Northwest Portland, Oregon is known as a haven of art, of cool little boutique shops, of fine restaurants and just a generally cool vibe. In this urban setting, nestled amongst handsome conifers, brilliant roses and lush green lawns, a spectacular nature show (fine enough to make National Geographic jealous) takes place here every September, just overhead, at Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland, Oregon.
The Vaux Swifts are small, migratory birds whom, on their trip south for the winter, seek haven in a chimney residing at the school. For years, my friends have been trying to get me to come and watch the swifts, but, it never sounded exciting. I mean, birds? Migrating? In a chimney. Sounds like a snooze fest to me.
But, I’ve been wrong before and, I’m okay admitting that I was wrong again.
As we drove through downtown—my wife and I and some friends—and into Northwest, Portland, the sites and sounds of the greatest city in America filled me with excitement. When we arrived at the park next to the middle school, I was fascinated. There was a grassy hill, filled with people. It looked as though many of them had been there for hours. Picknicking, visiting, chillin’, frisbeeing, hanging. This was late Summer in the Pacific Northwest at it’s finest and they were all here to watch… birds. I was still a little skeptical that a group of birds could be worth all the effort; still, several hundred fellow Portlanders can’t be wrong. There must be something to this.
“Last year during the migration, a bird of prey caught and ate one the birds. Right in front of us. It was sad… and awesome at the same time.” One of our friends told me as we found our spot on top of the hill. My wife covered the little ones’ ears. She always cries when the gators get the antelope’s on TV… certainly she wouldn’t like bird carnage.
On my end, though, the possibility of carnage provided a bit of intrigue, I must say.
And then, as the sun began it’s decent, it happened, slowly, overhead–like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds—five, ten, fifteen, twenty, a hundred, a thousand, too many to count, swarming and circling overhead. I had never seen so many birds! They nearly blacked out the sky! Then, seemingly without warning, they began to spiral down into the vast chimney, all of them, in some semblance of order that only they understood. It looked like smoke entering a chimney, it was like watching a science fiction film. And, as quickly as it started… it was over. We all continued to stare and watch, then the clapping began, a slow clap, scattered and then group applause. Hundreds of people clapping for nature’s spectacle.
It’s hard to completely describe what makes the swift watching so amazing. It has to be seen and experienced to be really understood. Thankfully, it happens every year, as it has since the 1980’s. It’s free entertainment and a great way to start a night out, or finish a long day at work.