A favourite September tradition in Portland is to gather on a grassy hillside and wait for sundown. As dusk settles, Vaux’s Swifts come in from miles around and gather to descend into a brick chimney for the night.
Tara and I invited J, who had never heard of it, and we didn’t tell him what was going on. We just said, “Meet us at Chapman School. Parking will be hard to find, but when you’re parked, come to the top of the hill behind the school. There will be lots of people and blankets on the grass. We’ll be looking for you.”
This is one of the events that reminds me of the very best of human nature. We humans love to gather with friends and family and enjoy the shared awe of an event. It’s particularly special when the event is a gift from nature, and nothing that we can control. In those cases, all we can do is sit back and smile and soak up the atmosphere, and be glad to be alive. It reminded me of the warm evening I spent on South Mountain outside Phoenix.
Please read my other post about the swifts from 2007, the first time we had ever seen it, to get more information about what’s going on here. Vaux’s swifts are migratory, and have several roosting areas near Portland. The most famous is the Chapman School chimney. Once the school’s heating system was converted, the chimney was no longer used by the school, but has been kept in good repair specifically for the swifts, who roost there at night, since they can’t perch.
The show doesn’t start till the sun goes down, and during the waning light hours, families poured in. Volunteers walked around to answer questions, and pronounced it Vox (I had been saying it wrong). The volunteer we talked to had a little plastic box that held a dead swift, so we could see one up close. The children were mesmerized by the tiny bird and did not want to relinquish the box, once they held it. Voices from hundreds of people swelled with laughing and calling to each other, as well as the squeals of the kids sledding down the steep grassy hill on flattened cardboard boxes. With the gathering darkness came the gathering swifts, and we were able to hear their high-pitched chirping as they circled above us.
There was a large bird perched on the edge of the chimney most of the afternoon, and it was deterring the swifts from descending into it. The volunteer confirmed for us that it was a Cooper’s hawk, a predator with an excellent hunting spot. The sky grew darker and still the birds did not enter the chimney. I grew impatient and finally told J what we were waiting for.
It was exciting to anticipate the conclusion of the building drama, since more and more tiny birds formed a circling cloud overhead. They whirled like debris in a dust devil, waaay up into the sky, and then spiraling down down down as though into a drain. But… approaching the mouth of the chimney was too great a risk, and they dove past and shot out to the horizon again.
Then! The hawk launched from the chimney and struck and captured a swift. Immediately about ten other swifts chased it away and the crowd cheered. Now it would begin.
The cloud of birds formed their chirping funnel cloud and streamed into the chimney for a long time. More and more dropped inside, with every set of human eyes entranced and kids hooting in excitement. I took a few photos then put down the camera and watched (me with my mouth open, I am sure). When all but a few dozen birds were safely tucked in for the night, the crowd clapped and began picking up their blankets, and hugging each other goodbye.
I hope you enjoy the videos below. I was holding the camera in my hands and not very steady, which makes it hard to watch. In the second one, the Cooper’s hawk is still on the edge of the chimney. Small groups of swifts head down, then veer off to the side, not entering. In the last video, the hawk is gone and the birds head in.