A Resting Place for the Swifts
The remarkable arrival of Vaux's Swifts to their AirBnB chimney at Park Side
Before 7:40, Kathy Spalding was already at Park Side Elementary School looking up, although sunset would not come until 8:11pm. The night before the birds came at 7:50 pm. “They came early but it took about 30 minutes for all of them to dive into the chimney,” she explained. “Most nights it happens much later.”
Kathy, who does not call herself a birder, was ready and willing to tell people like me about this natural phenomenon that interests her. The birds are Vaux’s Swifts, a small bird that spends its day in the air eating bugs but roosts at night in places like dead trees and chimneys, such as the one at Park Side. (Fortunately, the Park Side chimney is out of commission.) Unlike birds that perch on branches, swifts have feet that cling to surfaces. They look like swallows but are unrelated to them. Kathy said that there can be hundreds of the birds roosting in a chimney.
At this time of year, the birds are migrating from South America to Alaska and the chimney at Park Side is a stop along the way. Last fall, the Vaux’s Swifts visited Park Side while migrating north to south.
When I arrived, only a few birds were flying above the school. Gradually more of them came, sweeping in and out in wide circles.
About a dozen people gathered in front of Park Side anticipating that they would see an unusual sight. Denise came down from Burbank Heights. (We were on a Zoom call with a group earlier and she mentioned the swifts.) The small group waited for sunset and at 8:15 we were still waiting for them to gather. Then about 8:25 pm, they began to flock and fly in unison, making several passes over the chimney before some of them dropped down and disappeared into the chimney. After two or three minutes, and five or six passes, all the birds were in their roost for the night.
Kathy thought may be there were 130 birds on this night. She has seen more than that recently but doesn’t know why the numbers fluctuate. She recommended a web site, Vauxhappening.org, based in Washington State. Not a lot is known about these birds, Kathy said, but she shared most of what there is to know about the Vaux’s Swift. She just doesn’t know how long they plan to stay in town.