Get a rare glimpse of these fascinating birds
Back in the summer of 2009 a friend put me in touch with Larry Schwitters, who was looking for help counting roosting Vaux’s swifts. Schwitters was delighted to hear I lived near Sedro-Woolley, as there was a site nearby he suspected had birds. There was a catch though. “Do you mind counting on your own each evening?” Schwitters asked. “Not at all,” I said, confident I could recruit friends to help. “Good,” Schwitters said, “but this site is a bit odd – it’s located on the grounds of Old Northern State Hospital (ONSH), a former state insane asylum dating from the 1930s.” Not a problem, I said bravely. “Ah, but there’s one more thing,” Schwitters said. “The best place to park is in the old cemetery. Don’t go alone.” A bit creepy I thought, but what the heck?
The whole project sounded intriguing, so off I went. That first year there wasn’t much action – I saw 400 birds enter the chimney one night, but it turns out a door at the bottom of the stack was open, and the birds apparently don’t like a draft. I did have some wonderfully weird encounters though, like the group of high school students filming a zombie movie, or the folks from Boo! Paranormal who were camped in the cemetery looking for ghosts. More common were the silent silhouettes of owls that provided
a ghostly escort back to the truck.
That winter I asked the maintenance crew if they could put the door back on, and they obliged. What a difference! When the next roosting season rolled around I took a pal out the first night and we waited expectantly. Swifts arrived at the roost site as dusk fell and began circling the chimney. About 10 minutes before sunset they started diving in – 10, 20, 100, 1,000. After the last bird ducked in I asked my friend how many birds he’d tallied. “I’m not sure I was doing it right,” Jim said. “There can’t possibly have been 6,000, can there?” My count was 5,870, and I felt grand that we’d come within 10 percent of each other. Since that first stunning autumn the birds keep coming. In 2011 the chimney at ONSH regularly hosted over 10,000 birds each night in early September.
The Vaux’s Happening website (vauxhappening.org) is a great source of information on these fascinating creatures. Vaux’s (pronounced VAWKsiz) swifts are small, cigar shaped birds that look much like swallows, but are actually more closely related to hummingbirds. Their tiny feet are constructed so that they can cling, but not perch. Swifts catch insects on the wing, each one consuming up to 20,000 mosquitoes a day. Vaux’s swifts spend their summers (breeding season) in forests along the coast from northern California to southwest Alaska, flying south to central America in the winter. They are listed as a priority species in Washington. Swifts prefer to nest in hollow, broken-off trees, which need to be large enough for them to fly inside. Big, dead trees are becoming more and more difficult to find, and thus the birds began to use chimneys as communal roost sites during their spring and fall migration. But good old-fashioned brick chimneys are no longer used in new construction, and the existing ones are being torn down or sealed, producing a serious nest site shortage.
The project was initiated in Monroe by Schwitters in 2008 in cooperation with the Pilchuck Audubon Society, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), the Monroe school district and the Washington state online birding list “Tweeters.” In 2009 the project was expanded, adding sites in British Columbia, California, Montana and Idaho. The goal was to identify active roost sites, observe each site on the same night each week to develop a minimum total population estimate and to determine if roost sites are used at other times of the year.
On a typical evening the birds begin circling the roost site an hour or so before sunset, chirping sweetly and slowly, entering singly or in small groups. About 15 minutes before sunset the real fun begins – swifts start entering in a steady stream, looking for all the world like
a reverse tornado.
There are several sites in the Mt. Baker area to see swifts. The easiest way to view them at the ONSH chimney is from the Northern State Recreation Area in Sedro-Woolley. The main parking lot is located on the west (left) side of Helmick Road about a half-mile north of Highway 20 just outside of Sedro-Woolley. Follow the gravel path up toward the old barns on the low bluff to the right of the parking area. Stay west of the barns and follow the gravel trail for about another quarter-mile to a picnic shelter. You’ll need binoculars and a spotting scope for this site – look to the west to see the chimney. Braver souls can shorten the trip by parking at the old cemetery (first left past the main park entrance), then heading west through the old barn complex before joining the main gravel path. An alternative for those who want to get a bit closer is on the grounds of ONSH itself. The area is currently owned by the state, and houses the Cascades Job Corps. It is a closed campus, so visitors must stop and ask permission to enter at the checkpoint.
There are several other sites in our area where swifts are occasionally seen. The Old Customs House in Sumas, located on the corner of Boundary Street and Sumas Avenue, is a classic, and the oldest historic roosting site in Washington. Swift comings and goings at the customs house can be observed from both sides of the border here. Further afield, swift watching festivals are held at the Wagner Schoolhouse in Monroe and the Chapman School in Portland, Oregon each September.
For more information about Vaux’s Happening and local viewing sites, contact firstname.lastname@example.org; Joe Meche, North Cascades Audubon Society, president@northcascades
audubon.org; or Tim Manns, Skagit Audubon Society, email@example.com. X
Sue Madsen is a fluvial geomorphologist who likes to climb, ski, backpack, sea kayak and scuba dive.