The birder walks across the bridge. She’s not birding. She’s headed for the farmers’ market. She read that it’s supposed to rain, maybe thunder, any time now. That’s one of the reason’s she’s not birding. But she’s birding even when she’s not birding.
Right now, while she’s not birding, it’s not raining. The winds are high, though, and the water under the bridge is high — heavy snowfall over the winter plus a cool spring suddenly turning warm plus rain has caused flood warnings across this part of the state, warnings that say things like “worst in the last hundred years.” The water is rough and muddy and eddies around the bridge supports. Logs big enough to make credible lake monsters are swept along, riding low and waterlogged.
The Cliff Swallows don’t seem to care about rain now or later, floods now or later, lake monsters. The only way that the birder can tell they’re affected by the wind is by comparison with how they flew yesterday — the arcs are a little shorter, a little shallower, before they return to the underside of the bridge. They nest under there, in their mud cones. She noticed the nests last autumn, after the swallows were gone, and she’s been waiting for them ever since.
Now they are abundant, jubilant. Cliff Swallow colonies in the west tend to be large, and although this colony doesn’t rival the legendary thousands-strong Cliff Swallow nesting north of San Juan Capistrano, it is more than enough.
The birder looks down, not on the muddy river but on the space between. The Cliff Swallows are easy, very distinctive from above, with their white foreheads and pale rumps and metallic blue backs. They hover near the bridge, near their nests. She could watch them for hours.
You learn that swallows are hard in a place like New York City. The Tree Swallows nest in Jamaica Bay, in the nest boxes, good old reliable Tree Swallows. As for the rest, you see them in early spring, in mixed flocks, in constant frantic flight over bodies of water that force you to keep your distance, constantly dipping and arcing. You try to keep focused on just one long enough to make out some field marks, but another one cuts in front and now the one you wanted is behind or to the left or well under where you thought it would be, and this other one has an intriguing feature or two but now it’s gone as well.
You walk out onto the point, into the little gazebo to keep the chilly drizzle off, up by the castle to look down on the turtle pond from above.
You never see a Cliff Swallow. Other people do, but you don’t.
When I was very young, swallows were easy. First there were just swallows. As I got a little older and learned to read field guides and focus binoculars they became Barn Swallows, and then there were just Barn Swallows, although the pages of my Peterson told me that there were many other kinds. They lived in other places. We had barns, and we had Barn Swallows, and they built their cups of mud in the rafters of the barns and I could watch them for hours, at relatively close range.
Life got a little more complicated when we put up bluebird boxes and got Tree Swallows, but not really hard — Tree Swallows were never in mud cups, Barn Swallows were never in boxes, and white underparts were different from cream and turquoise upperparts were different from steel blue. Square tails were different from swallow (Barn Swallow, anyway) tails.
And then, one day in spring, strangers came. At first it seemed to me that they were building mud cups, but on the outside of the barn under the eaves instead of inside on the rafters. Then the cups arched over and became little domes. The strangers had colors almost but not quite like Barn Swallows, and tails almost but not quite like Tree Swallows.
I got the binoculars and the field guide and waited patiently for one of the zooming strangers to stop and perch for a bit. Stare, flip pages, stare. I spotted the white forehead right away, then focused on the pale rump patch for confirmation. Sure enough, Cliff Swallows. Neither of my parents could remember ever seeing them on the farm before. I had discovered a new breeding species — or a new breeding species had discovered me.
The colony was small, like most eastern Cliff Swallows colonies, and after a few years they left as abruptly as they’d come. But I never forgot them. I knew I would look for them again.
Great post Carrie. I think I went through the same curve in identifying swallows.
That’s great that you have Cliff Swallows nesting locally. I had never seen Cliff Swallows on the river here, and then suddenly one spring they started nesting on the local bridges.
Wes: I’m glad I’m not the only one! At least everyone acknowledges that shorebirds and gulls are tricky: sometimes swallows make me feel like I’m just dumb.
John: It’s strange to me how they come and go. I’d love to read more about their nest site selection and dispersal.
Ha! What an amazing post! This must clearly be one of your finest.
The horrifying suspense you built in the first paragraph until the very last sentence was in the finest Gothic tradition of Poe’s tales of mystery and the macabre: What? She’s not birding just because it is supposed to rain and she’s going to a farmer’s market? She can’t be serious! Maybe she isn’t a birder after all and we have been betrayed all these years?!? Who is she then when she is not what we thought she was for all these years? Will this post be supportive of big oil then?
Oh phew! Great Ghost of Audubon, she IS birding after all, even when she isn’t birding!
And thanks for making me try to remember my life Cliff Swallows. I had not forgotten the story but stored it in some far away corner of my mind, and you brought it back to life. A very memorable moment at the shores of Georgian Bay waaaaay back in 1988.