Vaux’s Swifts

Swifts heading for their chimney roost

We went back to see the swifts, mentioned in yesterday’s post.

Since I was a meteorologist in my past life (before Brandeis), and I know the limitations of the job, I kept my hopes up for seeing the swifts despite the gloomy weather forecast this weekend while my daughter is with me. Though the forecast was for a rainy day, the clouds cleared all day long and it was a really lovely afternoon and evening. We pulled on sweaters and grabbed a blanket and off we went to the Chapman School. (Please read previous post for a better background on the swifts.)

There is an information board there which tells a bit of the history of the chimney. It was the chimney for the furnace that heated Chapman School. In 1982 when the swifts first arrived, the students and teachers at the school worried about harming the birds and agreed to sit in chilly classrooms until the birds migrated on each October. Then the heating system was converted and the chimney is no longer used in the school’s heating system.

The chimney was maintained for the Vaux’s Swifts, however. These birds are well-designed for flying and not well designed for holding still. They can’t perch, but are good at clinging to vertical surfaces. They fly around all day long eating tens of thousands of insects, then when the sun goes down, they pour into the chimney to roost there for the night. Portland hosts the largest known swift migration stop in the world, and the Chapman School chimney has held up to 40,000 birds at once!

It looks like the chimney is a vacuum cleaner, sucking up small birds. They are built like bullets with wings, and move like it too, zooming in swarms of thousands of birds that move in wide undulating circles and then suddenly: whoosh! Into the chimney.

Tara with poi

It doesn’t start till dusk and we got there early, so Tara brought nail polish and henna and did designs for people around us who wanted them. We also brought our poi and practiced twirling the balls a bit. There is another tradition there we were not aware of till now: cardboard sledding down the steep hill overlooking Chapman school. Kids used cardboard already there, and also brought their own, and sledded for hours on the grass. Even the teenaged and twenty- and thirty-something children were sledding!

As the sun went down, more people poured in. I am not a good judge of numbers by eyeballing it, but there couldn’t have been fewer than 400 people. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there were 600. All of them spontaneously showing up with blankets and mittens to watch birds go to roost for the night. Isn’t that a lovely thought?

My daughter and I began wondering why there wasn’t a host of hawks on the fringes, taking advantage of all these small tasty morsels flying about. We were having a private laugh at our wickedness, imagining that the other parents might take their wee ones away if a hunt began. We thought that if we could watch mid-air hunting it might be even more fun.

birders waiting for the show

Well, we were wrong on both counts!! The hawks did show up, and the crowd went wild! A hawk would soar in slow, determined circles right through the midst of the swarming swifts. When it got to the top of the swarm, it would fold up it’s wings and CRASH! right through the middle of them, rocketing straight toward the earth, and them BAM! smack into a swift. The hawk would then fly off into the distance with the bird clutched in its claws. The people roared and clapped. Maybe we all have a bit more of a devious streak than I give us credit for.

Amidst the drama of the later evening, my camera battery died, so I don’t have any shots of the grand finale or the hawks, or the crowds of people, but I did capture a few from our remarkable night.

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