Tree swallow spectacular

Guest perspective: Sue Cornell

There are some bucket-list experiences which, when ticked off, make it to the to-do-again-next-year list. The autumn tree-swallow spectacular on the Connecticut River is a perfect example.

Not so long ago, only a few birders and locals knew about the phenomenon in which up to 400,000 swallows gather nightly and then plunge into the reeds (how folks didn’t happen to notice a few hundred thousand birds is beyond me). By word of mouth, while on an eagle watch, I heard about this swallow spectacular, but still wasn’t quite sold on this being a big deal. After all, it’s a lot easier to catch via Google images or YouTube videos.

But since it was a perfect fall afternoon for a kayak and a bottle of wine, why not? With binoculars, headlamps, cameras, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, a dog and dog biscuits, we launched at Pilgrim Landing, which is north of Baldwin Bridge on Route 156 past the Old Lyme Marina in Old Lyme, Conn.

We paddled north with many other kayakers and canoeists, to be joined soon after by a variety of vessels from inflatable dinghies to charter boats. As the sun began to set, the first flecks appeared, followed by a few more feathered friends in the pink-orange and smoke-blue sky. Over the next few minutes, thousands more appeared, rendezvoused, flew everywhere from high overhead (tip: Wear a hat) to eye-level, and plunged in a funnel into the reeds on Goose Island. This annual tradition – the gathering of the swallows – occurs from late August to early/mid-October, at which time they head south to Florida, Cuba and Central America.

This phenomenon is somewhat of a mystery. Andrew Griswold, director of EcoTravel for the Connecticut Audubon Society, theorizes: “This site is on an island, and away from forested areas that may host predators. And it’s the old adage of ‘safety in numbers.’” The only other known location where swallows gather as they do in Connecticut is in southeastern Louisiana, where they dive into sugarcane. Small flocks have been seen in Cape May, N.J.

After spreading the word to kayak friends from Wickford, R.I., to Noank and Greenwich, Conn., we headed out as our own bigger flock of birders this year. We launched from the same location, at the same time of day. As luck would have it (or not have it), there were very few swallows. There were hundreds of boaters, however: perhaps more boaters than birds that Friday night on the river. Sorry, non-feathered friends.

I checked with the Audubon expert to find that there is great variation in the combination of behaviors, so every night is different. “The brevity on some nights is likely due to weather conditions, and may be somehow associated with our drought conditions,” Griswold explained. “On some nights, birds are arriving a bit late to the roost site, and then quickly heading to their night perches.”

While last year’s show, for us, wasn’t as spectacular, others at the launch reported they had seen thousands and thousands only a couple of days earlier.

Like seeing sports or a show live, this is not one of those experiences you can fully appreciate by pictures, videos, or through written or verbal communication – you really need to be there. The tree swallows make this an annual tradition, and so will we. And even if the night is light, the peace, serenity and sunset beside an isolated island can’t be beat.

If you’d like to go on an organized trip, contact RiverQuest Swallow Cruises (cruises take about three hours, binoculars provided) at For more information about the swallows, visit the Connecicut Audubon Society at

A resident of Killingworth, Conn., regular contributor Susan Cornell is an independently contracted writer, photographer, and marketing and public relations consultant. During the summer, she and her husband Bob “pretty much live at Brewers Pilots Point Marina” aboard their Nonsuch Halcyon.