Swans Packing: November Dawn in East Hampton

Mute swans.
Mute swans. Photo credit: Tony Hisgett

At ten minutes past five in the morning, I got out of bed, fumbled in the dark for my clothes and then quietly tiptoed out of our bedroom, down the stairs and out the front door. I closed it softly behind me.

It is almost entirely silent at that hour of the morning in the Hamptons. It’s a strange magical time. Sometimes when I do this—I do it about once a week—there is a big dome of stars in the sky. At other times, it’s solid black and I know that when dawn finally arrives sometime in the next hour down at Main Beach, where I intend to be, it will be all clouded over and not as dramatic as it might otherwise be. But it doesn’t matter. I love going down to park there at this hour to watch it all happen.

I put the key in the ignition of my car and turn it. The engine springs to life and I know the sound carries back up into the bedroom where my wife will have likely stirred. She is used to this, though, my going down to the beach two miles away at this hour. And she will probably roll over, think, there he goes again, and then drift off back to dreamland. [expand]

I drive down Three Mile Harbor Road. There is just the barest hint of dawn on the eastern horizon beyond the trees—a slight glow. A mile down, I enter the commercial district on North Main and pull over and park across the street from Hampton Bagels. It is all lit up at this hour. It’s the only thing that is. I get out of the car and stride quickly in. It’s really not a store at this time, it’s a factory, busy with men and women in white aprons covered with flour, manning the hot ovens, sliding the great pans of fresh dough into the ovens beneath the flames, sliding other great pans of cooked bagels out as they slowly come up on the metal ferris wheel inside the oven, and then dumping them into the wire baskets to go into the showcases. There’s a wonderful smell in the place. But I spend no more than three minutes there. They know me. One everything bagel, nothing on it, in a bag. Also a cup of hot coffee. Then, thank you very much, muchas gracias, keep the change and I’m outta there, now back to the car, the spicy smell of the bagel in the bag, now on the passenger’s seat, and I’m gone.

I go under the railroad trestle, up onto Main Street, all brightly lit with the two rows of streetlights on both sides for that quarter of a mile. All the stores are closed. No one is around. I’m just a mile from the beach now.

At the far end of town, between me and the beach, is Town Pond, a long finger of an affair, maybe 200 yards long and 50 yards wide. There will be swans and ducks in the pond fast asleep at this hour, their heads tucked into their back feathers, one or two here and there up and on the lookout. The road goes right by the pond. Nobody bothers anybody, but still, the sentinels are on the watch.

But not this morning. Everybody’s up and there is great bustling of activity going on, a strange thing. I pull over to the side of the road—I’m on James Lane—and I turn off the engine and sit in the car and watch out the window. I am watching something I have never seen before.

All together there are six big white snowy swans paddling around. There are also about 15 small ducks, floating attentively nearby, watching.

The two biggest swans—they are the momma and the poppa—seem to be busy packing. There is no other way to describe it. On the shoreline of the pond, under the glow of the two streetlights there, they have lined up what appear to be tiny suitcases, each about the size of a cigarette pack. Some are open, some are closed. There is stuff in the open suitcases.

It is a very organized activity. The two big swans stand by these tiny suitcases, and the four smaller swans—the teenagers—are paddling back and forth across the width of the pond carrying things in their beaks. They approach the big swans and transfer what they have beak to beak, and then the big swans carefully place whatever that item is into one of the suitcases.

I am fascinated with the suitcases. The only time I have seen anything like these is in a dollhouse. I remember my daughter had one when she was young. There was furniture, curtains, rugs, lamps, little people, hatboxes and silverware.

Here though, there are just the little suitcases. And what goes in is just what is in the beaks. It looks like twigs and bits of dirt, but also sometimes, there are little pieces of white cloth. The momma sets them in the grass and folds them up carefully, and then the poppa puts them in the suitcases.

From time to time, one of the teenagers will take off from the water, circle around and pick up one or another of the suitcases in their claws and then fly for a bit overhead with it.

The ducks all quack at this. They don’t understand, and they don’t like all the commotion. Eventually, the teenagers land on the grass and put the suitcases back down. A few of the suitcases, I see, actually have the little wheels on the bottom. This is incredible.

Then I see one of the teenagers tie a piece of string entirely around another swan’s body. There’s a suitcase on his back. It is being secured.


I don’t know what comes over me. I don’t want the swans to leave. It’s too soon. They should stay here. I have to put a stop to this. I leap out of the car and I run over to all this activity waving my arms. HEY! HEY!

Suddenly, there is a flurry of activity and the teenagers are running off with the suitcases and burrowing them into the mud on the far side of the pond across the way then coming back to get some more. And then the biggest of the adults comes out of the water and right toward me.

His eyes are glowing. His feathers are all fluffed out. He waddles confidently, hissing, and I run for the car, him following me and getting closer and closer. At the last minute, I leap into the car and slam the door. And there he is, a huge beast of a thing, right outside my windows, fluttering against the chrome, pecking noisily at the door. Oh my God, there’s going to be dents in the doors.

I start up the car, and he runs around the front of it and I can hear him pecking at the tires. I put the car in reverse. But now he’s around the back, banging on the trunk. I can’t back up. These are endangered species. And I can’t go forward. He’s pecking at the bumpers and headlights. I hear one of them smash.

And now I see the flashing lights down at the far end of Main Street—a whole team of police cars are on the move—rushing toward the scene.


All I did was want to go watch the sunrise. I’m over HERE. Get this creature off me. Help. Help.

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