Bird Alliance of Oregon Counts the Swifts, 2021 Update

by Joe Liebezeit, Staff Scientist & Avian Conservation Program Manager, and Candace Larson, Field Biologist

In October, we wrapped up the thirteenth consecutive Vaux’s Swift monitoring season at Chapman Elementary School and other chimney sites in the Portland metro area. Each fall, many thousands of these tiny flying acrobats roost in chimneys (as well as natural cavities) across the West as they make their journey from breeding areas in northwestern North America to wintering grounds in the neotropics (Central and South America and parts of Mexico). The roost at Chapman is considered one of the most important stopover points on the Pacific Flyway and can host up to 15,000 swifts in a single night!

Vaux's Swifts gather above the chimney at Chapman Elementary School against a purple sky.
Vaux's Swifts, photo by Tara Lemezis

In this second year of the global pandemic, we worked with Portland Public Schools (PPS) and Portland Parks to once again cancel our Swift Watch interpretive program. This was an unfortunate but necessary step to discourage crowds and respect state guidance on physical distancing in order to curb the spread of coronavirus. Instead of hosting Swift Watch, volunteers helped with morning cleanups at Chapman to maintain good relationships with the neighborhood and school. And we were still able to recruit a small crew of experienced volunteers to conduct swift counts (following COVID safety protocols, of course) as we’ve done for over a decade.

We started monitoring on August 24, and at that point there were already over 1,000 birds roosting in the chimney. From then on, it was “slow and steady” at Chapman, with numbers fluctuating between 2,000 and 7,000 birds on most nights between late August and early October. Typically we have one big peak—up to 15,000 birds in mid-September—but this year, the chimney hosted a few smaller peaks of 8,000 to 9,000 birds scattered throughout the season. This was the second year swifts have roosted in the Chapman chimney since a new chimney cap was installed following a much-needed renovation. Thankfully, the birds do not appear to be dissuaded by their newly renovated lodgings.

We also monitor other sites in the Portland metro area that host significant numbers of roosting swifts. We documented a new chimney roost at Jennings Lodge Elementary in Oregon City, which regularly hosted over 1,000 swifts this year, with a high of 2,445. It appears that the swifts that normally roost on Oregon City’s Main Street have moved to Jennings Lodge, at least for this season. We worked with the Oregon City School District to ensure that the boiler wasn’t turned on too early this year—thank you to the staff and students for their support!

We plan to continue long-term Vaux’s Swift monitoring at Chapman and other sites in the Portland area. This effort contributes to a larger Pacific Coast-wide tracking project as well. The Northwest Vaux’s Swift population has been declining for several decades, and monitoring helps document the species’ population trend and supports the preservation of important roost sites along the flyway. We thank PPS, Portland Parks, and the local community for their collaboration and communication. And of course, we thank the swift count volunteers for their brave efforts to document the swift migration.