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'A quintessential Portland activity': September brings 'Swift Watch' back to Chapman Elementary in Northwest Portland

The annual bird migration stop draws crowds of people to the Northwest Portland site throughout September.

PORTLAND, Oregon — The Vaux’s swifts have returned to Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland. 

Throughout September, the little birds will roost in the school’s decommissioned smokestack chimney, a sleeping spot on their migration route to Central America. The birds begin circling over the chimney about an hour before sunset each night, then slowly descend in a tornado-shaped spiral. The spectacle draws large crowds of people each night.

“I think it's a quintessential Portland activity,” said Sabrina Sheehy. “Combining nature with community.”

Each night, volunteers with Portland Audubon set up a table to help educate spectators and also count the birds. Last weekend they counted around 3,000 Voux’s swifts, a number volunteers said is quite high for this early in the season. Experts aren't exactly sure why that is, though one theory suggests the warm spring weather led to an earlier nesting season. Another theory points to Portland's air quality which is much better than other parts of the state right now.

“So maybe they're making their way through this migration path rather than further east of here,” said Portland Audubon volunteer, Carolyn Vock. “Or there could be more bugs in the area.”

Credit: KGW
Vaux's Swifts at Chapman Elementary School in 2016

Experts say the swifts are following a 30-year migration pattern that includes Chapman’s chimney. The school decommissioned the structure years ago but with the community's help, they preserved it and even made it earthquake-proof. By the time the swifts begin circling overhead, they’re quite tired.

“They spent the whole day out flying, eating, hanging out with their buddies,” said Vock. “They don't perch, they just fly all day long.”

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