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Tree swallows are endlessly entertaining. They play a kind of aerial chasing game as they swoop and dive after insects for food, and feathers which they use to line their nests. They bathe on the wing, quick little belly skims over the water.
"Everything about them is amazing," says Mindy Yuknat, "including the fact that they are one of Connecticut's most stunning natural wonders."
At first RiverQuest was one of just a few of boats cruising to see the swallows. Nowadays a small flotilla gathers at sunset — kayaks and old wooden sloops, power boats and sailboats. People bring picnics and wine, cameras and binoculars. There's a festive sense of anticipation as the sun goes down.
"It's different every night," Mindy told passengers on a cruise last October, referring to the birds' route, how high or low they fly and when they descend. "But they always come".
Moments later the first swallows appeared. Soon the sky was a frenzy of black flapping wings, causing even seasoned birders to cry out in delight.
"It's like the sky is raining black pepper," exclaimed one passenger.
Another pulled out a well-worn book. As the last birds disappeared and RiverQuest chugged home under the stars, he read from the late Roger Tory Peterson, a world-renowned ornithologist, who lived nearby in Old Lyme.
"I have seen a million flamingos on the lakes of East Africa and as many seabirds on the cliffs of the Alaska Pribilofs," Peterson wrote, "but for sheer drama, the tornadoes of Tree Swallows eclipsed any other avian spectacle I have ever seen."