Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sketching on the Spot: Tree Swallow Roosting Ritual

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The tree swallow cruise has become a yearly ritual for me as well as the birds.  Every year hundreds of thousands of tree swallows gather in the marsh, in a particular spot near the mouth of the Connecticut River. And I do mean hundreds of thousands, somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000. Which is massive.

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Tree swallows are very social and form these large flocks in preparation for their migration which will happen as soon as there's a cold snap or two.  The birds stream in from every direction just before sunset and they organize from chaos into patterns. Above you see a "fly up", this is when the birds have settled in the marsh and then en masse fly up all at once. They will do this a number of times before finally roosting for the night. 

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Just as the sun begins to set the tree swallows will begin to form a vortex, like a tornado. They will spiral down towards the marsh at great speed and as they reach the tops of the reeds they will spread out and grab a reed and that's where they will spend the night.  To give you an example of how quickly this happens, just imaging 300,000 birds all diving in a vortex and disappearing in the marsh in less  then two or three minutes. Amazing. 

just a tiny fraction of the tree swallows in the sky 

It's wonderful fun to be sketching all of this. Typically I sketch the scenery and other birds we see on the trip down river which takes about an hour. When we arrive at the spot I sketch the marsh and then spend some time observing the birds and what their doing, and then I try to capture their patterns and movements.  It's also important to try and convey the sheer number of tree swallows.
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For this event I like working with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, a Pentel Aquash Pigment Ink Brush Pen in Light Black, a White UniBall Signo (the tree swallows are white underneath) and watercolors with a large brush. The brush pens make it easy to create bird shapes quickly, and brush pens and watercolors are fast working tools, necessary in a situation like this. If you happen to be in CT anytime between late August and early October I recommend you book a spot on the RiverQuest Tree Swallow cruise, it's really totally amazing.

The photos below give just a tiny glimpse of the number of tree swallows in the sky.

a tiny portion of the tree swallows beginning to organize

1 comment:

  1. These sketches are amazing, Jan. You really captured the movement of mass flight--or of a "fly up" as I just learned. We have the starlings here in Ohio that do much the same thing.


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