Swifts Come Back to School

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Low light makes it difficult to get high quality images of this spectacle, but this image shows a mass of Vaux's Swift circling the Chapman School chimney on 18 September 2008. 

Every autumn northwest Portland, Oregon hosts a wondrous avian delight that begins in late August and runs into early October, peaking in mid-September. Each evening thousands of southbound Vaux’s Swifts assemble to roost in the old chimney at Chapman Elementary School. While there are other similar sites found from Washington to Northern California, the Chapman Chimney appears to host more swifts than any other roost. Nightly counts of 15,000-20,000 birds are routine during peak migration.

The swifts, which first appear as tiny black specks on the horizon in the late afternoon, accumulate in ever increasing numbers as the light fades. Appearing out of nowhere, they start out circling in loose formation over the general area. As darkness approaches, this holding pattern gradually tightens up around the school and small numbers begin to swoop towards the chimney, dipping towards the opening over and over, though not quite ready to enter. Eventually, the first bird stalls and flutters downwards into the chimney, which triggers the massive swarm to start funneling in. Once the lead bird goes in the rest resemble a vortex of pepper flakes swirling like a tornado, dropping in so quickly that they are impossible to count. Evening after evening one can stand below the chimney and watch these little birds pack themselves one atop the other until no more seem to fit. On many nights as the darkness deepens stragglers who can’t quite fit give up and fly off to the west towards Forest Park. Where these latecomers spend their night is unknown.

Since 1994 The Audubon Society of Portland has been educating the city’s populace about these swifts through their "Swift Watch" program. Every night during September Audubon volunteers answer attendee’s questions, and teach those who come to view this spectacle about this swift’s natural history. Almost every evening a Cooper's Hawk or a Peregrine Falcon enlivens the show by catching a swift or two, so the onlookers also learn about raptors.

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"Swift Watch" events, promoted and staffed by the Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon), have become increasingly popular in recent years. These gatherings provide a fantastic opportunity to raise community awareness about the numbers and needs of migrant birds passing through urban areas.

                                                                               Before local forests were intensively logged, migrating Vaux’s Swifts roosted communally in hollow old-growth trees. As these large trees and snags have been lost, the breeding population has declined. With fewer old trees for breeding and roosting, large chimneys like Chapman’s have provided alternative roost sites, offering a stable location that can be taught to each year’s new generation. Several thousand adults have been counted using the chimney during spring migration, though the numbers are far higher during fall when the adults are ushering their young of the year on their first southbound migration.

About 15,000-20,000 can stuff themselves into the chimney during mid-September.  The BBC (British Broadcasting Company) filmed these swifts in the 1990’s as part of a documentary. Cameras placed inside the chimney during this filming showed that these birds cling to one another, sometimes up to four deep and they only occupy the top half of the chimney.

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Many people wonder how swifts cling to the inside of the chimney. The spiny shafts shown in this close-up of Vaux's Swift's tail feathers are much like those of a woodpecker and they allow swifts to hang vertically on the inside of the chimney or the backs of other swifts.

Though these events offer a great opportunity to raise community awareness about local birdlife, the crowds now coming to view the swifts during September have grown to the point where they are wearing on the patience of local residents. In 2008 it was estimated that as many as 3000 people came one particular evening. Persistent problems include driveways and streets being blocked by illegally parked cars and litter from picnics. Swift-watchers are encouraged to be respectful of the neighborhood’s residents. It is best to park as far away as you are willing and walk a few extra blocks to the site. Don't expect to find a parking spot along NW Pettygrove (street along the south side of school) after 5 PM. Please stay off of private property, leave the dogs at home, pack out your own garbage, and don’t bring cardboard for your kids to slide on, or if you do please take it home with you. I can personally attest to the amount of garbage left in the area that is found each morning.

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Unfortunately, some among the crowd do not pack out their picnic garbage or the large chunks of cardboard (barely visibile in this image) that their kids use to slide down the hill on the Chapman School grounds. When attending any of the many birding spectacles around the country, we encourage you to leave it as you found it (or cleaner). 

While the evening roost activities garner most of the publicity, there is also a show in the morning. The morning departure, however, is much less dramatic and unpredictable as it is more weather and temperature dependent. Usually the swifts leave very early in the morning, but if the weather is unfavorable they return to the chimney. One very windy cold morning I observed small numbers leaving around 11 am. When the swifts do decide to exit the chimney they do so like water bubbling from a fountain. The birds just barely clear the lip of the chimney, then drop to gain speed, before soaring back into the sky on their sojourn south.

All photos taken by Shawneen Finnegan.

A documentary film called "On the Wing" has been produced Portland-based Real Earl Productions. A video trailer for this film and information about upcoming showings can be found at: swiftsmovie.com.

1

Wow, thanks for this great show on the sftiws. So glad that I could be there. Really enjoyed the video, it was a great. Can not wait to show it to all of my birding friends here in Ohio to show off what LWC does for their members.

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