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  • 19 Apr 2015

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Swift aggravation

Growing crowds flock to annual bird show, leaving neighborhood trouble in their wake

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - There arent quite as many Vaux Swifts making their way into the Chapman School chimney this year - some nights only about 4,000 - but the crowds coming to watch the annual phenomenon continue to grow to 3,000 or more.On a clear Thursday evening a crowd somewhere north of 1,000 has gathered behind and around Chapman School in Northwest Portland for what has become an annual almost-autumn ritual — watching thousands of tiny birds descend into the school chimney for the night.

The birds, Vaux’s swifts, are beginning their annual migration to Central and South America with their three to four-week stopover at Chapman. They’ve been doing this since the late 1980s, and while their numbers have leveled off, the number of people coming each night for this community celebration continues to grow.

Some nights this year more than 3,000 birders, picnickers and impromptu dancers have spent the hour or two before sunset watching the avian show as the birds prepare to tornado into the chimney and avoid the Cooper’s hawk who nightly makes a late-night snack out of one or two of the swifts.

Swift numbers are dramatically down this year. A few years ago more than 16,000 of the birds were counted one night at Chapman. This year about 4,000 have made it most nights. In fact, according to Brittney Mercy, an Audubon Society volunteer manning the education table on this balmy evening, the highest swift count this year came on Sept. 5, when about 6,400 birds showed up. It also happened to be the night the largest crowd of people, about 3,000, appeared.

Which left at least one hillside birdwatcher asking, did the extra swifts show up because so many people were out to see them, or did the people appear because they sensed so many birds would appear.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Chapman School watching the annual phenomenon continue to grow to 3,000 or more. That leaves Chapman head custodian David Gardnerwith a huge cleanup job every morning.The growing crowds have brought their own set of problems for the neighborhood around Chapman School. Two years ago those problems — from parked cars blocking driveways to revelers urinating in yards — sent aggravated neighbors in search of solutions. Like Last Thursday in the Alberta District, the swift watch is an organic Portland institution. Nobody organized it, nobody’s in charge of it, there are no city agencies that permit the event. Which means, nobody is responsible for the problems.

But in contrast to Last Thursday, this Portland institution seems to have reached an equilibrium without city government taking it over. Audubon Society member Hilda Welch, who lives next to the crowded hillside, was among those who formed a neighborhood committee two years ago hoping for better crowd control and regulations to keep visitors who arrive in cars from clogging the local streets.

The neighbors didn’t get their parking regulations, but Welch says visitors are better behaved than they were a few years ago. The most significant remaining problem is the trash left behind each evening after the crowds have left. Discarded pizza boxes, candy wrappers and flattened pieces of cardboard used by children to slide down the hillside are scattered behind the school. Some mornings the Chapman School custodian spends as long as two hours cleaning up the mess. Some mornings fifth-graders start their day by picking up the trash.

“Having a challenge like this is sort of daunting,” says Terri Davis, Portland Parks & Recreation manager who has helped coordinate attempts to deal with crowds at an event that no one has organized. Davis gives a lot of the credit to the nonprofit Audubon Society, which took on a leadership role when neighborhood complaints escalated two years ago.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kelsey Schopp and Sarah Moody are among the thousands of birdwatchers on weekend evenings at Chapman School. With kids sliding down the hill on cardboard and spontaneous dance parties breaking out, the events are turning into nightly festivals.Parks & Rec has about as much authority over the event as Audubon, since the swift watchers are on school, not parks, property. But in 2012, with budget cuts hitting the parks department, schools, the transportation bureau and police, Audubon called an evening meeting at Chapman School and representatives from all those agencies attended.

“They (Audubon) pulled everybody together in a room and said, ‘None of us own it, but this is a problem,’” Davis says.

Portland Public Schools committed to bringing in Porta-Potties and a Dumpster for trash. Parks & Rec supplied extra garbage cans and offered to have park rangers walk through the crowds on weekend evenings, when the crowds grow largest. Audubon has put up signs asking visitors to park cars at the nearby Montgomery Park parking lot. Portland police have added a patrol or two. And Portland Bureau of Transportation sends a parking enforcement officer to place parking tickets on the dozen or so illegally parked cars each night. That number, incidentally, is about half the number of parking tickets handed out during most Last Thursdays, though the Alberta District event does encompass a wider geographical area.

The park rangers have permission to patrol school grounds after school hours but they haven’t actually handed out park exclusions to people found drinking at the swift-watching events (alcohol isn’t allowed on school grounds). In the spirit of the event, they restrict themselves to warnings. Davis says just having uniformed rangers and police occasionally walking through seems to promote good behavior.

As for explaining the explosive growth in the annual event’s popularity, Davis says having a phenomenon of nature in the middle of the city makes the whole deal very Portland. She says taking the kids to watch the swifts is sort of like taking them up the Columbia River to see salmon swimming upstream, with the added benefit that the kids can be home and in bed 20 minutes after the expedition.

“It’s a happening,” says Mike Houck, founder of Aubudon’s Urban Naturalist Program. Reached during a trip to the Grand Canyon, Houck said he especially likes the way the crowd divides into two camps — those rooting for the swifts, and raptor lovers cheering on the hawks and falcons as they swoop in for snacks.

“I expect cool things to happen at the Grand Canyon,” Houck says. “But it’s the unexpected that happens where you live, in the city, that is even more spectacular, and moving. That’s why people throng to Wallace Park to commune with each other, and the swifts, and the Cooper’s hawks, and peregrine falcons.”

The sight of 3,000 hillside birdwatchers of all ages mostly behaving themselves and enjoying each other without anybody telling them how to do that is pretty incredible in its own right. Some say they are there to watch the birds. Some say they enjoy the sense of community. A few say they were told about the spectacle by teachers and concierges at downtown hotels. Audubon officials say they now get calls and emails from out of town tourists who want to plan their trips around the swift watch.

On Thursday, just before the birds began their final assembly and descent into the school chimney to widespread hoots and clapping, Juliet Kane, a longtime Nothwest Portland resident who lives about a block away, offered her own bittersweet take on why so many come back for this event year after year.

“It’s a ritual to mark the end of summer,” Kane says. “When they come I say, ‘I don’t want to know about it.’ This is about acknowledging the beginning of fall.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Audubon Society volunteers offer education at the nightly swift watch events, including passing around a preserved swift so birders can get a close up view.

Audubon sees fewer swifts swoop into chimney

More than 16,000 Vaux’s swifts appeared for the Chapman School show one night in 2012. Ten years ago, more than 35,000 occasionally showed up. This year, the highest one-night count by Audubon Society volunteers has been 6,390. So what’s happened to all the birds?

They might be coming later because warm summer weather has been stretching its stay, or they might be dispersing to different nesting chimneys around the city, says Joe Liebezeit, avian conservation program manager for the Audubon Society. The Kenton neighborhood in North Portland has been experiencing its own mini swift invasion in the last few years. Still, the chimney at Chapman is considered by Audubon to be the largest single roosting place for migrating swifts in the world.

Liebezeit is putting his money on the warm weather explanation. Normally, he says, the swifts wait until it gets cool at night before seeking out large chimneys such as Chapman School’s as a warm place to roost overnight.

As long as the evenings stay warm, the birds might be happy roosting in trees and in smaller chimneys scattered about. Before there were settlers and chimneys, Liebezeit says, swifts would roost in the hollows of old-growth trees. The appearance of chimneys coincided, more or less, with the disappearance of old growth — lucky for the adaptive swifts.

To get a better handle on the situation, Audubon has become part of a project to monitor the birds. An Issaquah, Wash., birder and swift expert named Larry Schwitters has glued radio transmitters on the backs of six swifts he captured before they began heading south.

A signal from one of those birds has been picked up in recent weeks in Roseburg, and another in Eugene, but none so far have been identified by the Audubon volunteer stationed with a radio signal monitor outside Chapman School.

Schwitter say his data suggests the decline isn’t just in Portland. The total West Coast swift population is down 42 percent since 2000.

Schwitter says swift nesting numbers in Oregon City are down this year as well, and the number of swifts in North Portland doesn’t seem to be growing.

He even went down the Chapman School chimney before the birds arrived this year to see if guano buildup at the bottom might be driving the swifts away. “It’s not bad at all,” he reports.

He’s also helped place a thermometer inside Chapman’s chimney to see if it’s getting too warm inside for the birds to spend the night — another theory.