Pat’s Wildways: That time of year again

By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
November 18, 2021


Tree swallows are here in large flocks this time of year. Check the sky over Fort Clinch State Park dunes for the possibility of seeing them fly in shifting groups called murmurations.

It’s that time of year again, the time that migratory birds are visiting for the winter, or passing by on their way further south. In Fort Clinch State Park flocks of tree swallows are now swooping over the dunes, landing on treetops, and flying in masses together, in a behavior called “murmeration.” Although this biological term was coined with starlings in mind, our visiting tree swallows do the same thing. When enough of them flock together, the entire group moves as a unit in ever-shifting patterns in the sky, a wonder to behold. If you are lucky this winter and keep your eye on the sky, you just might see this eye-catching natural phenomena yourself.

Usually, though, you can never photograph a resting tiny tree swallow close enough to get a good look at it and, at least with my camera, their group flight patterns just show up as specks in the sky—not impressive at all. Recently, though, Bucko and I had the chance to see a tree swallow up close. We were taking our usual drive through Fort Clinch State Park, when we encountered a bicyclist guarding a small object on the road. A tree swallow was parked there on the asphalt, a very unnatural, not to mention unsafe, spot for a swallow to be in.

But Ranger Michelle (Chelly) Tabor was alerted and quickly came to the swallow’s rescue. Before long the tiny bird, seemingly in shock, was caught and transported to B.E.A.K.S. on Houston Road, Big Talbot Island for further help. In October B.E.A.K.S. celebrated their fortieth year of caring for injured birds in our area, and founder Cynthia Mosling and her staff are still hard at work. Although the facility is no longer open to the public, they still care for injured birds that are brought to them.

Chelly Tabor at Fort Clinch State Park rescued a tree swallow that ended up on a park road and brought it to B.E.A.K.S on Big Talbot Island for treatment and hopefully eventual release.

This time of year it is not only small birds like this swallow, but also much larger sea birds that pass through our area and sometimes become stranded here. Soon enough B.E.A.K.S. will be receiving loons and gannets into their facility. These sea birds spent most of their time over the ocean, diving for fish, and they have a difficult time taking off from land. Soon now, we will see gannets offshore diving vigorously into the sea in search of fish. But now and again a loon or a gannet shows up on the beach, as unnatural a place for them to be, as the Fort Clinch road is for a tree swallow.

Those that do end up on the beach are often sick and hungry. Although some may eventually be able to get airborne again when they are rested, many of these can be helped along with some rest, some fish, and some TLC before being released to the wild again. Over the years B.E.A.K.S. has rehabilitated and released scores of these birds. Amazingly enough, some of the gannets that were brought in have evidence of shark bites to their feet, incurred during their deep dives.

This season is also the time when many hawks pass through our region, and can often be spotted on utility poles eyeing their prey from above. And black-backed skimmers will soon become a common sight on our beaches, lined up together facing the wind. Most birds do not require any assistance in living their lives and can thrive here as long as they are given suitable respect by the people who share their habitat, but there are some exceptions.

If you do find an injured bird, here’s what B.E.A.K.S. suggests, “Call them at 904 251-BIRD (2473) and leave a message. Then place the bird in a transportable container with air holes and paper or cloth towels in the bottom. Keep the bird in a warm, dark and quiet place. Minimize handling. Don’t feed the bird.” And then bring the bird to the facility, and leave it in one of the transport cages outside their gate and a staff member will soon retrieve it, examine it, and give it the care it needs to be released safely into the wild again.

Thanks to Ranger Chelly and the helpful bicyclist, this little tree swallow can go on with its life. And thanks to B.E.A.K.S and caring members of our community, other injured birds also have another chance, when all seems hopeless for them. It takes a village.


Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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