Chapman Elementary Swift Watch

Exploregon continues as we learn more about our new city. One organization that I am very interested in getting involved with is the Audubon Society of Portland. As I was reviewing their website and trying to decide how I could get involved, I saw something that I wanted to experience: The Annual Swift Watch.

Every year around late August one of the most interesting natural events starts in Porltand, OR. Thousands of Vaux’s Swifts gather in the city nightly as they begin their migration to Central America and Venezuela.

Migrating swifts will use chimneys as places to roost (where they sleep) and will return to the same roost year after year. There is a swift population that has been returning a chimney at Chapman Elementary school since the 1980s and it is reported to be the largest known roosting site of migrating Vaux’s Swifts.

Waiting at Chapman Elementary for Swifts to arrive.

The swifts are known to roost every evening for the entire month of September and the natural event begins shortly after sundown each night. Not knowing what to expect but excited to witness this event, we packed up the Mini Cooper with our camp chairs and binoculars and headed off to the school. Parking was a chore and we searched for quite a while before we finally found a place a few blocks away from the elementary school. When we arrived at the school, we were shocked to see hundreds of people. At first we thought it was because there was an event at the school, but as time rolled on we realized these families were here for the same reason we were—to see the Vaux’s Swifts. The crowd was scattered throughout the school yard and many were picnicking with their families.

Families playing and watching the swifts

The swifts slowly started to arrived in groups of 20-50 birds at a time. Early in the evening we needed binoculars to actually see them, but as the evening progressed there were so many birds that it began to look like a huge black swarm.  At that point there were probably between 7,000-10,000 birds.  There was something very dance-like about the whole experience. It was almost as though the birds had choreographed a flight routine for the crowd and would gracefully fly from east to west in formation and then north to south again in formation. After about an hour, I noticed that each time the swifts would fly by the chimney a group would fly down into it. This number increased with each pass and we slowly started watching the swarm start to get smaller.

Vaux Swifts beginning to enter the chimney.

When about half of the birds were in the chimney, suddenly a bird of prey appeared and started hunting. It looked like a Peregrine Falcon who needed to find dinner. The falcon would fly into the swarm and the crowd of people on the ground would erupt with oohs and aahs—sounding a lot like crowds watching fireworks or a horror movie in a theatre.  The falcon was unsuccessful the first couple of tries and then we watched the swifts turn on him as a swarm and chase him away. It was a pretty amazing sight of nature to witness. Just when we all thought the falcon was gone, he reappeared and persisted with one final chase, and was able to catch a lone swift. There was an audible gasp from the crowd—we were all rooting for the swifts.

Daylight disappeared as well as the swifts, all hidden away in the chimney of the school. We walked back to our car and excitedly talked about how great it will be to visit again next year. I found myself pleased at the thought that we just created our first annual tradition in our new city and home.


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