Vaux's Swifts

By Patti Muzny

My “Chirpings” this time will chirp about my mid-September 2009 trip to southern Washington and Oregon. Brian and I joined Jimmy Woodard for a week of incredible scenery and birding. We accompanied the Washington Ornithology Society on several field trips, made several new birding friends, and although I saw no “lifers,” it was an incredible trip I would definitely repeat.

Our last day in Oregon, we had been climbing around on mountains and driving down the coast and marveling at the beauty surrounding us, but as Cinderella discovered, we found our “midnight” was fast approaching – we had to get back to Portland, find a motel and catch our flight in the morning! One of our most interesting adventures occurred the evening before we left.

Just before sunset and without even eating any dinner, we quickly drove across town from our motel near the airport to an elementary school in the near downtown area of Portland. Now what, you wonder, were three Oklahoma birders doing at an elementary school? We learned from web information and from our new Washington birding friends, that during the month of September, thousands of Vaux’s Swifts could be seen funneling into a large chimney at this school. So many people gathered each evening that visitors were asked to park at a parking lot a few blocks away and walk. Residents in this neighborhood were unable to exit and enter their addition.

We found the lot, parked and trotted toward the school. We could see and hear swifts circling overhead in a manner much like the rivers of bats that enter and exit their caves. On a slope on the school grounds, hundreds of people were lying, sitting, standing, and on flat surfaces, playing kickball and volleyball. Others were in parked cars and sitting on curbs. Some had brought wine glasses and wine, some were snacking, and all were anticipating the evening show.

For several minutes the swifts gathered above. Suddenly an unknown signal was beamed to the first flock with orders to enter the chimney.
They circled above several times, and then made a express dive into the shelter of the large chimney. The crowd cheered in awe. The first flock was settled, and others repeated the process. For a few minutes their descents were uneventful. As another group began to descend, there was a collective gasp from the onlookers! An opportunistic Merlin slashed into the flock, disrupting their orderly flights and zoomed off with dinner in its talons. The last gasp had barely filtered out over the crowd when a Peregrine Falcon came in even faster and expertly had another unlucky swift dinner. More gasps/cheers from the crowd and a Cooper’s Hawk made its bid.

Prior to our trip, Vaux’s Swift had been a life bird for Brian. This night he watched thousands and each of us had a bonus of watching nature’s melodrama play out on a magnificent outdoor stage with a toenail moon overseeing from a cloudless sky. It was an awesome way to end a wonderful birding vacation.