And now, amid the haze and the smoke and the grief, a ray of good news: the Vaux’s swifts are still roosting in the chimney at Chapman Elementary School by the thousands.
In a normal year, the swifts are the surest sign of September in Portland. Thousands of people gather nightly on the hill above the school to picnic and chat and—if you’re a kid—to leap on a piece of cardboard and hurtle down the steep slope. When the sudden rush of birds fill the sky, everyone’s neck tilts up to watch.
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. Eventually, around sunset, at some unspoken signal, they fly in formation, a whirling funnel cloud, diving down deep into the elementary school’s tall brick chimney to roost for the night. On peak nights, there can be more than 12,000 birds in the sky, according to the researchers at Portland Audubon, who track the yearly swift migrations with hawk-like devotion.
About those hawks—every good piece of theater needs a villain, and the Cooper’s hawk that hangs out nearby to grab off a swift or two for dinner fills that role with aplomb (though really, despite the lusty boos that the hawk draws from the audience, the predator is adapting to the role nature has set out for it.)
In 2020, like everything else we cherish, SwiftWatch was canceled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and not wanting to pack too many people too closely into the school’s grounds. But Audubon staffers were on hand as usual to observe the birds, and in the pre-smoky days of early September that now seem like a different world, the swifts were back, from the 1,000 or so observed in late August to 9,000 or more on September 8.
But the smoke introduced some uncertainty into the whole affair. Portland Audubon suspended its count on September 9, due to the hazardous air. That night, it was virtually impossible to get an accurate count of the birds—the swifts were acting as though it was a dark and rainy day, flying into the chimney long before the appointed hour, then back out again.
By Monday, September 14, Portland Audubon field biologist Candace Larson couldn’t wait any longer—she had to know what was happening with the swifts. She donned her respirator, and went out to look for the birds.
She found an estimated 12,000 of them, exactly what biologists would expect in mid-September, traditionally around the peak of the swift migration.
“Certainly the numbers at Chapman are following the expected patterns,” Larson says. “So we have every reason to be hopeful that they are going to be fine on this migration journey.”
Counts coming in from up and down the West Coast have been sparser in the last week given the bad air quality, but numbers from Washington and California generally indicate that the swifts are on track there too, she adds.
This doesn’t mean you should rush out to see the swifts—in fact, absolutely the opposite. The double punch of air quality and COVID restrictions means that you’ll have to wait until next year, a decision Larson calls “heartbreaking,” but absolutely necessary.
And, she cautions, there’s still much work to be done to figure out the eventual toll that the deadly wildfires and toxic stew of air might take on the birds: “We’re going to have to get to the end of this season, and into the next, to see if there are impacts on the numbers,” she says.