Swifts of September

The picturesque chimney at Chapman School.
The picturesque chimney at Chapman School.

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.

The beautiful old Chapman School.
The beautiful old Chapman School.
This mosaic sculpture is beside the front door.
Lovely mosaic sculpture…
...with a dragon!
…with a dragon!

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.

Early in the evening, and the crowds haven't arrived yet.
Early in the evening, and the crowds haven’t arrived yet.
From the bottom of the hill, looking up at where Tara sits with the blanket.
From the bottom of the hill, looking up at where Tara sits with the blanket.
Sledding on cardboard is remarkably fun entertainment for the children (and everyone watching them).
Sledding on cardboard is remarkably fun entertainment for the children (and everyone watching them).

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.

When the sun goes down, you can see the tiny birds fill the sky.
When the sun goes down, you can see the tiny birds fill the sky.
Unfortunately, I did not capture the hawk while she was on our side of the chimney. In this shot she is there, but out of sight on the far side of the rim.
Unfortunately, I did not capture the hawk while she was on our side of the chimney. In this shot she is there, but out of sight on the far side of the rim.
While the hawk blocked access to their roost, the birds grew in number, and flew in circles above our heads.
While the hawk blocked access to their roost, the birds grew in number, and flew in circles above our heads.

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.

12 thoughts on “Swifts of September

  1. This wonderful! First up how wonderful of the school to actually allow and encourage this to continue – most governors I know would be too concerned about repairs and maintenance and vandalism from the crowd to agree to keep the chimney open and available to the swifts. Hats off to them!! Second, I want to know how/where the birds roost inside the chimney. There must be a squillion of them and even though it is a big chimney I cannot imagine where and how they make a perch for the night.

    If ever I come to Portland this is on the must see list for sure!! 🙂

    1. Before they had chimneys to choose from, swifts roosted in hollow trees, clinging to the sides. I’m not sure how they do it, but I guess this type of structure is exactly what they want. And there *are* squillions of them! This year, around 5000 birds stayed the night in the chimney at their peak, and in the past, up to 16,000 swifts have been estimated to spend a night in the Champman School chimney.

      In 1980 the swifts first found this chiminey, and have returned every year since. A conversion to gas heat (with a new chimney) didn’t happen until the year 2000, and until then, students and teachers huddled in cold classrooms until the beginning of October, when the birds finally left and they could turn the furnace on. Talk about an accommodating administration! I am so impressed. The new heating system was created with donations, as well as earthquake retrofits for the old chimney.

      The neighborhood is remarkably tolerant, but do complain about parking problems and trash (often the cardboard is left behind). The night I was there, I looked behind us and saw people watching from windows and front porches of the houses. I think their common awe of the event helps them tolerate the hundreds who show up nearly every night in September.

  2. Wonderful! How exciting to watch the hawk strike (though not easy to watch, it is a rare thing to see). Thank you so much for the videos. The last one looks like the chimney is a vacuum and sucking the birds right out of the sky. You are always doing such fabulous things. Good on you!

    1. I’m glad you agree the chimney looks like a vacuum, sucking up the birds. I thought the same!

      The first time I participated, there was no hawk perched on the chimney, but they hovered on the edges of the sky, waiting for opportunities. I thought the parents would have to console heartbroken children if ever a hawk did strike. Boy was I wrong. The inevitable strikes did come, and the people cheered with delight! I think it is just so clear that nature is going about her business, that we are able to enjoy and understand and appreciate it. I’m glad nobody cried, and the families were able to share this reality with their children in a non-traumatic way.

      You know what I did find wonderful to watch was how small groups of swifts will chase the hawks away. Now that is a bold thing to do if you are a warm morsel of food, ha ha!

    1. Thanks, Derrick! You know, sitting in the crowd, the rumble and murmur of voices becomes something like a white noise background. I was surprised when I played the video later, when I was home, and heard how loud it is there. It’s a nice sound though, of families and friends. Hard to describe how a crowd can sound pleasant vs. annoying.

    1. Ok, then. We will make a date for next September. Their peak is usually early in the month. I only went late this year because I nearly forgot about it, so next year we will both try to remember. It’s almost walking distance to the New Renaissance bookstore, which you and I both love, so it would be easy to arrive early and browse the store, then head over to the school.

      1. OMG don’t let me near New Ren. I always spend way too much there. Love that place and so does the daughter. Son, eh. Not a clue. Sounds like a fun way to spend the evening. I’d love it and get dinner downtown to boot. :)))

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