Photos by Chris Hendrickson
A big crowd came out to watch the Vaux's swifts on Saturday, Sept. 10.
Photos by Chris Hendrickson A big crowd came out to watch the Vaux's swifts on Saturday, Sept. 10.
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They came from as far as Federal Way to watch Monroe's official city bird, the Vaux's swift, gather above the Wagner chimney in large numbers to do their September evening waltz.

The 2016 Swift Night Out event took place Saturday, Sept. 10, in front of the Wagner Performing Arts Center in Monroe. Hundreds of guests gathered from cities all over the region. Sponsored by the Pilchuck Audubon Society, the event was supported by Monroe Public Schools, the city of Monroe, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), swift advocacy group Vaux's Happening, Monroe Swift Watch, Windermere and the Monroe YMCA.

The family-friendly celebration included informative displays, a spaghetti dinner prepared by Wild Birds Unlimited owner Leann Jacobson and a lecture by expert swift researcher Larry Schwitters.

Around 1,100 swifts dazzled attendees with their customary dance above the chimney, before tucking themselves in for the night, bird by bird.

"They put on a good show tonight,GÇ¥ Schwitters said. "They made the people happy.GÇ¥

For those who have witnessed the phenomenon, there is something magical in the way the birds heed the silent call that compels them to interrupt their graceful journey across the skies and tuck themselves in for the night.

As the last few birds began to circle the chimney, attendees cheered as each flew down to join its comrades inside. Soon only one remained, making a few final circles before disappearing along with the rest.

Vaux's swifts are the smallest of the swifts, a species of bird that travels in large clusters. Swifts spend the majority of their time flying through the air, where they eat, drink and socialize. The petite 4- to 5- inch birds look similar to swallows, but are most closely related to hummingbirds. They have a unique wing formation and their foot structure is such that they are unable to perch like many birds.

Swifts are among the fastest of all birds, flying an average of 50 miles a day and eating up to 20,000 bugs during that time. They travel through Monroe every year during their spring and fall migration, which takes them from Canada to Mexico, Central America and Venezuela and back again.





 

Because of their inability to perch, they rely on trees or old brick chimneys to get some rest. The old Wagner Elementary School chimney has served that purpose for many years, its rough brick surface and obstruction-free approach appealing to the birds. The birds have plenty of room to soar through the air as they prepare to roost for the night.

But in 2008, the chimney became slated for removal due to safety concerns.

In an effort led by the Pilchuck Audubon Society, swift enthusiasts worked together to find a solution, recruiting Schwitters to help. He founded Vaux's Happening, to study the chimney and find out if the birds were actually using it, and if so, how many.

Edmonds resident Susie Schaefer heads up the Pilchuck Audubon Society's Monroe Vaux's Swifts committee. When they began to understand what the seismic upgrades on the chimney would cost, Schaefer approached then-legislator Hans Dunshee, who now serves on the Snohomish County Council. Dunshee joined forces with 39th District Sen. Kirk Pearson, the two working together to secure funding to pay for earthquake retrofitting.-á -á

As a result of their efforts, the state awarded a $100,000 grant in 2009, which was used to complete the upgrades in 2010. A separate $15,000 grant from TogetherGreen was used to help launch the Monroe Save Our Swifts campaign, including developing a curriculum for students and increasing community engagement. A portion of that funding paid for live webcam equipment, so researchers and swift enthusiasts could observe the birds as they cozied up together inside the chimney.

Schwitters features a link on the Vaux's Happening website for people to view the live feed.

On Friday, Sept. 2, there was a fierce downpour in Monroe during the early part of the day. A glimpse at the live swift cam showed the chimney tightly packed with swifts as they huddled together to wait out the storm. Schwitters said there are several reasons why the petite birds don't like the rain.

"The reason they want to be outside is to catch bugs, and if it's raining, the rain knocks the bugs out of the sky, so there's nothing to eat,GÇ¥ Schwitters said.

There's also the obvious reason: swifts don't like to get wet.

"They're not good at keeping insulated ' they can't fluff up their feathers very good ' so if they go out in the rain, they get wet and they lose their body heat,GÇ¥ Schwitters said. "So rain will bring them in and they'll stay in, rather than come out and get wet.GÇ¥

It has been speculated that once they're in the chimney, they go into a sort of short-term hibernation, but Schwitters said that's not the case. They may not exactly be sleeping, he said, but maybe something similar to sleep. Peeking at footage from the live swift cam has helped him determine that sometimes they do appear to be snoozing.-á

"If you can get some good footage of them, you'll see some of them have their eyes shut,GÇ¥ Schwitters said.

After the rain squall passed on the Friday before Labor Day, the chimney was empty until dusk, which is when the birds decide it's time to roost. The following day, Saturday, Sept. 4, one volunteer swift counter tallied roughly 12,000 birds as they dropped down inside the chimney for the night. The birds will likely be visiting Monroe for a couple more weeks, before moving on in their journey.

For more information about Vaux's swifts, or to see the live swift cam, visit www.vauxhappening.org. For more information about Swift Night Out, visit monroeswifts.org.