Brooklyn birdwatchers view the Swifts

by: Rita A. Leonard, Brooklyn’s Jim Lints urges birdwatchers to see the Vaux’s Swifts in NW Portland. In the background is the Chapman School chimney, which shelters the world’s largest colony of Vaux’s Swifts.

Brooklyn naturalist Jim Lints has enjoyed watching Vaux's Swifts dive into a neighbor's chimney every September for the past five years. 'There are only 3 to 7 of them,' he says, 'but they have a unique flight pattern ending in a quick dive that's fun to see.' Swifts were reported overnighting recently in a Sellwood chimney, in the 7100 block of S.E. 13th, executing the same spectacular twilight maneuver.

An avid birdwatcher, Lints organized a group of neighbors this year for an informal 'Swift Caravan and Equinox Celebration' to view the large colony of swifts overnighting at Chapman School in Northwest Portland.

Lints has identified many avian visitors to Inner Southeast, from tiny Annas Hummingbirds to the large raptors that soar overhead, and nest in Oaks Bottom. 'The Vaux's Swifts roost in unused chimneys all over Portland on their annual fall trip south,' he says, 'but the largest roosting colony in the world is located in the chimney at Portland's Chapman School.'

Neighbors from seven households gathered for the adventure on September 23rd. They drove to the hill overlooking Chapman School's chimney in the early evening to secure good spots among the hundreds of other visitors. Thousands of Vaux's Swifts roost nightly at Chapman in September, and they put on an acrobatic show before swarming into a vortex and diving in, like smoke flowing backward into the large chimney.

Several raptors have also learned that it's a great place to gather for an evening snack, and Lints pointed out Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-Shinned Hawks at the scene, which managed to snare a meal from amidst the crowd of swifts.

A Portland Park Bureau information kiosk at the site provides a host of information for the waiting viewers, who arrive with families, blankets, picnics, pets, and binoculars. Regular Vaux's Swifts watchers know enough to bring jackets and snacks for the display, which can extend over an hour in the evening.

A general air of family fun and expectancy pervades the crowd, as watchers try to estimate the number of arriving birds and watch the accompanying raptors. Listed facts about the swifts include their migratory range (Canada to California), appetites (they can eat up to 5,000 bugs a day), and perching specialties (sharp, agile claws allow them to roost vertically on chimney walls).

As sunset approaches, the birds separate into groups of several hundred that circle the chimney in arabesques, taking turns diving in. Within the chimney, the birds cluster closely for warmth and protection, emerging the next day to forage on insect pests. At the end of September, the colony heads south on their migratory route to Central and South America.

Lints is fascinated at the variety and activities of Portland's avian population. 'I've seen a sparrow chase a crow and yank out some headfeathers, flickers marking their territory by drumming on furnace ductwork, and a dusky goose tagging along behind a V of migrating snowy geese,' he says. Lints has also seen vortices of some 50 turkey vultures riding air thermals while migrating south above the city.

'Since Portland is world-famous for our annual Vaux's Swifts colony, everyone should take the opportunity to view this special, free event,' he says. It's an incredible show put on every fall at Chapman Elementary School. If you've never had a chance to go see the swifts, he urges, plan to do it next year.