Vaux's Swifts At Chapman Elementary, Portland, Oregon, USA
A Travel Experience

United States of Americaby Jase Luttrell
Posted: 8 October Comments View Comments

If you are in the Portland, Oregon, area in September, you have the option of viewing Vaux's Swifts during their annual migration, a marvel of nature, which is either inspiring or vaguely Hitchcockian, depending on how paranoid you are.

Early in September I had the opportunity to witness one of those moments that is both incredible yet perfectly ordinary (by nature's standards). Every September there is a large colony of Vaux's Swifts (a type of bird) that roosts in the chimney of a nearby elementary school in Portland, Oregon, in the US. The birds are in this area from September to about mid October, when the weather starts getting really cold, and then they continue to migrate south into Northern and Central Mexico.

People gather at Forest Park

Predator!On the night of 3 September I went to watch the birds with a few friends. I arrived at 19:00, and there were already a lot of people gathered on the grassy hillside of Wallace City Park near Chapman Elementary (on NW 26th Avenue and NW Pettygrove Street). As the sun slowly descended behind the hills of Forest Park, the swifts started to arrive. At first there were approximately 50 birds; tiny black dots far above the school. I could hear their quick chirping and, within a half an hour, a very large number of birds arrived. Immediately, I remembered scenes from Sir Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. The likelihood of Vaux's Swifts attacking humans is slim to say the least but I'm sure the thought was on most people's minds, as the birds sometimes swooped fairly close to the audience. They came from all directions and were swooping and weaving through the air, likely catching flying insects for food. Predictably, a hawk or peregrine falcon (not sure which) also arrived on the scene and perched at the top of the chimney, waiting to strike at a swift. The swifts' cacophony of chirping was incredible but the birds' flight patterns were more interesting. By 19:45 there was a huge number of birds (thousands?) and they began flying together, swirling around and around the chimney, waiting for the last rays of the sun to disappear. During this time, the bird of prey made a few attempts at snatching a tasty, flying morsel and each time it made a sudden move the crowd (numbering around 100 people) would gasp or exclaim.

The swifts circle

Almost exactly at 20:00 the birds amassed into a swirling vortex of flapping wings as they dove into the chimney for the night. It was exhilarating watching these birds swirl together, their actions motivated by nature and instinct. They circled the chimney as a black mass more than twenty times and, eventually, some were unable to enter the chimney it was so full of birds. At five minutes past eight, the remaining birds flew away towards Forest Park; the hunter, satisfied with its catch (for it did catch a swift), disappeared from view and the members of the audience silently packed up their blankets, chairs, and picnic food. The show had ended.

Vaux's Swifts will continue their show every night at sunset until approximately mid-October. The best viewing spot is on the hillside at 26th and Pettygrove. Street parking is available, if you arrive early enough. If you forget your snacks or you get hungry during the show, a nearby family of kids set up a table on their front lawn, offering cookies and brownies (which they likely baked themselves) for US$1 [?] each.

Info boards

Key FactsShare/Bookmark
Where: Wallace City Park, Oregon, US
Getting There: Google Maps
By streetcar: From downtown Portland, ride the streetcar [ details ] towards the NW 23rd Avenue area and get off on the Lovejoy/NW 23rd stop. Walk North .02 miles to Pettygrove Street, and turn left, and walk .03 miles to Chapman Elementary/Wallace City Park. There is parking on Pettygrove Street and around the park.
When: September to mid October every year.
Costs: Free.

On The Internet
BirdNote: Vaux's Swifts
Audubon Society Of Portland: Swift Watch
Public Press: Chapman Swifts Comments Speak Your Mind
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