Swifts put on air shows nightly in Monroe

MONROE — As the sun sank behind Frank Wagner Elementary School on Friday, small dark birds swooped toward the school’s chimney.

High pitched chirps, like the squeaks of rubber dog toys, echoed in the night.

Judy Alles sat in a folding chair, eyes trained on the roof, waiting.

At 8:56 p.m. — more than two hours after she arrived at the school — her patience finally paid off.

Dozens of palm-sized Vaux’s swifts dove, kamikaze-style, down the chimney.

“It’s like there’s a vacuum up there and — vroom — they’re sucked right in,” Alles said.

The Monroe school is home to one of the two largest populations of Vaux’s swifts in the country. For decades, the birds have roosted in the chimney as they migrate between Canada and Central America each spring and fall.

They spend the night stacked on top of each other like shingles inside the 70-year-old chimney and emerge each morning like puffs of smoke. They spend their days eating insects, drinking drops of water and even mating on the fly.

Before descending into the chimney, thousands of the birds often gather over the school, swirling and twirling in formation.

They usually drop into the chimney together, dozens at time. They plunge headfirst toward the opening, but turn around an instant before disappearing so they enter the chimney feet first.

Last spring, volunteers counted 130,288 swifts going into the chimney, including 21,000 on one May night. That fall, there were 210,565.

“It’s pretty incredible,” said Kerry Marl, who spends her Friday nights counting swifts as they disappear into the chimney. “This is better than watching them on TV. It’s better than the Discovery Channel.”

Nobody knows exactly when Vaux’s swifts started roosting in Frank Wagner Elementary. A former student remembers a time from 40 years ago, watching the birds wait for the boiler to be turned off, then flying into the chimney, Alles said.

The chimney is no longer used and may crumble in an earthquake, so volunteers are trying to raise money to preserve it.

Historically, Vaux’s swifts have roosted inside old-growth snags, their claws clinging to the rough wood. Over the years, as homes have replaced forests, swifts have discovered chimneys. They prefer several old chimneys in Monroe, but the one at Frank Wagner is by far the most popular.

To help publicize the swifts’ plight and raise money to stabilize the chimney, LeVon Berg, owner of Monroe Digital Copy Center, created a “Voxy” swift coloring book and stickers. She’s never been a big bird enthusiast, but once she saw swifts spiral into Frank Wagner, she was hooked.

“It’s like a black tornado being sucked into a chimney,” she said. “I just think that since we’re the ones who tore down their habitat, we should probably be responsible for helping them out.”

The nation’s other favorite swift hideout is Chapman School in Portland, Ore. Hundreds of picnickers crowd the lawn there on sunny fall evenings to watch the birds, named after late mineralogist William S. Vaux. Frank Wagner Elementary is also becoming a popular bird-watching venue, but it’s less known than Chapman School.

At Chapman, the school mascot is a swift, a local band is named after the birds and a documentary “On the Wing” details the community’s relationship with swifts.

Sunset is the best time to watch Monroe’s swifts. The birds arrived in mid-April and may leave for Canada at any time. They return each fall with their babies, stopping at Frank Wagner on their way south to Mexico, Panama and Venezuela.

Visitors are welcome to watch the swifts at Frank Wagner and join in the chorus of ohs and ahs.

“I’ve always been a wildlife nut, but I never dreamed I’d be sitting outside counting birds going into a chimney night after night after night,” Alles said. “They’re like the little jets or the little sport cars of the bird world.”

Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292, kmanry@heraldnet.com.

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