Thursday, September 20, 2007

One Thing I Love About Portland

There are, of course, many, many things I love about my city. It's beautiful and green and full of bike lanes and good coffee, beer, music, art, parks, libraries --I could go on and on. There are good reasons why people have relocated to Portland in droves.

But imagine this, if you will: twilight on a steep slope, tucked up against Portland's West Hills. Hundreds of people, young and old, families, couples, and babies with strollers, bikes, and dogs, all spread out on the grass. Many are having al fresco dinners ranging from gourmet feasts to cheap pizza. Everyone is chatting and laughing, kids are running around and rolling down an empty part of the slope. People squeeze in politely to place a blanket down and claim their tiny space before the show gets started. The sun sinks lower in the west and suddenly there's a buzz in the air as people start to exclaim "here they come!".
In parts of Portland on a late summer evening, you'd be expecting similar crowds for Shakespeare or the symphony, or perhaps some other type of live music. This is a show all right, but it's all about birds.

Tiny Vaux's Swifts roost by the thousands in a tall brick chimney which was formerly part of the heating system at Chapman Elementary School. During the month of September, the swifts arrive as part of their annual migration. The birds used to use cavities in old growth trees but apparently an old brick chimney is a workable modern day substitute because an astounding number of birds show up, year after year.

They begin coming in from all directions as the sun sets. The numbers aren't impressive initially and first-time visitors tend to wonder what all the fuss is about (and might be more firmly convinced that Portlanders are nuts). Before too long, however, the numbers increase dramatically and thousands of birds start to swirl around the chimney. Often a hungry raptor will show up for an easy meal but they must have been well fed this year because we saw no sign of any hawks. Sometimes the tiny swifts do manage to chase them off but last night it wasn't necessary.
Everyone's eyes are focused on the swirl of birds above the chimney when they all seem to receive some sort of signal and in they go, just like that. They just keep pouring in, hundreds at a time. Occasionally a few will pop back out, perhaps unable to find a space to settle on the first attempt. Before a few minutes have passed the sky will once again be clear as every one of the thousands of birds has tucked in together for the night, to keep warm and conserve strength for the long flight south.
As the last birds drop into the chimney, the humans watching the show began to clap and cheer. It's growing dark and already chilly, clearly not summer anymore but what a way to spend one of the year's last fine evenings.


RedMolly said...

Absolutely spectacular.

When did you go? We're hoping the swifts will still be swifting tomorrow night--between travel and prior commitments, there's not yet been a good time for us to make it out there.

Ali said...

I was going to write about the swifts in my blog but you did such a nice job (and with such gorgeous pictures) I feel like I should just link to your post and forget doing mine.

My first time ever to visit you on the internet, by the way. Hi!

shula said...

I have to admit,

that is seriously impressive.