Posted by: atowhee | September 21, 2021

SWIFTLY THEY FLY, SLOWLY WE NOTICE

Just heard from one of the Vaux’s Swift count co-ordinators, here in the West, that McNear Brick Yard (Marin County, CA) had 22000 swifts into the twin chimneys this past Saturday. At the downtown Baptist Church here in Salem last night five of us saw about thirty birds go into the chimney. During a clear day many from the previous night may have headed south. Time is short.

Here’s a note I posted earlier about these amazing birds:
Our local Vaux’s Swifts are small, the smallest swifts in North America.  They are larger than some island swiftlet species, but much smaller than the Chimney Swift of eastern North America or the species in Europe (Common, Alpine, Pallid). There are about 95 species of swift in the world and on every continent except Antarctic though they avoid really cold climates and high altitudes.  Every time I see one speeding through the sky, passing swallows in the slow lane, I must remind myself exactly how unusual and marvelous these birds are.

Vaux is less than five inches long, but has a twelve inch wingspan.  That’s a longer wingspan than the Spotted Towhee which is several times bigger in bulk.  Other swift species measure between four inches and 9.5 inches in length.  Swifts are the fastest bird on earth in level flight–regularly reaching 70 MH, while one species has been clocked at 100 MPH.  Some swifts use bat-like sonar echolocation when returning to roost site in the dark. There is speculation among those who track such things that larger swifts may be faster than peregrines in straight-forward flight without use of gravity as an accelerant.

In migration after breeding this species is most abundant in western Oregon during the first half of September.  There are several well-known, perennially popular roost sites along their route.  Three locations that can attract thousands of swifts in one night (plus hungry raptors): Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Agate Hall in Eugene, the old brickyard chimney in San Rafael.  I have found modest numbers roosting in chimneys here in McMinnville. Check your neighborhood this fall.  They need old chimneys without slick metal or ceramic linings so they find crevices and uneven surfaces where their tiny toes can get a grip.  Last year we had one pair nest in our chimney, we hope for a return.  Before the white man our swifts used hollow trees for nesting and roosting.  The Black Swift of the West nests behind waterfalls.  In the tropics some species use hanging palm, fronds, others use caves.  Fortunately we have provided chimneys as we have certainly decimated the supply of old, dead trees left standing in the forest.

The Vaux’s Swifts winter in Central America and coastal Venezuela.

They live most of their life on the wing.  Sometimes flying for months without stopping. We now know something of swifts’ lives thanks to nano-technology and our digital tracking ability.  Here’s a video on the European Common Swift.  We now surmise a single bird can fly hundreds of thousands of miles in its lifetime, click here.

I found this fine video of swifts in slow motion and you can see them close in on flying insects and swallow them.

Most touching video I found: ceremony welcoming the swifts back to Jerusalem in spring.

WATCHING SWIFTS

It would be redundant to say “watching swifts in flight.”  I continue to search for the words.  Not even video does them justice, words about their flight are as shadows speeding past a window.

Migrating Vaux’s Swifts inhabit the sky right now.  Any time from dawn to dark you may see one or more crossing beneath cloud or blue. But they are often too high for oiur eyes to see. No other creature flies the same way.  The arc-shaped wings beat rapidly several times, then stop as the body speeds onward.  The swift motion through the sky seems too fast for deliberation. Yet they run down insects and other small fly [sic], and swallow them with wide mouth fully open.  At one moment a swift will head straight, then suddenly carom off an unseen edge, loop back around, zig-zag off at a step angle, dropping or climbing to a new altitude. I occasionally see them dip one wing, perhaps this helps them make a sharper turn? They seem to reverse direction with no effort I can discern.  The swifts live and move so swiftly our meagre eyes cannot keep up.  We are so slow. At times you can hear them signaling to one another, a cranky sound not confused with song or music.  We now know they can migrate at a height of thousands of feet above the earth, feeding on aerial plankton as they travel.  Here to breed this summer these small swifts are only slightly more earthbound now.  They do not stand, nor perch, nor belly down on a limb to rest, they fly.  Only rarely are they not in flight.  Then they hang in a chosen chimney or hollow tree, head down like a bat. For some swifts this happens only during nesting season. It’s a tiny fleck of life among that tremendous expanse of air, every direction a possibility.


Data from Vaux’s Happening, for northbound migration last spring, high counts for specific locations and then hugh counts for 2020 as well:

Click here to see the Vaux’s Happening website.

Swifts, aerial plankton and weather conditions–click here. 

Click here to read about how they fly, and sleep, simultaneously. Like people on an airplane, but who’s the pilot or navigator…?

Live in Jackson County? Here’s invite to their swift count from head of Riogue Valley Audubon:

“The Vaux’s Swifts are migrating. Rogue Valley Audubon is counting nightly at Hedrick Middle School in Medford (by the football field) and also at a residence about 6 blocks from Hedrick at 15 Florence Ave. The next door neighbors allow us to sit in their front yard and even have chairs we can use. Arrive at either site at least 15 minutes before sunset. Come earlier if it’s raining. They usually are done by the first week in October. I hope you can get to see them. Cheers, Carol Mockridge”


Responses

  1. I love swifts. Long ago, I saw some huge and lightning-quick swifts in the Ecuadorian highlands (I forget the species) that awed me so deeply that I felt compelled to write about them in an essay. Here’s the excerpt:

    Perhaps my favorite páramo phenomena are the cloudbursts of swifts and swallows. Imagine: you are out for a hike on a bright day. Your eyes are downcast to select your footing on an uneven and partially-obscured game trail. Somewhere in the distance, a mysterious force is building, and heading your way. An indistinct rustling permeates the air. You hop over a muddy section of trail, and continue on your way.

    Then, the indistinct becomes distinct as you recognize the sound of a wing slicing air. You look up. And the sky is alive with the bustle of birds on the move and the music of their movement. If they are swallows, they will pass as a winter snow flurry, each bird a sapphire snowflake on a tumultuous path. If they are swifts, large sooty birds with white collars, then the flight pattern will be more dispersed and grandiose. The swifts arrive like a disorganized squadron of fighter planes; they are big, they are fast, and the sky belongs to them.

    The arcs they cut tend toward the sublime. These birds are as mesmerizing as anything wild and free. Pairs, in tight synchrony, scream past, as though love’s outer reaches could be achieved not by climbing to new heights, but by accelerating to new speeds. Before long the flock is in the distance, and then gone, a memory. And you are under an empty sky on a game trail in the mountains on a bright day as a breeze caresses the look on your sun-tanned face.

    ________________________________

    • wonderful, they do force us to reach for imagery, description and mere comprehension–allat the same time, thanks for sharung

  2. In other news, I finished The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux. Quite enjoyable overall, but the denouement stretched credulity. Now I’m on to Remains of the Day by Ishiguro. Read that? So far, it has lots of wonderful, subtle humor.

    ________________________________

  3. Thanks for the swift info.


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