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Watching Swallows

May 9, 2021  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  47 comments  | 

In the rapacious suburbia of southeastern Michigan, where from every shopping center you can gaze out in almost any direction to find … another shopping center, I find birds in a wetland park not far from my mother’s condominium complex.

On Saturday morning, as I watched a Palm Warbler pumping its tail, a man and woman toting many thousands of dollars worth of camera gear approached on the trail.

“Any good warblers?” he asked.

A Palm Warbler (“western” race) during a more private moment with me at this park in southeastern Michigan.

The answer, of course, is that ALL warblers are good warblers. But I knew what he meant. “Nothing rare,” I replied. “The usual good stuff.”

At which point the couple whisked past me and sent my Palm Warbler flying away into the woods. In this violation of birding decorum, photographers and birders (who should know better) too often fixate not on what’s here and now, or even prosaic, but rather on what’s next.

So I reversed course and found my respite, my here-and-now, among swallows. Upon a narrow dike, with water and wetlands to my left and right, I stood with the sun to my back as swallows sliced and swooped and swirled around me. (The banner image above, which I captured only after the swallows had mostly moved on, shows my spot — just ahead of my shadow.)

Rough-winged Swallows, brown and brash, sliced the morning air and issued their farty calls. Tree Swallows, metallic blue, jockeyed for a nest cavity nearby. And the Barn Swallows fanned their elegant forked tails and flashed their sexy cinnamon undersides. So close were these birds, about two dozen in total, that I half expected some of them to fly between my legs.

Among swallows there is no what’s next. There is only audacity and performance. Among those swirling birds, I needed no binoculars, no camera — only the ability to stand, to listen, to look.

At one point in this exercise, which is one of my most favorite things to do in all of nature, I called upon my brain to reacquaint myself with the different ways swallow species move in flight — subtleties about flaps and glides I have discerned during decades of my watching these birds on the wing. And yet I cut short the reacquaintance. My eyes and ears and legs were enough. No brainwork here. Only joy in flight. An embrace of swallows.

No brainwork here. Only joy in flight. An embrace of swallows.

I love my family here in southeastern Michigan, even as I don’t care much for where they live, and I mourn the relentless eradication of what’s wild here. Yet what a privilege to celebrate Mother’s Day with my mom (who turns 87 on Wednesday) and my sister (also a mom) and her husband — my first visit with them since before the pandemic. Even so, later today I will wish my mom a final happy Mother’s Day and birthday — and farewell — as I hit the road for home to Vermont, where south winds and attending warblers have been scarce.

But those winds and warblers will surely come. And they’ll be good warblers — all of them (or at least what’s left of them). Until then, all of us have the good fortune of swallows … or whatever else might walk or hop or slither or swirl within reach (even in suburbia). But only if we remember to do little more than stop, breathe, turn off the brain — and observe.

More Essays About Slowing Down in Nature

  1. Kathryn Dodge says:

    Hello Bryan,
    We have swallows that come back to our barn rafters to the same nest, just cozied up a bit. We are in and out of the barn during the spring and summer, but the photo I took last summer shows mom (or dad?) and the babies, sort of smiling for the camera. Love these guys!
    And thank you so much for your posts.

  2. Diana Van Buren says:

    I will really miss you, Bryan! Have a wonderful sabbatical. I’ll be thinking of you as I move out of NYC and on to a more nature-driven place— Ithaca. Look forward to reading everything you write (and your books?) upon your return, whenever that may be.

  3. Mary McDaniel says:

    One of my sweetest childhood pastimes was watching the barn swallows in our barnyard in So Amherst Massachusetts. I haven’t seen them in years and sorely miss them. Are you familiar with a song Joan Baez recorded called Donna Donna? It’s a yiddish song, said to be written in 1941.

  4. You made my day again, Bryan, with your peaceful joy in observing without camera, etc. enjoy your sabbatical, and keep us posted on your thoughts which are so healing. thanks again, georgeann

  5. Jan Waterman says:

    Thank you, Bryan. See you around.
    Be well; much joy to you.

  6. J Laz says:

    Thanks, Bryan.
    Beautiful writing and sentiments.

  7. Dave and Giovanna says:

    Hi Bryan …
    Thanking you for all of your wise and funny observations, leaving our mothers and then them leaving us , is a ritual that is always individual and never translates very well. Travel safely and with peace ,
    Bluebirds and tree swallows dueling sites in windham county today ! Two regal monarchs of Vermont spring. Hope to see you about this summer.

  8. Donna Cundy says:

    You made me think of Cracker Jacks, which we used to buy as kids and munch on, then lay on our back in the grass and watch the Barn Swallows dive bomb tourists. Your writing always reminds me to slow down and enjoy the moment.

  9. Tracy Sherbrook says:

    Bryan, I hope you have a wonderful sabbatical/move into retirement. I am so grateful to have been part of your online butterfly class during the pandemic. You were an absolute bright spot in the midst of dark days. Thank you.

  10. Eileen says:

    Thank you Bryan for your photos and blog. I just discovered it in the past year so I’ll have to be satisfied with reading past posts. They seem timeless, and so will still be a pleasure to read.

    Yes, to being still in nature and seeing, hearing and feeling what is there in that moment!

  11. Paul Brassard says:

    Thank you, Bryan, for reminding me that beautiful, interesting life abounds in nature, even just outside my window. Your stunning photographs and calm, loving words inspired my wife and I to do the simplest of things — put up a couple of basket bird feeders on our back patio. Now, instead of being mesmerized by the latest British detective series we press pause and become enthralled with the cardinals, morning doves, sparrows and goldfinches who come to dine at our table. Who needs Prozac? I will miss your regular musings, but now is your time to slow down and take it all in just for you. Enjoy!

  12. Sandra Bruggemann says:

    Well Bryan, I will miss your blogs and everything else you send out and hope that you have a good year of rest and contemplation. I am turning 88 in June and have a son who is 62, and moved to Des Moines to be nearer to him. There are lots of birds here but my birding group has not met for two summers and I miss that. Iowa still not off the hook because of Covid, parks just beginning to open up again and the birds are back and passing through. I will always remember being with you in different groups and how much fun they were. Be happy and stay well.

  13. Sue Chickering says:

    Here in Bend, Oregon, where we are celebrating Mother’s Day, swallows of all kinds abound and it is also one of my absolutely favorite things to do as well, watching them swoop and glide and skim across the Deschutes river. So much waterfowl out here in the high desert! Joy abounds!!! Best wishes to you, Bryan and safe journey back to VT.

  14. Jo-Ann Ecker says:

    I watch my feeders…which are only up in the daylight…all the Rose Breasted Grosbeaks have returned and I have 4 pairs of Evening Grosbeaks. I am hearing Warblers in the trees but of course its spring and some of the songs I have forgotten since last summer. I am always looking. Just returned from Maine and was surprised by the lack of shorebirds at the beach. Did see 1 Plover, lots of Eiders but little else can’t remember having so few seabirds . Jo-Ann

  15. Ann B. Day says:

    Hi Bryan
    I wish you a year of as many quiet reflection times as you want and peace of soul every day. I hope to see you on the other end of your year. I didn’t feed the birds this winter but have been blessed with glimpses of a titmouse, pair of cardinals, a rose breasted grosbeak, a white throated sparrow, black capped chickadees, a catbird, a pair of song sparrows, house finches and several crows all just outside my kitchen window where I toss scraps and black sunflower seed. I think of you often with affection and inspiration.Ann
    Not much excitement but anything with feathers is a j oy here at Rivermead’s rather sheltered life of a 92 year old, X-Vemonter’s life.

  16. Kim says:

    Southeastern Michigan can certainly be challenging to heart and soul, but I also used to find places to just be. To listen and see. Places along the Rouge River and the Detroit River. Lake Charlevoix in the NW part of the mitten also offered respite. I have lovely memories but am very glad to be home in Vermont.

  17. Gail Falk says:

    I turned away from reading your blog on my IPad to look out the window and saw a bright red finch, upside-down nuthatch, and a breakfasting sparrow. Thanks for the reminder to look outside!

  18. Colleen says:

    Many things can slow us down to do other important things in life. I lost my mom last year and still celebrate her thoughts on life on Mother’s Day. Retirement does that too at times. I’m enjoying this now…keeping an eye on the wilds and not so wild areas to see all kinds of wildlife…it feels good. I hope your sabbatical rewards you and please check in occasionally as we all enjoy your observations and words of wisdom!!

  19. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for this reminder that we can locate ourselves in stillness with nature wherever we are.

    I’m looking forward to celebrating my mother’s 80th after 2 years of not seeing her. But I’m dreading being back in sprawling Columbus Ohio.

    I will sit with the chickadees and squirrels and be grateful for Vermont

  20. Susan Cloutier says:

    Bryan, we will always thank our mothers as, even though they are no longer with us, part of us can remember the mothering we had that shaped who we are today. My Mom supported my interest in the plants and animals in our back yard and never complained of the containers in my room that were temporary homes for something I was studying. And today, at 77, I enjoy the wild things in the woods and steams outside my door. I no longer ‘chase’ the latest rare bird or butterfly. It is a peaceful way to live. Thank you for reminding us to appreciate where we are; our time and place.

    • Thanks so much, Sue, for those reminders and inspiration. I remember after my heart attack, when I couldn’t venture much farther than the back deck, how lovely the Cabbage Whites were to me. I’ve never forgotten that. And they’ll never be “just” Cabbage Whites to me — ever!

  21. Thank you Bryan. Such poignant words on love and loss and change and beauty. And on tuning in to all of it. So glad to start my Mother’s Day with those thoughts.

  22. Tom Ziobrowski says:

    Thank you Bryan, I stopped on a path in regrowth yesterday to see what was twittering and was blessed with close ups, eyes only, of Chestnut sided and Black throated green warblers.
    Take care of yourself.

  23. Carol Vassar says:

    Hi Bryan,
    Your photos are always a pleasure to see. The slowing down to enjoy watching the goldfinch flight, the robins hopping brings pure joy, far less available during the professional decades. Similar joy in spotting the Jack-in-the-pulpit shoot, the swelling buds on a lilac that has never bloomed before, the plants by the stream that I never noticed before but clearly going to flower soon. The joy of witnessing life.
    Have a good trip home. Will also be a joy if I run into you some time this summer.

    • I’m loving how spring is taking its time (after that earlier “heat-wave”). And I also enjoy buds and this lacy flowery time of year. Ruth and I even noticed some Bloodroot blooms today! See you around the city, Carol!

  24. Lynn Wild says:

    Thank you Bryan, always a joy to see palm warblers. Safe journey home. Wildlife update: bobcats reported earlier in the week on St Paul Street. Merlin family resides in church steeple; uses cottonwood outpost in our yard to teach flying lessons. Woodchuck visit of bird bath among hazelnuts. Trout lilies growing under red maple in church yard for third year. Urban rewilding in progress xoxo lynnie

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