Friday, November 14, 2008

Seeking the Swallow

Last week at Hamlin Beach there was a flight of Cave Swallows...38 in a morning. The next day, there were 11. So on Election Day Jessica and I got coffee, waited an hour to vote, and got in the car with Monkey to drive six and a half hours north to the shores of Lake Ontario. We met up with Bob Spahn, who had been keeping us up to date on the swallows, and spent the late afternoon looking out over a marsh where the birds had been seen in previous years. No luck with the birds, but luck with the election made up for it that night, and we were up early to try again. We got to Hamlin Beach at 7am, and spent four hours
watching out over the water. We had a group of Red-Necked Grebes, Cackling Goose, many flyover Siskins, a few Bluebirds, Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, Pipits, and a pair of Rough Legged Hawks, but no Cave Swallows. We had to be back in the city by five, so we said goodbye to everyone at the lake watch and headed back south.

The next few days I tried to figure a way to get back up to's the most reliable spot for these birds, but not the closest, and I had a lot of work to do for the next week. I decided the best plan was to work Jones Beach each morning that I could, work in the afternoons and evenings, and then if that didn't work, find a way to do another Hamlin overnight. I did my first day at Jones Beach on Tuesday, and it was a beautiful day. Along with the potential swallow moving along the barrier beaches, this past week had a large movement of Pine Siskins and Goldfinches. On the first day I was there Ken Feustel counted 6800 Pine Siskins flying over in the first couple of hours in the morning. Siskins aren't easy to see here most of the year, so I really enjoyed seeing a couple of large flocks land in the trees around me, and I spent an hour or so taking photos. You have to take these opportunities when you get them!

I also spent a couple of hours near the beach itself watching for swallows. When I first pulled up I spotted two distant swallows flying away, and couldn't ID them. Those were the only two I saw. The dunes in that spot are pretty wide, and swallows are small. It wouldn't be hard to miss even a number of birds if they went by to your right or left. I walked out to the jetty, which is at least god excercise, and then back again...still no swallows. I did have a pretty cooperative Perigrine Falcon on the beach, Northern Harriers in the dunes, and a couple of active Merlins that seemed to be very pleased with all the little birds migrating through.

The next day I tried again, but this time a little earlier. I can't say I care for this Daylight Savings thing...I know it's supposed to help the farmers, although no one's every really explained that to me properly...but it means I have to get up an hour earlier to make sunrise. So I was up at 5:30 and at the beach by 7. I headed out to the beach first, making the swallows my priority. I was in the dunes for about forty five minutes. I was starting to think alot about how easy it would be to miss these birds, and about how I was going to get back up to Hamlin before this whole movement was over. I started to walk back to the parking lot, and noticed a couple of small birds heading my way. I was thinking: Not sure...don't look finchy...better photograph these...these are swallows!...calm down and get the shots...hope this works... and then they were past. I went through the half dozen shots I got, hoping for a clean ID. There was one. A swallow with a short, squared tail, tawny rump, and pale throat. Cave Swallow.

That now familiar wave of relief came over me--another six hour car ride wasn't going to be necessary, at least not for this bird. I walked out to the jetty again to see if anything interesting was going on. As I got close to the point another pair of swallows flew past...they didn't even veer or slow down when they hit the channel, but just dove low and kept moving over the waves. I was able to get a few photos off on these birds as well, and while the shots weren't as definitive they did show a collared swallow, most likely Cave. These birds came an hour after the first pair, so while they might have been the same birds, it seems more probable that they were a different pair. Later I spoke to other birders on Jones who had seen one and two Caves repectively, and Doug Gochfeld reported 8 Cave Swallows on Breezy Point later that day.

Looking back on this week, the search for the Cave Swallow had all the elements of chasing birds, good and bad. The long drives, the waiting, and all the things that come in between you and the bird: the other birds you see along the way, the people who join and leave the search, the habitats both familiar and new, and all the things that you come out to see besides the bird. The bird becomes an's the smallest part of the week that you spend looking for it. I come from a hunting family, and when I was a teenager I hunted with my father. To some hunting is repugnant, and I guess it is to me sometimes, too. But in the kind of hunting we did, the killing was the least of it. It was the travel, the camping, the new experiences, and just being a way the gun was just a way to go outdoors and still feel like you had a purpose. Maybe birding has replaced that purpose for me isn't the "kill"that's fulfilling, finding that rarity. The rarity is just the motivation that propels me to get out and open my eyes, look around, and see more than I ever would have.

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