its way. Sometimes I feel the tips of their wings hitting my arms or face. I can hear them communicating. They are on a mission, and they are doing it together. Somehow, I feel like I am part of it, and it’s thrilling.
This year I almost missed it entirely. I had seen maybe a hundred or so birds in flocks a few times over the beach, but nothing staggering. As I was just about to give up hope, I was in the meadow in my yard watching the start of an amazing butterfly migration – easily a half dozen species in the dozens if not
hundreds of butterflies alighting on the goldenrod and other flowers they love, making the blooms seem to come alive – Monarchs, Common Buckeye, Fiery Skippers, Pearl Crescents, Grey Hairstreak, Northern Crescent, Cabbage Whites to name a few. Suddenly I heard the familiar sound of those wings beating again. Looking up, I saw thousands of Tree Swallows coming to rest on the power lines outside my house – every line along the block. I watched for 10 minutes as they preened, rested, darted out for insects and just sat there waiting. And then with no warning, they lifted off in a huge cloud and continued their journey south. In an instant the day was silent, and the only things fluttering were masses of butterflies still feeding in the meadow. The Tree Swallows were gone. But the reassurance of this continuing migration stays with me, and I expect to see it again next year.