Signs of spring

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(Host) Many Vermonters are cheered by the birds of early spring. Tom Slayton says that he especially likes a family of birds that arrives a bit later in the season.

(Slayton) Spring is here for sure. I can hear birds singing in the morning, coltsfoot and spring beauties are beginning to bloom, and even on cool days, the warmth at last feels genuine.

But what really convinced me was the sudden appearance of a flock of tree swallows overhead last week. More than robins, perhaps even more than redwinged blackbirds, tree swallows are a true harbinger of spring.

Tree swallows mean one thing – the bugs are coming! Tree swallows eat bugs. And like it or not, bugs are a genuine part of a New England spring.

Tree swallows are tough and adaptable. They’re insect-eaters – but they can live on berries and seeds, and so they come back as soon as it gets passably warm, sometimes even before there are bugs around. In the fall huge swarms of them -literally millions of birds – congregate along the coast to fatten up on bayberries before heading south. I’ve seen an enormous flock of them drift like a floating cloud out of a salt marsh and southward.

That same tough adaptability enables them to be the first of the swallows to return to Vermont. And last week as I was watching some grebes and ducks at Berlin Pond with Bill Barnard from Norwich University, a flock of tree swallows unexpectedly surged overhead.

The little flock soared over us, dived and turned and sped gracefully back over the pond. Just seeing them and knowing they had returned made me happy.

Sometimes I think I’d like to be reincarnated as a swallow. I usually think this as I watch them fly: the swift, flowing arabesques they carve non-stop, in the sky express freedom and joy more completely than any words. Only music comes close to matching their beauty and exuberance. They are the Mozart and Hayden of the bird kingdom.

Barn swallows are perhaps the most eloquent flyers of the family, while the little brown bank swallows flutter happily at the other end of the grace spectrum. But the flight of tree swallows is also very graceful and flowing – and quite fast. It was a delight to watch the them carve through the air over Berlin Pond, their white bellies and blue-green backs flashing in the spring sunlight.

The next day, in a light rain, I watched them swarm over the water, catching insects on the wing. Every so often one would actually ripple the water as it nipped an insect off the surface. All the summers I have watched swallows came back to me and I remembered lying on my back in the grass outside my grandfather’s barn, watching the barn swallows swoop and dive for hours.

Swallows say spring and early summer to me. They leave well before the first frost, usually before September, and the landscape always feels a little bit empty after they go, even though there may be weeks of warmish weather left.

So it was lovely to see them back again. They made me feel that the year had taken another turn, last week – a turn for the better.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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