I am a Biology professor at Heidelberg College, a fine, small liberal arts institution in northwestern Ohio. Each May for 20 years, I’ve taken small groups of students to Canada’s Point Pelee Provincial Park, one of the best spots in North America to catch the spring migration of northbound birds. The Park is an elongated triangle of sand-rimmed forest jutting into Lake Erie and forming Canada’s southern-most extension. As the first piece of land a migrant sees when flying over the western end if the lake, it’s a magnet for all manner of feathers and beaks.
Our goal for the day is a hundred species, and sometimes we make it. It all depends on the weather. Birds ride the blustery fronts like surfers. If you time things right, you’ll find the forests and shoreline teeming with life and color. If the winds are bad, you’ve traveled a long way for a walk in the sand.
One year, we arrived at the tail-end of a storm. The sky had been swept clean of clouds but the surf was still roaring, and crosscurrent winds over the Point were treacherous to anything in the air. Along the western shoreline, a cluster of swallows were diving and dancing in the tumult, 25 to 100 feet over our heads. Their pointed wings, sudden swoops and power dives brought to mind jet fighter pilots in a frantic dogfight for possession of the sky.
One brown and white hunter suddenly dropped from the air in hot pursuit of some invisible quarry. But an abrupt shift in the wind caught her in a powerful downdraft, and we watched her thump, hard, onto the sand at our feet. To save on weight, birds have especially thin skulls and suffer fatal concussions on much milder impacts than the one we’d just witnessed. She was a bank swallow, her white underparts set off by a sharp band of brown at the neck. I folded her wings to her almost weightless body and she died in my hand.
I believe in the brilliant spark of life. And I believe in mortality and death, deep and infinitely cold, but surging at the surface like waves pounding the pebbled shore. Somehow, time lies at the crossing point, the margin of the two realms. I believe in rolling waters beneath the blue, blue sky. And a brown-backed swallow in the wind.