How Are the Chapman Swifts Doing in the Smoke?

By Ali Berman, Communications Manager

Every year during the month of September thousands of Vaux’s Swifts descend upon the chimney at Chapman Elementary School to roost for the night. It’s just one stop on their annual migration south to Central America and Venezuela. In a typical year, thousands of Oregonians would gather at Chapman around sunset to watch as these magnificent aerialists funnel into the chimney.

Even before the smoke, this year was different. The annual public viewing of Chapman Swifts was cancelled due to COVID-19. The school grounds are closed and gathering at the site has been prohibited for the safety and well-being of all.

While the public is unable to gather to minimize the spread of COVID, our small community science team of staff and volunteers were able to continue our nightly counts of the Vaux’s Swifts. These counts add to years of data we have on the Chapman swifts and help us understand local trends from year to year. It also contributes to a larger database of swift counts ranging from BC to Baja. 

The swifts were gathering at their normal numbers. Bird Alliance of Oregon staffer Candace Larson shared, “This year, migrating Vaux’s Swifts arrived in earnest on August 26, when just over 1,000 birds roosted in the Chapman chimney. From there, it was a quick ascent to over 9,000 birds, witnessed on September 8.”

Then the smoke came and we suspended the counts for the safety of our volunteers. We’re not alone. Few other counts are happening along other parts of the migration corridor as smoke blankets much of the west. We all wondered, how would the smoke affect the swifts this year? Would they still funnel into the chimney around sunset? Or would they come out to forage, but then head right back into the roost?

Vaux's Swifts at Chapman Elementary on September 14. Photo by Candace Larson

Candace was able to head to the site last night to perform a count. We asked her to share her observations so we could all see how the birds we have come to know so well are faring during these unprecedented times. 

“I was able to count at Chapman tonight, and found the numbers still building: nearly 12,000 birds roosted after an evening of foraging in very hazy skies,” shared Candace.

The swifts weren’t the only birds at Chapman. Candace also observed a Cooper’s Hawk perched on the chimney waiting to catch its dinner. Candace noted that hawk made multiple attempts throughout the evening, but in the end only came away with one bird.

As for how the smoke is affecting the birds long term? That’s still to be determined. Candace added, “It will be interesting to see what the West Coast data shows at the end of the season and into next year, but for now, birds are still moving south as their biology instructs.”

As a reminder, Swift Watch has been canceled this year due to COVID-19. The school grounds are closed to the public and the road only allows local access.