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Banks chimney home to 850 swifts stopping in Oregon during their migration to South America

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND AUDUBON/JEFF GA-HO LEE - Swifts prepare to swirl down into the old chimney at the Banks School District central office. District Office Manager Marlo Mosser said a few community members called this year concerned the chimney was still in use, but its not.  Longtime Banks resident Jeffrey Pultz still remembers the warm September nights of his childhood when townsfolk grabbed their picnic baskets, blankets and lawn chairs to set up on the field across from the town's elementary school.

It was always about an hour before dusk, when the sky was starting to turn red, pink and orange, and the summer heat stepped aside for a cool evening.

At some point, everyone would turn their heads and look up to see a "big, dark shadow," said Pultz. "It was a black cloud moving quick across the sky."

Thousands of Vaux's (rhymes with "boxes") Swifts were swirling through the impending sunset in perfect unison before descending in one awesome, harmonious swoop into the huge old chimney atop the school.

"It was an amazing thing to watch," Pultz said of the small migratory birds. "To see that many birds — like a wave — it makes an impression on you."

Each year, starting in late August, peaking in mid-September and trailing off by the beginning of October, swifts gather in Oregon on their way to South America for the winter.

According to Joe Liebezeit, avian conservation program manager for the Audubon Society of Portland, the little swallow-like birds spend their summers spread across the Pacific Northwest and as far east as Montana, pairing up to nest and raise babies, often in small household chimneys. But when they start heading south, they join large groups of other swifts, finding safety in numbers during an often treacherous migration.

Along the way, they like to stop and rest at certain locations, eating bugs and storing up fat and energy for the long trip south. They usually stay no more than a few days at most, Liebezeit said, so the birds seen at the beginning of the season are not the same as at the end.

Traditionally, swifts took refuge in decaying, hollow old-growth trees, but as the ancient forests were logged, they adapted to makeshift resting spots like the old chimney in Banks. But many big chimneys are getting old and falling apart. As more chimneys are torn down, swifts are left with no place to take shelter.

In addition, new fire codes require chimney liners. This takes away the internal ridges like those found in old brick chimneys where the swifts cling and roost at night.

Vaux's Swifts are not classified as an endangered species but they are a "species of conservation concern," Liebezeit said, because their numbers are declining across the west coast. Information about the swifts' habitat and challenges in South America is scarce.

It's unusual for humans to find a site where they can watch thousands of swifts swirl to their resting place for the night, Liebezeit said.

The most popular, well-known spot for watching swifts in the Portland area is at the Chapman Elementary School chimney in northwest Portland, where as many as 16,000 birds have flocked together in the past, he said. This year, the number peaked at 10,000. The spectacle often draws as many as 3,000 people from across the area to watch the little birds' aerial show.

Watching is fine, Liebezeit said, but flying drones near the flock will disrupt the birds.

There are other sites nearby — such as in Aurora, Oregon City and Camas, Wash. — but not all are as consistent as the Chapman site. Either there are not that many birds or they don't come back each year. Portland Audubon doesn't monitor sites that attract less than 500 birds.

Banks School District Office Manager Marlo Mosser has been seeing the swifts in September as long as she's been working there — about 30 years. "It's really impressive," said Mosser, who's caught a few glimpses of the birds when she happens to be at the school in the evening. "It's an amazing thing to watch."

It's not the same now as in the 1970s, however, when Pultz, 54, estimates roughly 1,500 birds swirled around the former elementary school building and landing in its tall chimney.

"I was amazed. How can they do that and not run into each other?" Pultz said. "Even as a kid, you're like, 'wow.'"

That elementary building and its big chimney were torn down a few years ago and replaced with a new middle school — with no big chimney attached.

Now the swifts swirl into a much smaller chimney at the southwest corner of the old district office building.

After learning from the News-Times about the swifts in Banks, Portland Audubon sent out a volunteer the fourth weekend in September and Liebezeit was excited to report a count of 850 swifts in Banks.

That's still not near as many as there used to be, said Pultz, who has lived across Main Street from the Banks school buildings for 30 years. And community members don't gather to watch anymore as they did when the town held only a few hundred people, he said.

"It's understandable. The kids need a school," Pultz said. But he's sorry the swifts lost such a perfect refuge. "We've taken their favorite places down. It's a shame there isn't some way to leave something up for them."

Liebezeit said concerned citizens raised funds to restore the Chapman chimney — which is no longer functioning — strictly for swift use. "We can still do that in places like Banks and other places along the swfits migration route to help these birds and allow people to continue to enjoy this phenomenal wildlife spectacle."

Watch a video of the Banks swifts taken by a community member:





By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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Building chimneys for swifts

COURTESY PHOTO: CASSANDRA PROFITA, OPB/EARTHFIX - In Albany, Oregon, bird advocates have built a homemade version of the chimneys Vauxs swifts use as a nightly roost.Some bird advocates are building structures specifically designed to replace the trees and chimneys swifts like to use to roost.

In Albany, bird enthusiast Larry Schwitters decided to try building a large cylinder and installing it at a park after a chimney on the local fire station that once housed 20,000 swifts was torn down.

Schwitters spearheaded the project and installed the tube last year. He even poured a bucket of old swift droppings into the "chimney," hoping the smell would attract the swifts to the site he made for them.

For weeks after the new roost was complete, Audubon volunteers watched the sky at dusk and waited. Through binoculars, Fairchild spotted the birds flying around their old roost site — just a few blocks away.

"There are swifts over the old fire station," he said. "They're starting to gather. They're going, 'Hey, what's happening? There's no roost here.'"

Even with the birds in sight, the question remained: How do they get the swifts to use their new bird house? They had the bird poop — and one other trick that might bring them in: A recording of swift calls played through a loudspeaker.

Jim Fairchild, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Corvallis, blasted the sound of chirping birds and waited another 30 minutes or so before calling it quits. So far, the birds have flown by the new roost, but they haven't gone in.

If this Albany project works, other conservation and wildlife organizations could place such chimneys all along the birds' migration route from north to south America.

Will Wright, a board member with the Audubon Society of Corvallis, saw what happened after a swift chimney was demolished in Ellensburg, Washington.

"It had been a longtime chimney for swifts," he said. "And it was so sad. The next year, the swifts came back and they circled the site for hours.

-- Cassandra Profita/OPB/EarthFix

This information was excerpted from a story reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, a news partner of Pamplin Media Group. Read the full original article at www.opb.org/news/article/building-better-swift-birdhouse.

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