15 September 2007

Pretty swift

For the last 25 years, a huge flock of migrating Vaux's swifts has roosted for several weeks in the Chapman School chimney in Northwest Portland. Toward sunset they gather for the night and spiral into the chimney. The peak period is now, in mid-September. I thought this phenom -- "the Chapman School swifts" is how everybody refers to it -- was so cool when I first heard about it, shortly after we moved to town. Jer and I finally got off our butts the other night and drove over to see it for ourselves.

I'm bad at estimating crowd sizes but, according to Portland Audubon, the Chapman School colony typically numbers 10,000 to 15,000 birds. Some years the count's been higher than 30,000. I took these photos at highest resolution so you should be able to discern a few hundred swift-like specks if you click to enlarge them.

I've seen masses of birds take to the air before; it's always a dramatic sight. But the Chapman display was particularly striking because of the chimney as a focal point and the swirling aerobatics that accompanied the ultimate funneling-down. The drama was enhanced by a hawk (Cooper's?) that perched on the rim of the chimney itself and, before too long, snagged a swift for supper. Oops; make that 9,999. A while later, another raptor rocketed through the swarm but emerged empty-taloned and sat watching from the tip of a distant tree. Raptors put in an appearance most evenings during the season, according to the Audubon Society. They're no dummies; for predators, this is like buffet time on a cruise ship.

The surrounding scene, a gaggle of non-migrating humans numbering 200 or so, was quintessential Portland -- young parents picnicking with their kids, hipsters and skateboarders, Tilley-hat-wearing birders and old farts like us -- low-key, friendly and appreciative.

It was a misty evening, on the verge of rain, and after the last of the swifts had spun themselves into the chimney, Jer and I were happy to get back in the car and turn on the heat til we dried off and warmed up a little. What a contrast with the day before, when temps were in the high 80s and we'd closed the house and lowered the blinds to keep it cool. We cruised down NW 21st Ave. and, after turning thumbs down on a 40-minute wait at Cafe Mingo, ended up at Serratto a block or two away. I'd never even heard of the place, though it turned out that the Food Dude gave it a pretty good review two years ago. We'd give it a couple of stars, too. I didn't even considering ordering something with wings for dinner.

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