Vaux’s swifts fly into the former Frank Wagner Elementary School chimney to roost in 2010. The birds stop at the chimney on their way south for their fall migration. (Herald file)

Vaux’s swifts fly into the former Frank Wagner Elementary School chimney to roost in 2010. The birds stop at the chimney on their way south for their fall migration. (Herald file)

A swift spectacle: Birds return to their roost at Monroe chimney

Hundreds will gather Sept. 8 at the Wagner Performing Arts Center to watch the phenomenon.

MONROE — Our favorite bird is back in town.

Thousands of migrating Vaux’s swifts are visiting the old chimney of the Wagner Performing Arts Center this month.

At dusk, the small birds swirl into the chimney to roost for the night. As the sun sets, the swifts circle and call out to the others as if to synchronize the dive. Then they pour into the chimney, each of them finding a foothold among the rough bricks, overlapping like shingles inside.

Monroe has one of the largest congregations in North America. As many as 26,000 Vaux’s swifts have been seen entering this chimney at one time. The spectacle happens during the birds’ spring and fall migrations between Canada and Mexico.

Swift-watching has become a ritual for Monroe since 2008. Swift Night Out, now in its 11th year, celebrates the birds’ fall trek through the city. Hundreds will gather Sept. 8 on the lawn of the former Frank Wagner Elementary School to watch the phenomenon.

“It’s become a real city tradition,” said Cindy Easterson, president of the Pilchuck Audubon Society. “It’s one thing to draw birders — and we draw them from all over the world — but the people of Monroe really think of that swift as their bird. That’s what makes it so special. They’re embracing this tiny little migrant.”

Along with Swift Night Out, there is the Vaux’s Happening Project, founded by Larry “Dr. Swift” Schwitters 10 years ago.

A retired science teacher, Schwitters is a leader in Vaux’s swifts research. In 10 years, he has documented 20 migrations and more than 11 million roosting swifts. He continues to organize counts and identify roosting sites along the Vaux’s swifts migration route as a way to monitor the brownish-gray birds.

With Audubon, Schwitters, 77, also is working to preserve their habitat along the flyway.

Namely, large chimneys.

Swifts don’t have back talons, so they can’t stand or perch, but their hooked claws and stiff feathers allow them to cling inside hollow trees or old industrial chimneys. The birds only land to roost, nest or to avoid rain.

“Bricks work really well for them,” Schwitters said. “They’re just the right size, where you’ve got a whole row of them, maybe 40 swifts, hanging on one mortar joint between bricks, with another row of swifts overlapping their tails on the next one.”

As fallen trees are cleared and old-growth forests are logged for development, natural habitat is becoming harder for the birds to find. So the adaptable swift learned to roost in brick chimneys built in the 1930s and ‘40s. They roost in a string of about 25 chimneys along the Pacific coast.

When those old chimneys are sealed or torn down, Vaux swifts’ numbers decline.

“When these buildings fail and are torn down and replaced, the swifts don’t have a suitable place to roost,” Easterson of the Audubon Society said. “New building codes require a liner to go into these chimneys, and they aren’t able to cling to it.”

Schwitters has lectured on the Vaux’s swifts close to 80 times, including at the North American Swift Symposium in North Carolina and the International Swift Conference in England. Most recently, his research was presented at the Ornithological Conference of the Americas in Argentina.

No matter how many times Easterson, 62, sees the swifts — she counts them on Monday nights — she is left in awe.

“I’ve seen them drop into the chimney hundreds of times,” she said, “and it never ceases to amaze me. It really is an amazing sight.”

Here, she describes Swift Night Out.

When the sun starts to set, all the bird watchers go silent. The Vaux’s swifts swarm around Wagner’s chimney, continually swirling and chittering above the opening.

Suddenly, right before their descent into the chimney, the birds maneuver in the air, so they can dive tail-first into their brick shelter. The entire operation lasts about 40 minutes.

As the last bird enters the chimney, the watchers errupt in applause.

Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046; sbruestle@heraldnet.com; @sarabruestle.

If you go

What: Swift Night Out

When: 4 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 8

Where: Wagner Performing Arts Center, 639 W. Main St., Monroe

Cost: Free

More: 425-610-8027 or www.pilchuckaudubon.org

Vaux’s happening at Swift Night Out

Monroe’s annual Swift Night Out bird-watching party is Saturday at the Wagner Performing Arts Center, 639 W. Main St., Monroe.

Thousands of migrating Vaux’s swifts roost in the chimney of the former Frank Wagner Elementary School on their fall trek from Canada to Mexico. The birds can be seen swirling into the chimney at dusk throughout September.

Saturday’s event from 4 to 8:30 p.m. will include a lecture, games and crafts, wildlife education booths and Vaux’s Swift Theatre. Hot dogs, chips, apple crisp and swift headbands will be available. Bring your own chair to sit on the lawn.

A “Vaux’s Happening” lecture by Larry “Dr. Swift” Schwitters will be 5 to 6 p.m. in the auditorium. A leader in Vaux’s swift migration research, Schwitters has a master’s in science from East Texas State University.

Park for free at Monroe City Hall, 806 W. Main St., Frank Wagner Elementary School, 115 Dickinson Road, and Park Place Middle School, 1408 W. Main St.. Disabled parking is at Windermere Real Estate, 800 W. Main St.

Watch a live stream of the Vaux’s swifts at Wagner’s chimney at vaux-swift-inside.click2stream.com. Turn up your volume.

More information at www.pilchuckaudubon.org and www.vauxhappening.org.

Vaux’s facts

Some cool facts about Vaux’s swifts:

• Vaux’s swifts are named for William S. Vaux, who was a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences. The name is English, not French, and so the X is sounded.

• North America has four species of swifts: chimney, black, white-throated and Vaux’s. Vaux’s swift is the smallest.

• Vaux’s swifts are, indeed, swift. They are among the fastest of all flying birds. A chimney swift was clocked at 69 mph.

• They spend most of their time flying because they can’t stand or perch. They feed, mate and go about nesting all in flight.

• A single swift may consume as many as 20,000 insects in a single day.

• Vaux’s swifts roost communally, by the hundreds and sometimes the thousands, likely to conserve body heat.

• The birds descend into their roost tree or chimney essentially at once, spiraling down in a very dramatic rush at nightfall.

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