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the million bird strong tree swallow tornado, supposedly the most under-rated (or at least little-known) natural spectacle in louisiana

2009-11-19 - 9:22 a.m.

Peachfront's Note: Check out my October 2009 Bolivia "Bird of Prey" trek: To start with Part 1, please click right here. If you missed any previous installments, well, here's Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and the thrilling conclusion, Part 6. Or check out my bird trip list with over 50 new life species. Also don't forget to investigate my photo essay, the beautiful butterflies of Bolivia.

Yesterday the IMOM and I decided to head off for Vacherie, Louisiana in search of the million (multi million?) bird Tree Swallow tornado. The directions are pretty simple. Hit LA 18, the Great River Road, on the plantation trail, in the direction of Oak Alley Plantation. Even if you somehow missed the signs, Oak Alley is unmistakable because of the tunnel of trees created by the stand of 28 evenly spaced live oaks. Supposedly the oaks were there at least 100 years before the house, so the house was situated to please the oaks and not the other way around.

In any case, near the so-called "oak alley," there is a pull-off complete with a historical marker and an on-ramp that allows you to drive along the top of the levee. Drive down the levee and position yourself with a view of the cane fields. Voila

It was a beautiful, sunny day. I feared it would be cold -- it was cold in the morning, but it was a pleasant evening with a pink and orange sunset. The Tree Swallows began to gather very suddenly around dusk, which was around 5 P.M. For a time we stood on the levee with many thousands of birds swooping and circling all around us. They were strangely quiet -- not silent, they had their various tiny swallow squeaks but not the loud gabble and discussion and defiant cries that you'd expect from a like-sized flock of starlings or blackbirds. At some point, we looked at the pink sky in the direction of sunset and realized that the gathering gray cloud was, instead, a huge flock of incoming...for a time, much of the sky, when you looked at it in binoculars, resolved into glittering, dancing speckles of Tree Swallows. They were thick as gnats, or mosquitoes, thicker really. Maybe like a flock of mosquitoes would be, back before the days of mosquito control, in some swampy summer area of Alaska. The kind of place where you'd wear a helmet with a mosquito net on it. As thick as stars in the Milky Way, back when there was still a Milky Way some place besides rural Bolivia.

As the birds circled and gathered, they began to form a funnel cloud right in front of us. Indeed, for a time, we had the dizzy sensation that the funnel cloud was on top of us, but then they shape-shifted off the levee and over the cane. When the waterspouts formed, the birds would just rain down out of the sky. The birds were dropping and then skimming the cane to pick a resting spot, but the waterspout would remain, its image created by the motion and the number of the moving birds. I forgot to note how many waterspouts we saw. Some of them must have dropped hundreds of thousands of birds before they coalesced back into cloud. As suddenly as it began, it was over. A million (2 million?) birds had vanished silently into the cane for their night's sleep, and now you couldn't see hide nor hair nor hear a single snore from a single bird. It was like they'd never been there at all, and yet you know they were still there, sleeping silently beneath the surface.

I didn't photograph the spectacle because we were in the thick of it, and I don't think I can photo a 360 degree dance created by a million living winged beings, especially in failing light, so I guess you will just have to come down and see for yourself.

I had two fears heading out -- that there would be no birds or that, there might be birds, but there would be no funnel clouds. Needless to say, my fears looked ridiculous in the aftermath. Both of us agreed that we'd never dreamed that it would be so intense. Words just don't describe. Even the few photos I've seen don't really describe...

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