It's time again for the swifts—and we don’t mean just Taylor, although that’s true too (anyone else counting down the days until Midnights is released?).
The Vaux’s swifts are roosting again in the chimney at Chapman Elementary School at the edge of Forest Park in Northwest Portland, and Portlanders are turning out in droves to root them on, as they’ve done for at least the last three decades since the birds first began swapping out hollowed-out trees for chimney stacks.
The tiny birds—the average Vaux’s swift is only four to five inches long—wax and wane in numbers throughout the month, but migrations peak in mid-September, at around 12,000 per night. (Portland Audubon nightly’s Swift Count suggests that the number might have already crested, on September 13, when 11,530 birds were observed.) Watching them dive-bomb into the chimney in a gathering funnel cloud, all at once and usually just before twilight, is one of the purest and most enduring of September traditions around these parts.
Their season is short, usually done by the end of the month, at which point they continue their migration to Central America. (Fun fact about the swifts: While flying, they can forage for insects, drink, court and even mate. The more you know!)
Around 2,000 people show up for the show on a typical September night—bike, walk or take Tri-Met if you can, because parking in the neighborhood is quite limited. Bring a picnic or buy pizza on site from the school’s PTA, grab a spot on the hill above the soccer field and settle in. If you’ve got kids in your party, bring along a flattened out cardboard box for optimal hill sliding.
There’s usually a volunteer or two from Portland Audubon on hand to answer any questions you might have about both the swifts and their archenemy, the Cooper’s hawk that sometimes lies in wait, hoping to snatch away a swift for dinner.
No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the swifts are stunning. One moment, the sky is empty—the next, tiny black birds are everywhere. This year is extra-special, since it is the first year since 2019 that Audubon volunteers will be on hand. The organization’s “Swift Watch” was cancelled outright in 2020 due to smoky skies and the pandemic, and again in 2021 due to continued COVID concerns, though some people did find their way to the school’s grounds last year.
Not up for the crowds at Chapman? There are a few other chimneys around the metro area that draw smaller numbers of swifts bedding down for the night, including Jennings Lodge Elementary School in Oregon City and Taborspace in Southeast Portland, though it’s hit-and-miss; previous roosting sites in Kenton and St. Johns, for example, have been no-shows for the birds of late.