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Audubon member's research expanded swift knowledge

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By Sharon Wootton, Columnist
Published:
In Washington state, Vaux's swifts will long be associated with citizen-scientist Larry Schwitters of the Pilchuck Audubon Society.
In early 2000, he participated in an American Bird Conservancy project to locate waterfalls behind which black swifts roosted and nested.
After checking out all the waterfalls in the state, Schwitters discovered that Vaux's swifts had been studied very little, not even a good list of what chimneys they used was available.
"I figured that this was a lot easier to find (than clambering behind waterfalls)."
He found that the best roosting chimney was Monroe's former Frank Wagner Elementary School, but the chimney was destined for destruction.
Schwitters spearheaded the successful effort to save the chimney. Volunteers now monitor the birds as they come at dusk.
While the Monroe chimney "easily" holds 12,000 swifts, the record is 27,000, he said.
Despite the sardine-like packing into the chimney, the swifts are not aggressive.
"There can be three deep in the chimney and they might yell at each other but they don't fight. We've never seen any hostility," he said.
"They make noises when they circle the chimney. We believe they're calling out to all (Vaux's) swifts in the area that here is a safe place so (come over here) and share our body heat.
"They wait until all the swifts in the area have found the chimney and in they go," he said.
"The last swift makes a couple more circles to make sure everybody's here. If it sees another group coming, it goes in. It isn't always that way but I've seen it time after time. I don't know if I can prove it but enough people have seen it," Schwitters said.
Although thousands of swifts roost in a chimney, there is an upper limit to the chimney's interior temperature that they'll tolerate.
Volunteers are now monitoring for temperature.
State roosts have always been connected to migration but there may be more to the story. Live cameras (vauxshappening.com) inside the Monroe chimney have provided a surprise: Vaux's swifts have roosted throughout the year.
Ten days ago there were 200 roosting Vaux's swifts. On July 4, 2012, there were 6,500.
"Supposedly they're not migrating, but here they are," he said. "We can't explain it."
Another traditional roosting site in Sedro-Woolley at the former Northern State Hospital didn't attract large numbers of swifts.
It may have been because the access doors at the base of the chimney were open, leaving a way in for predators and making the chimney a less valuable option.
A few years ago Schwitters had the doors closed.
"Now the hospital has more birds than at Monroe. It's my fault ... but it's good for the birds."
Two other important chimneys are in Maple Valley and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Last spring, the efforts of the Pilchuck, Seattle and Eastside Audubon societies paid off with the set of four chimneys winning state status as an Important Bird Area (web4.audubon.org/bird/iba). National IBA recognition may be next.
"The prospect is good. There's no money or legal protection. It's like an Academy Award."
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.
Swift's Night Out
The annual Vaux's Swift Festival will be held Sept. 14 at the Monroe School District Wagner Center in Monroe.
See www.monroeswifts.org for more information.
In preparation for the fall migration, there will be a volunteer docents training session at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 22 in Monroe. Email Susie Schaefer at susie.schaefer@comcast.net or call Schwitters at 425-392-9161 for more information.
Story tags » Bird-watching

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