Through the Seasons, Swiftly

Through the Seasons, Swiftly

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(by Rachel Hudson) April has come once again, and I am patiently waiting.

Any day now, masses of tiny dark birds will pass through my small town, and I am ready for them. They will never land on any tree or power line, and almost nobody in Chehalis will know of their presence aloft in our skies. But I know them. And so I wait… and listen… and watch.

Suddenly, as I stand upon my sunset-lit balcony overlooking all of Downtown, I hear them. My heart thrills at the unmistakable high-pitched chirruping of a small group of Vaux’s Swifts, zipping to and fro high overhead. My first migrants have finally arrived.

They have flown across an entire continent to reach me, and for most of them, their journey is not yet over. Vaux’s Swifts spend their winters in balmy Central America and Southern Mexico, and when spring arrives, they fly thousands of miles north to their summer range along the western portion of the United States and British Columbia. Many of the birds I see will continue their voyage north to breed, but usually half a dozen or so will remain in town with me through the summer.

For now, though, my task is to count the birds overhead, and follow them to find where they will spend the night.

Vaux’s Swifts cannot perch like most other birds, but they can use their tiny feet to cling vertically to rough surfaces… mainly the inside of old chimneys these days, where they roost communally each night throughout their migrations. The tiny birds lost most of their hollowed-out old-growth trees, in which they would historically stay. Watching the spectacle of thousands of birds spiraling into a single chimney as though the skies were made of water and the swifts were being rinsed down a funnel is stunning and breathtaking.

The small flock wheeling over town now is but a shadow of more action yet to come.

It is now the beginning of June. The whirlwind of tiny, barely 4.5-inch-long birds passing through Chehalis has come to a swift end, and my group of six summer residents are all that remain. I have sent the last of my nightly reports on the Swifts to Larry Schwitters, the man responsible for the Swifts’ conservation and well-being throughout their range. The website for Larry’s wee birds, www.vauxhappening.org, has everything anyone could ask for regarding the Swifts, including the report forms I fill out. Vast thousands of Vaux’s Swifts flooded the West Coast in a matter of weeks, and all have dispersed now to raise new families.

My small blue handheld clicker that I use to count the birds is placed reverently in my desk drawer. Larry generously mails the Swift Seekers these clickers, and I know that mine will see many more seasons of use… but not now. During the warm summer months, the Swifts build tiny nests with their mates; they do not roost en masse anymore. It’s too hot for that, anyway. In the meantime, each pair will hopefully raise up to six little ones to join them on their way back south in a few short months.

August has arrived. The smog from the forest fires of summer is nearly intolerable for me, yet I still race in flip-flops and a skirt through Downtown, a few blocks from my home. In one hand, I clutch my little blue clicker, and in the other hand, I have my phone to take notes. My hat keeps flying off, I am out of breath, and I’m sure many citizens of Chehalis are wondering why I am sprinting through the alleys alone.

The Swifts are on the move once more. Though the masses of little gray-brown birds often roost in one particular chimney in Chehalis, they seem to be changing their minds tonight. I rush to follow them on foot through town, my head tilted to the sky. The flock of a thousand Swifts is starting to split, and I try my best to keep tabs on multiple groups as they begin to make their first passes at several chimneys in Downtown. I frantically think: Where did that splinter group disappear to? Can I still see the main flock?

As I catch up to the splinter flock, I find yet another confirmed roost site for them in my beloved town; this chimney is tiny and would have been unnoticeable, were it not for the flock of several hundred little birds funneling down inside it. I angle myself so I can try to watch both flocks at once, but I’m not skilled at counting in this fashion. Perhaps I need another clicker.Or more Swift Seekers. Anyone, anywhere, can become a Swift Seeker; it’s enormously rewarding and exciting work.

Right now, across the West Coast, many other people are having a similar experience… though without quite as much sprinting. Larry’s Swift Seekers are working hard from now through October, counting the darling Swifts as they migrate south, and documenting other important data such as temperature and weather conditions. The Vaux’s Swift fall migration draws massive crowds of onlookers at several key roosts along their route. At Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, for example, thousands of spectators gather to watch many thousands of Swifts enter a single chimney each night during fall migration.

The Swifts are in no hurry for now… winter is in no hurry, either, and the sickle-winged birds have successfully raised their families. All they need to do now is make their way back to Central America well before their food supply of airborne insects vanishes. They take their time heading south, often staying for several nights at each chimney. The combination of perfect weather and thousands of clouding Swifts makes for an excellent night out with one’s friends and family.

All too soon, October is here. There are still many Vaux’s Swifts working their way to southern climes, but the ones that fly through Chehalis are long gone. I take my backpack and rifle through its contents, until my hand brushes against something extremely familiar: my little blue clicker. With a twinge of sadness, I carry it over to my desk drawer once again. This time, I will not use it until later next year… almost seven months from now. With a heavy heart, all I can do now is pray that my cherished Swifts will have a safe journey, and will find secure lodgings in their winter lands.

At first, I dread that these months will drag on for an eternity. But then I remember, there is much work for everyone to do in the meantime regarding the Swifts’ conservation. April will come again sooner than I think, and when it does, I will be on my balcony, patiently waiting for the Swifts’ grand return.