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In This Place
A Cape Cod Notebook can be heard every Tuesday morning at 8:45am and afternoon at 5:45pm.It's commentary on the unique people, wildlife, and environment of our coastal region.A Cape Cod Notebook commentators include:Robert Finch, a nature writer living in Wellfleet who created, 'A Cape Cod Notebook.' It won the 2006 New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.

The Sky Is Not Empty

Ken Thomas
A male Tree Swallow on a fence post.

In the wild world, birds are the most commonly seen vertebrate, and, at this time of year—September into October—the Tree Swallow is probably the most commonly seen bird.  These tiny green-and-white beings flock to our coastal areas by the tens of thousands.  The Cape could be seen as Convention Central for them, as they congregate prior to migration south.  They can be seen over ponds and lakes, over the dunes, and most especially up in the sky.

Lying on my back in the dunes I see in the piece of sky above me: six…ten…a dozen…a score…a hundred or more.  In this position there is no up or down: just a dimensionless depth of sky, like a canvas waiting to be painted. Tree Swallows are difficult to count, and what’s the point anyway?  They are in constant motion.  They flit and they soar, they wheel and bank, and occasionally they stall and pivot, rarely interacting.  It is challenging to find words to describe all the movements they make.  Sometimes you can hear their vague twittering and actually see them go after insects.  That is, after all, what they are doing.  But what else are they doing?  What do they have to do with each other?  These very same birds that a month ago would have squabbled over a nest box are now in some easy airborne camaraderie.  Do they even remember their nests, their mates, their offspring, at this point?  What is their focus? 

And how do these insect-eaters know to switch in the fall to the tough gray waxy berries of the Bayberry, which are full of energy-rich oils to fuel their migration?  I have seen them blanketing these bayberry bushes in the dunes in great numbers, methodically stripping the berries off.  And how do they know to ingest sand in order to grind up these tough waxy berries?  I have seen hundreds or thousands of these birds on the beach doing so.

Up in the clear blue ether they perform something between a wild ballet and random, Brownian movement.  They not only defy gravity they seem to delight in defying it.  They seem to delight in everything.  Even the wind does not deter them.  They are creatures of the sky in the same way a dolphin describes the water.  Now and then flocks of robins or grackles fly purposefully by, almost plodding in comparison.               

What is their perspective up there?  What do they think of our puny buildings, our roads and parking lots?  Our small selves? They must be reckoning the shortening of the days.  They must feel the dying of the light as twilight approaches.  At which point, they go…where?

There are practical concerns about these birds, as we learn of the dramatic decrease in bird numbers in this country overall—something like 30% ,or 3 billion, since 1970—and the decrease in flying insects as well – some say the number of individual insects is down 50% in that same time period.  (Have you noticed your clean windshield lately?).  But today it is too beautiful to worry; this day we will set aside for celebration.  Today we appreciate these birds as we appreciate whales—for their freedom, their joy—their otherness.   

Today, at least, the sky is not empty.  And there is hope for tomorrow.