Audubon lends a hand as neighbors endure unruly crowds

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Those little specks in the sky might not mean much to 2-year-old Oothoon Chambers as he holds on to Aaron Palmer. But over 3,000 people have begun to descend on Chapman School each evening to watch the air show provided by as many as 12,000 Vaux's Swifts.Residents on Northwest Pettygrove Street understand that when 12,000 birds fly overhead, they should expect a little mess. But some of them believe the matter has gotten out of hand.

Those 12,000 birds are Vaux’s Swifts, part of an aerial display that in recent years has become a Portland must-see event. The small birds dart and swirl above Chapman School before tornadoing inside the dormant chimney each night at sundown.

Thousands gather on the hillside behind the school to watch the display, which sometimes includes falcons dive-bombing into the Swifts in search of prey.

Audubon Society member Hilda Welch, who lives next to the crowded hillside, says the nightly Swift viewing changed from a neighborhood to a city-wide event about five years ago. And that change brought trouble.

Welch has had Swift watchers urinate in her backyard bushes. She has had her driveway blocked. Once, she shouted down the hillside asking whoever had parked in front of her driveway to remove their car — and someone did. Often, trash has littered the school hillside after Swift watchers have left for the night.

Neighbor Hisashi Fujinaka says one drunken hillside visitor tried to force his way into a home, thinking it was his own, and ended up vomiting on the driveway. Cars are frequently blocking the street’s fire hydrant, Fujinaka says.

“The problem I see, it’s a comment on modern society,” Welch says. “It’s an event. It’s not a natural phenomenon. People come and watch the event out of context. They scream and shout. They party. I feel like I was watching a tailgate.”by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - The hillside behind Chapman School has become as much a social event as about birdwatching. Nearby residents have asked city officials for help in controlling the crowds, who have blocked driveways, left trash on the hillside, and brought beer and wine to the alcohol-free school zone.

Audubon help

Two years ago, the Pettygrove residents, including Welch, turned to Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement for help. ONI officials brought in the Audubon Society, whose members volunteer on the hillside each evening to answer questions about the birds.

Starting last year, Audubon volunteers brought along a banner asking visitors to be good neighbors, and reminding them that alcohol and smoking are prohibited at the event, which takes place on public school grounds.

Audubon has also asked visitors to consider public transportation or biking to the events to reduce the number of cars trying to park near the hillside.

Portland police officer Hilary Scott says police began extra patrols for the events last year and coordinated with parking patrol so that a number of illegally parked cars, including those blocking driveways, received citations. In addition, Scott says, citations were handed out for drinking alcohol at the events. Police patrols will begin again this week, Scott says.

The counts — both birds and birdwatchers — have soared in the past week. On Sept. 2, Audubon watchers counted 6,800 Swifts. In recent days, about 12,000 of the birds have joined the aerial display. Audubon volunteers have counted as many as 3,500 people on the TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Swifts headed for the Chapman School chimney in Northwest Portland have to dodge the occasional falcon hunting for a pre-sunset snack.

‘Be respectful’

Two weeks into the Swift’s return, Welch says hillside visitors have been better behaved than in previous years. With the crowds starting to peak, Audubon and neighborhood representatives, as well as the nearby residents, are hoping the improved behavior continues. Stephanie Reynolds, program manager of the ONI Crime Prevention Program, says getting the city agencies, the neighborhood association and Audubon working together has been one success. Now, she’s waiting to hear from the neighbors.

“We’re not quite far enough into the season yet to know whether complaints are going down or not,” Reynolds says.

Hilda Welch says she’d like to get the word out to people who come to watch the birds. “Just be respectful,” she says.

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