Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Swirling Swarm of Sleepy Swifts Slowly Subside Inside a Smokestack to Slumber

We were happy to see a familiar face early in September: our friend Diana Churchill traveled all the way from Savannah to come do some birding in the Pacific Northwest. We rendezvoused at the wildlife sanctuary operated by the Audubon Society of Portland, our first visit, and were smitten with the lush trails holding lots of old-growth firs. Secluded up in the quiet hills it was easy to forget that we were only a few minutes’ drive from downtown Portland (I should note, though, that the birds that we saw downtown later in the day surely constitute one of the great natural phenomena of the entire region).

The morning was mostly quiet, except for a wild burst that turned up Hutton’s and Warbling Vireos, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Wilson’s and Townsend’s Warblers. Townsend’s Warblers don’t nest in Salem, and the only other individual we’ve ever seen was during our first outing in Oregon, right at the tail-end of spring migration.

Townsend's Warbler

Cross Orbweaver

The visitor center also turned up a treat, in the form up a Hairy Woodpecker lounging on one of the suet feeders. Hairy has always been a rarity where we’ve lived, and our handful of encounters up to now had been fleeting and not entirely satisfactory. While maybe not an ideal backdrop for nature photography, the feeder gave us the chance to study it in close detail. Like the western Downy Woodpeckers, the western Hairys have ashy-colored underparts, whereas eastern members of this Picoides pair are clean white underneath.

Hairy Woodpecker

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Steller's Jay just wants to know what's going on

Afterward, we stayed in the Portland metro area. The occasion was our wanting to witness a truly spectacular avian spectacle: an incredible number of Vaux’s Swifts settling in to roost for the night. We arrived at Chapman Elementary School a little after 6pm, when there were only a few dozen swifts hawking insects overhead. For nearly two hours swifts gathered in increasing numbers until there were thousands and thousands. Eventually they would all end up inside the same giant chimney, but in the meantime they swirled around one another, in an apparently aimless, patternless routine.

Vaux's Swifts

We were waiting for the real show to start — the time when these tiny flying cigars that were dispersed over the entire sky would all begin shooting down the same hole. Occasionally a handful of swifts would venture near the chimney, only to decide at the last second that they didn’t want to be the ones to go first. Collectively, they probably spent 30-40 minutes faking out the hundreds of people who came to watch. During every night in September, volunteers from Portland Audubon set up an information booth to answer questions, and generate interest. It’s an awesome public relations opportunity, and Portland Audubon orchestrates it beautifully.

We learned that in past years, raptors have come and ordered up the swift buffet. Unfortunately, the Peregrine that used to terrorize them was disastrously outmaneuvered last year or the year before, and flew right into the chimney. Cooper’s Hawks have been known to come, too, but abstained during the night we attended. Another thing I learned is that I’d been mispronouncing “Vaux”: apparently it’s not nearly as French-sounding as I’d thought.

The flight of the swifts gradually become more and more orderly. By the time some intrepid bird finally trailblazed its way into the roosting den, the thousands of birds had self-organized into a single, churning machine. Funneling down into the same finite space, it seemed that they couldn’t possibly all fit. But after 20 glorious minutes, the last group crammed inside and the audience erupted in applause.


  1. The order in that chaos is truly a marvel. Thanks for posting.

    1. It was awesome to watch. A spontaneously coordinated ballet.