Monday, September 12, 2011

Watching the Vaux swifts in Portland: Have you gone to Chapman School yet?

The Champman School in Portland, an hour before sunset
For many Portland families, fall has truly arrived when the swifts have also arrived. These tiny birds migrate from Canada to Central America, and they stop over in Portland during the month of September.

The Vaux Swifts are nearly everywhere in Portland, but a large flock swirls around the Chapman School in northwest Portland. The birds like to spend the night in tall chimneys, where they can pack in together tightly to stay warm, and the Chapman School has a spectacular chimney the birds seem to favor.

The local Audubon Society hosts a Swift Watch each year at the school during the migration, and the society encourages people to come out and see the show. If you haven't done it, you really should. It's pretty spectacular.

There are a few insider tips to keep in mind.

The Audubon Society recommends that you arrive an hour before sundown. Arriving at that time will guarantee that you can find a great spot to sit, but there's really no swift action at this time. You may see a few swifts overhead, but the big flock doesn't arrive until about 15 minutes before sunset. If you're pressed for time, arriving closer to sunset is your best bet. The photo below was taken right at sunset when the sky was black with birds.

Many Vaux Swifts are flying into this chimney

Many, many children come with their parents, but they don't want to see the birds. They sled on cardboard and play on the Astroturf field. If you're averse to children, or you'd like to hear the birds twitter and chirp, don't come to the Chapman School. The kids are everywhere, and they're loud.

The Audubon Society says you can bring your dog, but most of the dogs I've seen there are not friendly toward other dogs. It hasn't seemed safe, to me, to bring a dog to the show. Plus, most dogs grow restless at the idea of sitting in one place for hours, looking up at the sky. Might be best to leave Fido home for this one.

The swifts put on their show throughout the entire month of September, and it's free. For more information on the Chapman School event, click here. For more information on the birds themselves, click here.