Friday, August 17, 2012

THE OMAHA SKY EXPLODES WITH BIRDS. My daughter, Fae, invited me to drive down to the Nebraska Med Center before sunset to skywatch with her. She packed a cooler of grapes, crackers and Hatch chili cheese, and with Bob's sister Marilyn, we set off. "I've heard there are two spectacular bird events in Nebraska," Fae told me. "Sandhills Cranes and Omaha Purple Martins." If there are others to compete, I hope to hear about them. We set up portable lawn chairs on the corner of 44th and Farnam, under a large pine tree. We prepared for - not a countryside, but a city showstopper. The traffic lights flashed at the intersection, cars and trucks sped along, or halted on red light command. Bikes rolled past and people of all ages walked by. Then, birdwatchers arrived from all directions to sit on the grassy slope across from the tall Med Center buildings, or to find another spot to view the event. Looking up at the sky, dots appeared high, high up. More and more specks swam in the clear blue. Specks became birds and we watched the Martins swirl around, losing altitude as they checked out the Farnam St. airstrip. A few birds plopped down on the edge of the high buildings, forming a long row of winged spectators. Soon purple martins divebombed into the tops of the dense Ash trees that marched around the Med Center. An ambulance swept by, siren calling the alarm, but the birds took no notice as the vehicle dashed up the street immediately next to their tree roost. Flocks of birds continued to come from all directions, first flying high above us, then dropping down. The numbers increased, until it was unbelievable. The sky was thick with them, and the birds came closer and closer, right above us. Apparently the birds arrive from a 100 mile radius and choose this site because of surrounding staging places, the warmth provided by the grouping of the buildings and the comforting, heavy foliage of the trees that landscape the 44th and Farnam St. corner. Estimates range from 25,000 to 65,000 birds visit this spot during the migrating August and September season. All we know is that it was an endless storm of dark birds flying above, circling down, roosting and then flying up again, only to play their fly/zoom trick again. We watched the Purple Martin airshow until the sun went down. The sky began to clear as the last diminishing flocks of birds swooped down and disappeared into tree greenery. The bird spectators on the building roofline joined their compatriots and we heard the song of Martins chattering whenever the traffic noises softened. We closed our mouths. We packed up. We'd watched the astonishing assemblage of Purple Martins getting ready for their long trip south. And we headed home.