Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bedtime for Vaux's Swifts

A little over a mile from my house stands an unusually tall chimney. It is about fifty feet tall and maybe three feet across at the top. It’s left over from the heating plant once used to heat an old veteran’s hospital. For awhile the chimney was considered an eye sore and should be removed. Meanwhile Vaux’s swifts adopted it as a wonderful place to gather before migrating south. The official high count for birds using the chimney is 4600.

So many birds used the chimney year after year that their poop eventually plugged the hole at the bottom that allowed air to circulate. By the time the problem was identified, the swifts had quit coming. Fortunately by then there was enough community interest to save the chimney and correct the air flow problem. It took a few years for the swifts to return, but this fall I was delighted to see the swifts back in full force. The numbers swell for about a month before they head south.

7:30 PM: We arrive at Stewart Park, Roseburg, Oregon

The sun has slipped behind the distant ridges. A moment ago there were wisps of clouds above me, blushing orange. They’ve dissipated leaving a clear sky for the hundreds of Vaux’s swifts that are gathering over town. During the day they spread for miles throughout the valley. Now I see at least 500, so thick I half expect a collision. They circle tighter and tighter around the chimney, then spread out over the soccer field, the river, the veteran’s cemetery – hundreds of zooming dots in the sky.

Some return and take a slow dive over the tall chimney. The chimney stands stark, silhouetted against the evening sky. The swifts zip like mini jets, but with a combination of quivering wing beats and smooth glides. How many? 500? 1000?
They are tempted to enter the chimney but still not ready. I listen, but don’t hear anything unless one comes unusually close … then just a high sweet chitter. There are so many birds I half expect it to be deafening.

7:45 PM: The swifts have spread out again. A larger bird, I think a dove, flew past, scattering the swifts from their circling path. Soon they are back to circling. I think at least 1000. Perhaps many more. Specks I can hardly see still fly over the river and hundreds above me.

7:48 PM: Test runs are starting again. Some of the swifts break their speed and flutter down towards the mouth of the chimney, but instead of entering, they fall down the outside, catch the air and swirl up into the masses again.

7:50PM: Coming in closer. I hear chittering more often. The evening star now shines bright in the graying sky. Still a warm glow on the horizon and I can easily see to write. More and more flutter near the chimney mouth, yet change their mind at the last minute.

7:55 PM: Suddenly the swifts start to tumble in. It is as if the air sucks them right down; the chimney is a huge vacuum cleaner. I think half that try succeed in entering. The rest rejoin the swirling mass and eventually join the tumble for another try. The flow in is constant. Far too many and far too fast for me to count.

Now that there are lots fewer I estimate I still have 500 in front of me and that we started with at least 2500, maybe twice that many.

8:03 PM: A couple of hundred still circle and slowly pile in. A bunch have just come out … and in. Have they run out of space inside the chimney? About 50 were still trying, but they left … back again … slowly the laggards ease in. There must be a lot of jostling inside that tall stack.

8:05 PM: Two on the wing.

8:07 PM: Last one in.


  1. What a sight to see. Here we have chimney swifts. They are beginning to gather in fair amounts. Nothing this large. It is fun to listen to the chitter at each other. They are very vocal.

  2. Not many swifts here - just occasional visitors - but a similar spectacle at cave entrances, under bridges and football bleachers: Thousands and thousands of Mexican Free-tail Bats are streaming out each evening at sunset. I've never seen them come back in - it's dark then.

  3. Seeing bats stream out is on my bucket list. I've only see large numbers on film. I know there is a site in northern California but one has to hike in 8 miles and Lava beds National Monument keeps the location private. Someday we'll travel to where the opportunity is more realistic.