You have to be swift to catch sight of a swift zooming by in pursuit of a moth, mosquito, beetle, gnat or other small flying insect. And, if it happens to be a Vaux's Swift (pronounced vox, or vawx, your choice), you have to be even swifter. They're smaller than the other swifts we have zipping about Central Oregon.
If you go on a birding excursion to Fort Rock between May and July you'll see hundreds of white-throated swifts swooping around the steep walls of the old mud volcano, pursuing flying insects, many of which are mosquitoes. If you're keeping a life list of birds, a visit to the coast may have a sighting of the black swift, a rare visitor to Oregon. Like all the swifts, they too look like a flying cigar with crescent-shaped wings. While most swifts, such as the black and white-throated, have a well-defined tail, Vaux's Swift's body looks exactly like a cigar.
The neat part of all this swift business is that the residents of Bend don't have to travel anywhere to see Vaux's Swifts, throughout most of September they put on an air show everyone can enjoy right in town. Just before dark (about 7 p.m.), what looks like a wisp of smoke appears in the darkening sky heading for the little craft shop, Christmas Presence, on Harriman between Hill and Franklin. As the "smoke" gets closer, individual dots can be made out, zooming about each other, and in a few seconds you will be able to make them out, 30 to 100 Vaux's Swifts. Then, with astonishing accuracy, they all go spiraling down into the tall, brick chimney on the roof of the craft shop.
How they organize themselves inside the old brick chimney without stepping on one another is one of those mysteries of nature, but they all find a way to crowd together, clinging to the bricks and settling down for a comfortable night's sleep. That's something that amazes Auni Miller, owner and operator of Christmas Presence.
"I watch them circling around the chimney chattering with that high-pitched call, wondering who will drop into the chimney first. Then, all of a sudden, one of the circling birds will dive into the chimney, then all the others will follow, spiraling into the opening. And all the while you can hear them chattering," says Miller.
Swifts spend their entire day zig-zagging through the air, mouths wide open, scooping in insects to keep their high metabolism going full-bore as they make their way south all the way to Panama and points south, where they'll spend winter.
Chimneys are the substitute today for their ancient shelters and nesting places: huge, hollow trees of the old-growth forests. Luckily, as ancient forests vanished into sawmills to become lumber, Vaux's Swifts discovered old, unused brick chimneys for nesting and resting. Without these substitutes, they would be as extinct as the passenger pigeon.
There is a nation-wide effort to keep tabs on swift populations and Kim Boddie of East Cascades Audubon Society is the person who counts the Christmas Presence migrating population. Kim has seen (with other ECAS birders) as few as 27 and as many as 260 so far this year. If you happen to be watching the Christmas Presence group when any of the ECAS birders are there, they will be happy to answer any of your questions. (And if Tom Crabtree is one of them, he can answer all your bird questions!)
When the sun moves to that spot in the heavens that tells birds to begin nesting, Vaux's Swifts start hunting for that chimney that will become the home for their nestlings. Finding the right chimney is the beginning, but then they have to find and carry the just-right sticks and glue them to just the right place inside the chimney on just the right bricks. Nothing is left to chance; everything the female swift does has definite protocols. Even her saliva.
It is the female's glue-like saliva that holds the nest (and family) together. Without her ability to fasten her nest to the side of the sooty chimney, all would be lost. If you could see inside the chimney in the photo above, you'd notice a tiny bundle of sticks glued to the inside of the chimney in such a manner that it will support the weight of the female and her eggs. If that's successful, then - after hatching - the young, restless chicks, place more stress on the sticks with their wiggling around, fretting and impatient chittering, waiting for mom and dad to come home with the groceries. The parents regurgitate a crop-full of tasty gnats, flies, mosquitoes, beetles and other invertebrates into the nestling's gaping mouths.
And luckily for us, the swifts still use the old brick chimney in the charming little Christmas Presence craft shop for all to see and enjoy. And as of last week, they were also using the old brick chimney on the roof of the old Bend Library - Kim Boddie counted 200 of them going down for the night last Saturday evening.
With that in mind, take a few moments at the end of your busy day, park your camp chair next to the old brick chimney in your neighborhood around 7:00 p.m. and watch for swifts swiftly descending.