Portland: Swifts at Chapman Elementary

Last weekend I got to go back to elementary school. No, not with a grandchild. I don’t have any of those. I was visiting friends in Portland for a three day weekend. Saturday night Janet and I took a picnic lunch up the hill to Chapman Elementary to sit on the hillside with the crowd and wait for the swifts to arrive, the Vaux’s Swifts to be precise. They’re the ones that arrive in Portland for the month of September each year and perform their jaw dropping show each evening at sunset.

We got there early, having heard that it would get crowded. At our blanketed spot on the hill we ate our dinner and watched the back up show of children “sledding” down the hill on the cardboard left there for that purpose, and the soccer players on the field below, as the hill filled up with all ages of happy spectators, their dinners, their dogs and small children colliding around us.

pen and w/c in Etchr sketchbook

And finally the headliner act arrived in chaotic rushes, flying around the gigantic chimney where they would spend the night. Plunging and soaring, spiraling and dispersing, returning to circle round again. Where were they coming from? Were they aware that the crowd of spectators had grown to over 1000? 2000? 3000? I started sketching the building, looking for flight patterns, gasping with the crowd when the inevitable hawk appeared, afraid to keep my eyes on the sketchbook for fear I’d miss something.

At sunset the patterns changed. The swifts appeared like swarms of bees, became almost a funnel shape. And then someone in the crowd gasped and clapped and all heads turned toward the mouth of the chimney as the birds disappeared one at a time into the chimney. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who imagined what it would be like to spend the night inside a chimney in the feathered company of thousands of your kind. Cosy? Comforting? Smelly? Claustrophobic?

That night their were 4,940 bedfellows, to be (not) exact. Apparently there are bird watchers who get trained to make this count. Could my thumb actually keep up with the clicking of the counter to capture each one in time? I doubt it. Perhaps the final count is an average of many findings.

Finally after many minutes, the final swift disappeared down the chimney. The crowd applauded and worked their way home in the dark.

If you find yourself as curious about this as I was, you can find out more on the Portland Audubon site.

And if you think it exceptional that birds would congregate so extravagently in this way, just ponder the gravitational pattern of our species on that hill at dusk.



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