I joked with my daughter the other day that “there’s lots to do here in Roseburg. You can go and see the swifts fly into a chimney!” While I don’t think this is going to cause her to move here from Atlanta, it actually turned out to be a very interesting thing to do…you know, for us old folks.
The Vaux’s Swifts (Chaetura vauxi) are a fast flying relative of the hummingbird and were named after Sir William Vaux, an Englishman. So the bird’s name is pronounced “vawks”, not “voh”. The one time I get the French pronunciation right…and it’s not French.
They are similar to the Chimney Swift but a different species. The Vaux’s species is found west of the Rockies and the Chimney Swift is east.
Their bodies are 4-5 inches in length and appear like small, dark, fast-flying cigars with wings. Their wings are crescent shaped and beat with swift, rapid, bat-like movements. In fact, the previous owner of our farm told us he saw bats flying around at dusk and I thought that maybe they were swifts. He said, no, they were bats, but they do look alike, especially at dusk.
The Vaux’s lack a hind toe and cannot perch. When not flying, they cling to vertical surfaces such as trees or chimneys–something that has a rough texture. Vaux’s Swifts have historically nested inside large, hollow tree snags. Because suitable snags along the migratory routes have become harder to find, the swifts have begun occupying brick chimneys, but these types of chimneys are no longer used in new construction or the existing ones are being torn down. The nests are made with twigs pasted together with saliva on the inside of the snag or chimney and disintegrate soon after they are abandoned.
They spend much of their time in the air and forage, drink, court, collect nesting materials and copulate all in flight. They have a voracious appetite for flying insects and ballooning spiders. Each bird eats up to 20,000 insects a day!
Vaux’s Swifts arrive in Oregon in late April, mate in May and June and have their eggs laid and hatched by July. They depart beginning in late August. In the fall swifts congregate in large groups as they prepare for their migration southward to Central America and Venezuela. During September large groups of swifts pass through Oregon and commonly use chimneys to roost in during the night, settling down inside the chimney just around sunset. Once a population of swifts locates an appropriate chimney they are likely to return year after year. The size of the groups can range in size from just a few birds to several thousand.
Umpqua Valley Audubon Society @ http://www.umpquaaudubon.org
The “Chapman swifts” are part of a migratory population of Vaux’s swifts that roost seasonally in the chimney of Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. This is North America’s largest concentration of Vaux’s swifts.
Every evening from mid-August to mid-October, thousand of swifts gather in the sky over the school shortly before sunset. Count estimates of 1,700 to 35,000 swifts have been reported. Shortly after sunset, over a period of 10 to 30 minutes, they fly into the top of the brick chimney (constructed c. 1925) to roost on the interior surface until they depart at sunrise. The school is on the birds’ migratory route to their wintering sites.
The birds began using the site in the early 1980’s in response to the loss of much of their natural roosting habitat–old growth Douglas-fir and forest snags. Vaux’s Swifts prefer roosting in standing hollow trees.
To protect the swifts, the school stopped using its heating system during the weeks of roosting. Students and teachers wore sweaters and jackets, especially toward the end of September when classroom temperatures can drop to 50 to 60 degrees F. (10 to 16 degrees C.) Around 2003, the Audubon Society of Portland, school fundraisers and corporate sponsors donated $60,000 to $75,000 for an alternate school heating system which is independent of the brick chimney. The chimney is now maintained solely for the use of the birds.
In Roseburg, the swifts use several chimneys in town but the one we went to was the Clay Place chimney behind the Arts Center in the Fir Grove section of Stewart Park. The migrations last two weeks to a month and Audubon members are on hand for several of those nights. They are a great source of information about the swifts.
We arrived at the park at 630 p.m., with our chairs. The chairs are important, because there is no place to sit and it can be a long wait. One of the Audubon members came by to talk to us about the swifts and gave us some pamphlets. A man sitting behind us was a birder and kept us up-to-date on what was happening and what would happen. At first we saw small groups of a few birds flying overhead.
Those small groups gradually became larger and larger.
All the Audubon members were getting anxious because sunset had come and gone and the birds were not anywhere close to going into the chimney. I figured that Bruce & I had jinxed it. Some more rational explanations were that the weather has been hotter than usual and the birds were waiting for it to cool down and/or finding lots more insects to eat because of the heat. But, whatever the reason, the birds finally got it together and we heard more and more bird calls. Large groups were flying overhead, swooping down like they would go into the chimney and then flying off, only to return minutes later with even more birds. We were beginning to feel like extras in a Hitchcock movie.
At long last, the birds started circling around the chimney and formed the ever important vortex, which happens just before they go in. They were circling around, constantly changing direction. Occasionally one or two would go in, but soon enough they all decided it was time and they funneled into the chimney. Birds were flying in a huge circle and then swooping down and into the chimney. It was like passengers getting on a Southwest Airlines flight! Hey, there’s room for everyone, no need to push!
After they all stuffed themselves in, we got the final count. There were two Audubon members actually counting how many birds went into the chimney. Their counts were very close to each other and the final tally was about 2,500! Wow!!
If you’d like to see video of the swifts going into the chimney or what it looks like inside, click on these links:
http://www.vauxhappening.org/Movies.html–some movies of the swifts in the chimneys…and other disturbing videos involving crows, with crow solutions.
http://www.vauxhappening.org– lots of info here about the swifts
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxJnjTfkslY– a video of the swifts going into the chimney in Roseburg. As the videographer wrote in the video, it’s better to see it in person.