Vaux's Swift Watch (Sep 14)

No, they're not bats. But the Vaux's Swifts sure remind me of the Mexican Free-Tailed Bats at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico when they leave their roosts at dusk.

This spectacle of the Vaux's Swifts returning to their roost for the night can be seen in late August and September at several locations along the Northwest Coast. But for some reason the old chimney of Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon draws the largest numbers of the tiny birds. The birds gather in such places to roost in preparation for their mass migration to southern Mexico and points further south.

Chapman Elementary School, Portland, Oregon

We expected to see lots of birds, but were not prepared for the large number of people at Chapman! And not to suggest that birders don't know how to have fun, but it was, surprisingly, an absolute festival atmosphere. On the steep adjacent hillside, folks enjoyed picnic dinners and reclined on blankets while kids were sliding down on large cardboard pieces or playing soccer in the field below.

Cardboard sleds on the hill in front of the spectators

Portland Audubon was there to answer questions at table with information including specimens of a Vaux's Swift, a hummingbird and a bat for comparison. Unfortunately they were sold out of the children's book Swifty's Big Flight which I knew I needed based on title alone. Swifts are more closely related to hummingbirds than to the larger swallows they resemble, and can not perch on branches like most birds.

The swifts can only cling to a vertical surface which, in the absence of a tree hollow, makes the interior of a large chimney a perfect location to spend the night. Unless the chimney is in use. When the Chapman chimney was in service years ago, students and staff at the school agreed to wear jackets inside if needed and delay turning on the heat until the birds left.

Interpretive sign at the school

As we looked around deciding on the best vantage point we noticed that across the street, which had been blocked off to vehicles for the event, an entrepreneurial young boy sat at a table selling cookies and drinks. I love to support such lemonade stand ventures so we walked over. He had me with the blue apron embroidered "Cookie Boy #2" and we selected our treats.

Cookie Boy #2 and his mom, author of Swifty's Big Flight

Then I noticed a copy of Swifty's Big Flight on his table.

"Could we get a copy tonight after all?"
"Yes, you can!"
"Would you like a signed copy?"
"Yes please, Cookie Boy #2."
"Okay I'll get my mom."

How cool, we had stumbled across the author's home! (What happened to Cookie Boy #1? The older brother, now a teenager, had retired.)

After chatting with author Lee Jackson about swifts and what it is like living directly across the street from the annual September crowd scene, we noticed some birds overhead. We moved along to find a great spot at the top of the hill behind most of the crowd. We were next to some photographers with fancy equipment and near the Audubon bird counters. Another man arrived with a tracking device, hoping to locate one of the Vaux's Swifts tagged in Washington.

Time-lapse photographer at left, tracker and counters at right

More and more birds arrived and were loosely circling, but very high overhead even though it was near dusk, time to fly into the chimney to roost for the night. Perched on the edge of the chimney was a Swainson's Hawk, just waiting to pick off his dinner. He hopped around here and there, and with each move the spectators let out collective gasps of anticipation. All the while the swift numbers were growing, as they circled in an ever tighter and darker spiral that floated closer to the chimney to a chorus of excited "OOOHs," and then up and away to disappointed "AWWWs" from the crowd.

Swainson's Hawk perched on the chimney

Finally one brave bird, perhaps Swifty himself, took the downward plunge past the hawk and into the chimney, followed by more and more birds. We couldn't see exactly what happened, but the hawk was gone. The huge flock circled around time after time in a tremendous swirling black avian vortex lasting maybe 10 minutes until the last bird was gone. The crowd cheered and clapped. The official count was around 5,000 - 6,500 birds, a decent number but still only one third of peak counts. Thanks to the hawk, the swifts' entry into the chimney was delayed, concentrating their numbers to create a more dramatic effect.

Vaux's Swifts, circling "their" chimney

The crowds at Chapman Elementary, watching the swifts fly in to their chimney roost

Crowd scene at Chapman

Next time we'll bring binoculars and our telephoto lens. And our dinner. And camp chairs.

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