Aerial ballet. A thousand sky dancers spin around the brick chimney. Gather to watch in downtown Bend, Oregon, at 7 pm in twilight. Listen. The high-pitched tweets signal the rise of this wild curtain. The show is free. Look up. Stay for the full half hour of the whirling, scattering, assembling, dipping flow of Vaux’s Swifts arrowing the sky on slim wings. With each passing minute, more birds pattern the sky.
Spiraling inwards to the chimney, one bird flutters down vertically, feet first, and vanishes. The others scatter. Not yet. Too soon. The tempo quickens. More birds. Circling so close their wings seem to flick the edges of the chimney. Three more descend into the night roost. The flock twirls away in an ashy plume. Teasing. Luring and alluring. The sky lights with flamingo colors. Flamenco. Flirtations. And now! The swifts gust in on a wind of their own making. The sky is falling with birds. Still, this pour of dancers into the chimney comes in pulses until the last soloist bids us all goodnight.
Note–this performance review marked the finale week of the swift ballet in Bend for this fall–come back next season!
Vaux’s Swift pronunciation: Vaux’s rhymes with foxes. It’s named for William S. Vaux (1811-1882) of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and friend of John K. Townsend, who described this species in 1839 from specimens collected on the Columbia River.
Dancers: Every night is a new cast of Vaux’s Swifts until the season’s end. These are migrating birds on a journey from nesting homes as far north as Alaska to wintering habitat as far south as northern Venezuela.
Set: This chimney is part of a historic building in Bend that once served as an infirmary for the 1918 flu epidemic and today is the Boys & Girls Club, close to the public library. Within the chimney, the bricks offer traction for the swifts to cling to the sides with their tiny feet and sleep close to each other.
Season: The nightly sunset show in Bend runs from approximately early August to late September. Spring season starts in mid-April for the return journey north.
Citizen Science Counters: For six weeks or longer Mary Ann and Bob never miss a night of counting migrating swifts as they flutter down into the chimney. Their counts are often uncannily close in number and they split the difference. (You might give it a try with this video and you’ll see it’s not easy!). They turn their data into the dedicated Swift volunteer Larry Schwitters of Issaquah, Washington, who compiles all data of all counters in this region that in turn goes into a national database for Audubon. Learn more here.
Vaux’s Swift Facts
- Smallest swift in America–weighing 18 grams, the equivalent of 2 1/2 marshmallows. (The Vaux’s is the western counterpart of the Chimney Swift),
- They live on the wing- catching aerial insects and dazzling the skies with their agile flights.
- Giant, hollow trees with broken tops are their native homes for communal nesting and night roosts in migration. (See this incredible video of swifts dropping into a cottonwood tree). Saving ancient forests saves Vaux’s Swifts! Saving historic chimneys helps too.
- To see a range map of where the Vaux’s Swift nest in the Pacific Northwest, their migration route and wintering home, click here.