I’m a native Portlander in my late late-mid thirties. Of course I’d heard of the Chapman Swifts (not the band, but rather the phenomenon), but the impetus was never great enough to make me actually head up to Northwest Portland and witness the spectacle. Until last night. Another Vaux’s Swift virgin, Mile73.com‘s Heather, provided the impetus.
We arrived at Chapman Elementary School (1445 NW 26th) around 7pm. The first thing that struck us was the size of the crowd; hundreds of people on blankets, plenty of dogs too, and scores of children running around making child noises and throwing pine cones. Most sat on the hill on the Pettygrove side of the school, but where ever there was a line of site to the chimney people were sprawled out watching the sky. The birds had already started circling when we arrived. According to the Audubon Society of Portland‘s FAQ:
The swifts begin gathering in the sky above the Chapman School neighborhood in large numbers 40 to 60 minutes before sunset. Closer to sunset the swifts begin circling directly above the school chimney in a large flock – this is a dramatic sight and ideally you will be there before it begins. They begin to enter the chimney within 10 to 30 minutes after sunset. Time between first and last bird entering the chimney varies from 10 to 30 minutes.
Next time we plan on arriving a bit earlier, to experience the full scope of the spectacle, and to find a choice place on the grass to sit. And we will be going back. The swifts look like swirling pepper against the white clouds. There’s something simultaneously soothing and exciting about watching then simultaneously flitting and circling, swooping. Near the end last night a peregrine falcon interrupted the flock; one moment chased away by hundreds of tiny birds, the next launching a counter attack near the chimney. I don’t believe he got one last night, but on occasion they do; from the Audubon Society’s Swift Watch:
September 12 update: Two Peregrine Falcons joined approximately 10,500 swifts and 1,500 spectators at Chapman School. On Sept 13, a Peregrine nabbed a swift on two separate passes as the swifts spiraled into the school’s chimney.
The crowd was solidly behind the swifts, oohing when the falcon dived at the smaller birds, but cheering when the swarm seemed to chase him off (a friend’s comment on Heather’s blog post suggests that next time we should start a chant: when I root I root for the swifts . . . – I think it’s a grand idea!).
Heather got some footage of the birds entering the chimney:
Heather also blogged about the experience, much more pithily than I.
And there’s a film: On the Wing
And an Oregon Field Guide segment: Vaux Swift