PORTLAND -- The crowds arrive early at Chapman Elementary, many carrying dinner with them.
Since the late 1980's the Vaux’s swifts have stopped here on their migration home to Central America from British Columbia. Another migration of Portlanders has followed, and now nightly crowds can swell to as many as 3500.
There's plenty to do---the cardboard sledding hill is a big hit for many children. Others kids play soccer on the synthetic turf field. Adults spread out picnic dinners on blankets, more than a few sip beer or wine.
A 3-year-old boy walked by wearing a firefighter costume. Saturday was that kind of night.
His father, Jonny Simons, said the family does not own a TV but looked up the Chapman roosting online.
“Just before we came here we looked on YouTube and saw how they swirl down 'a reverse fireplace,' I told them," he said.
The swifts spend most of their day catching and eating insects---then at sundown---they gather near Chapman’s tall chimney.
The birds are so loved that the school used to delay turning on the furnace until they'd all flown south in mid October. But ten years ago the school switched to natural gas and uses a different chimney. The Audubon Society and others raised money for the conversion and improvements on the old chimney to make it earthquake proof. Now it’s only purpose is a roost for the swifts.
Karen Shurtluff and her friends from the Aurora choir gathered Saturday for the uniquely Portland experience. She said she loves the atmosphere of the community.
“I’ve only lived here two years and within a couple weeks of being here somebody brought me to see this happen and I thought, 'No wonder I live here! It's great,'” Shurtluff said. And the choreography of the birds is amazing too. “When they start clustering there’s a tornado of birds that go into the chimney and its like, 'Wow!'”
A half hour after sunset, it began. Thousands of birds, first scattered, then flying in tighter and tighter circles around the chimney, began diving in head first.
The perfect end to a perfect Portland tradition; the swifts were home for the night.