Vaux’s Swifts light up the Pacific Flyway

November 14th, 2012 · by Garrison Frost

As natural wildlife spectacles go, it’s hard to beat the migration of the Vaux’s Swift (Vaux’s rhymes with Foxes). By itself an unglamorous gray bird, the Vaux’s Swift becomes  the stuff of psychedelic imagination when it groups with thousands churning and swirling friends. As it moves southward in the fall, it roosts by the thousands in old brick chimneys. And those moments before they descent into the chimneys, well, you’ve got to see that for yourself. Here’s some video taken Sept. 15 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just outside of Tacoma, Washington.

Washington State is home to a number of chimneys where the Vaux’s Swifts roost. Washington Audubon chapters are rallying to protect these sites from seismic damage and decay and raise the Swifts’ public profile. The video below talks about how some of these chapters (Pilchuck Audubon, Seattle Audubon, and Eastside Audubon) worked with TogetherGreen (Audubon’s partnership with Toyota) to save a chimney in Monroe. The video also introduces Larry Schwitters, founder of Vaux’s Happening, and a leader in the movement to study and protect the swifts:

The swifts next stop southward is Oregon where 00they make use of a whole new set of chimneys, including one at an elementary school in Portland, where this video was shot on Sept. 26. Portland Audubon organizes the huge crowds of spectators that come to watch the swifts in true Portlandia style, complete with wine and cheese.

As the birds move southward, they encounter additional chimneys in California, including one in Healdsburg, just north of the Bay Area. Marin Audubon and Madrone Audubon, as well as other Bay Area chapters, sponsor field trips and t teach the community about the migration of the birds and the need to preserve these vital migratory spots. This video was shot at the Rio Lindo Academy in Healdsburg this September.

As the birds make their way even further south, they bring their magic to a most unlikely place: the Chester Williams Building high above Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Our colleagues at the Audubon Center at Debs Park and Los Angeles Audubon organize viewings from the roof of a nearby parking garage, and people are stunned to see such a vivid natural display in such a dense urban setting. Here’s some video we shot at the site on Oct. 5:

It’s important to note that the Vaux’s Swifts haven’t always had brick chimneys to roost in at night along the Pacific Flyway. Originally, they used the hollowed-out spaces in dead trees — and many still do this — but as this habitat has disappeared, the birds have adapted. Old brick chimneys are critical to the migration of these birds. The structures are unique in their ability to provide a landing spot for sleeping swifts. The birds’ small claws cling onto the rows of mortar that hold the bricks together. Sadly, due to the age of these chimneys, many are under threat of being torn down.

Audubon, in its many forms, is making a case for saving these chimneys and protecting this natural spectacle. And in so doing, we’re moving into new territory and asking some strange questions: How can a chimney be so important to natural wildlife? Is an abandoned chimney habitat? Can a chimney be protected in the same way we might protect lands or rivers?

Interesting questions. And if we follow the swifts, we’ll find the answers.

Categories: Audubon Center at Debs Park · Audubon Chapters · Birding · Pacific Flyway · S.F. Bay · Video · Wildlife photos and video

4 Comments so far ↓

  • harry okamoto

    I never knew about the vauxs swifts migration until viewing this segment. I will look forward to viewing them next year, here in Los Angeles.

  • M'Lou

    My mom, sister & I were among the hundreds who enjoyed the annual Sept. spectacle at Chapman School, Portland. Was amazing to watch waves of Vaux arrive & circle for hours, all of us on the hillside wondering what would trigger their descent into the chimney & when. Lots of cheering when that moment arrived. Also loud cheers each time the Peregrin attempted but failed to capture one of those tiny, dizzingly darting flyers.

  • Randy

    Thank you, Sharon and your family, for being a friend and protector of these amazing birds!

  • Sharon

    Vaux swifts nest in our chimney every summer and for that reason we never use our fireplace until fall when they have left. They have been doing this for many years and I am so glad they come back.