Saturday, September 20, 2008

Go Swift-ly into that Goodnight

A local Portland phenomenon that seems to grow exponentially each year is the pilgrimmage to Chapman Elementary School to witness the bedding down of the Swifts... and if it sounds dull, you will be sadly mistaken. A week ago, a small group met up for a birthday pre-celebration, including the finest in boxed wine and made it an event. The pre-game is mostly staring at this...

:: the target - image (c) Landscape+Urbanism

Waiting for this...

:: Vaux's Swift - image via The Birdchaser

And doing this... until dusk...

:: The Mathis duo eyeing the spot for a new turbine - image (c) Landscape+Urbanism

Then, it starts... slowly at first. The vortex of tiny swifts growing, ebbing and gathering... mostly distributed, then seemingly converging in Hitchcockian fashion before they decide it's bedtime and roost. Then the waiting game, as they circle, somehow on the same page, but not, quite ready.

:: images (c) Landscape+Urbanism

Then, as if of a single hive (or nest) mind - they pour into the chimney, self-sorting into a huddling mass of beaks and feathers, much to the delight of the crowd.

:: images (c) Landscape+Urbanism

Apologies for the crappy photos - as I wanted to include first-person authenticity over artistic expression in this case. My camera, although portable and great for documenting landscapes - is not terribly suited to the fast action and low-light of the Swifts... there are probably a bunch of shots out there on the net I'm sure so go ahead and Google away... like this one for instance...

:: Photo by Steve Warner - image via Audubon

Call it a fusion of Integrating habitats, urban placemaking, and connection with the natural processes of the city - all with a plastic cup on red wine at an elementary school. There are worst things to do on a Friday, for sure.The most fun was the fact that the people watching (my how this event has grown) - specifically hundreds of screaming children sliding down a hillside on large pieces of cardboard. Numbers of sketchy, but I'd say at least 2500 people were here on this friday evening. I wonder if this is a Portland phenomenon, or would it be the same elsewhere... anyone have info about other Swift's gatherings...?

:: image (c) Landscape+Urbanism

Another moment of anticipation is the raptors, who lurk waiting for the Swifts when they are vulnerable - which does add a modicum of excitement to the air as well. We were there on September 12th, and witnessed a couple of Falcons that appeared late in the day. Via Audubon's Swift-Watch page: "September 12 update: Two Peregrine Falcons joined approximately 10,500 swifts and 1,500 spectators at Chapman School. On Sept 13, a Peregrine nabbed a swift on two separate passes as the swifts spiraled into the school's chimney."

Why a chimney? Here's a plausible description from Nature Photographers Online: "Because of their tiny feet, swifts cannot perch on wires or tree limbs like most other birds. Instead, they cling to rough-hewn vertical surfaces like the interiors of masonry chimneys. The swift clamps itself to a vertical surface with sharp toe claws and braces its body against walls with spiked shafts in the tail called rachises"

:: image via Nature Photographers Online

Now imagine this, multiplied by 10,000 or so... the logistics alone are mind boggling. All of this as well has been compiled into a new documentary called On the Wing. "The film documents the birds' 2007 residency. Interviews with school teachers, students, swift watchers and Audubon Society of Portland staff explain how the phenomenon came to be and how it has evolved into what it is today. Amazing footage of the birds, including shots from inside the chimney, give audiences an extraordinary, never-before-seen view of the swifts."

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