<
2
3
4
>

It was the first year Swift Night Out saw bad weather, said docent Susie Schaefer. A gray gloom settled over the Sky Valley on Saturday, and a subtle chill was in the air; light rain fell occasionally.

Chairs lined the lawn, and binoculars had been scanning the empty sky above the Frank Wagner Elementary School chimney for hours since the event began at 4 p.m. Around 6 p.m. rumors began to circulate that the birds had arrived.

Within 30 minutes of the whispers swarms of Vaux’s Swifts had formed into whirling funnels. They flitted and circled around the 31-inch-wide entrance of the Frank Wagner Elementary School chimney until disappearing inside in clusters.

Vaux’s Happening project coordinator and researcher Larry Schwitters postponed his lecture that was set for 6:30 p.m. in the Frank Wagner Performing Arts Center. Volunteers left their tents and turned their eyes upward.

“Look, they are going in,” could be heard from the anxious crowd. Swift headbands bobbed among the sea of attendees.

Monroe’s official bird put on a spectacular display once again on Saturday. It is the ninth year the city has gathered to celebrate one of the species’ most significant roosting and nesting sites on the their yearly southern migration.

Schaefer said she has been involved since the beginning — actually before then. She was in the original coalition of regional Audubon societies that collaborated to start up the Save Our Swifts campaign. She and her peers took the first official counts that proved exactly how important the chimney was.

About 26,000 swifts were recorded roosting in one night at the migratory pit stop. That is the highest reported count at any of the monitored stops in Washington, Oregon, California or Mexico City.

The Monroe School District was concerned about the aging structure at the time, however, and was contemplating tearing it down. Schaefer said she knew it was going to take the support of the people to preserve the post.

“My goal that first year was that I wanted everyone in Monroe to love the swifts — to know and love the swifts,” Schaefer said.

Together with a citizens group led by Eileen Hambelton and with support from MSD administrators, the Seattle, Eastside and Pilchuck Audubons secured enough grant money to earthquake-proof the chimney.

Schaefer said she has loved to watch all the ways the Monroe community has embraced the bird since those first crucial counts and campaigning.

The Vaux’s Swift is closely related to the North American Chimney Swift, of which there are about eight million in existence. Their population is concentrated in the East Coast.

Before they used chimney’s the swifts would roost on snags, which are standing dead or dying trees, Schaefer said. The local Audubon hasn’t been able to find many swift experts over the years. They have connected with one woman along the West Coast who was the one who figured out where they nested prior to using manmade structures, she said.

Vaux’s Swifts come up the West Coast. They raise their young in the summer as far north as the Yukon and head back down to southern Mexico and Costa Rica in the fall.

A camera installed in the Frank Wagner chimney has captured video of their habits. There is only room for about 12,000 of them to cling to the rough surface. They must hang on each other when they are packed in; they don’t squirm, they don’t fight.

Vaux’s Swifts don’t seem to be good at fluffing up to keep warm, which is the tactic used by other varieties. Instead, they share each other’s body heat and choose to rest in locations that have been heated by the sun all day.

The birds fly hundreds of miles in a day, said docent James Easterson. They stay out as long as possible to eat insects, Schaefer said. Once they are inside the chimney they must quickly flip around to be able to cling and hang from the mortar joints between the red bricks, she said.

Sultan artist Kevin Pettelle said he didn’t realize how interesting the small birds were until he started doing research for the “Wagner Swifts” sculpture the city commissioned him to create in 2016. The stainless steel replicas are set up in Monroe’s historic corridor at the corner of Main and Lewis streets.

Pettelle knew even before it was installed he would need to add more models to the design. He and Downtown Monroe Association executive director Joie Worthen were at Saturday’s event to roll out a new fundraising campaign to add more swifts to the sculpture, and to set up about two dozen others around downtown.

Each one of the steel swifts will cost $95, Worthen said. The ones that go on the sculpture will be engraved with the buyer’s name, and the ones to go around Monroe will have the name of a local historical figure. The public will be encouraged to find out where each one of the birds end up as a fun way to learn about the history of the area.

“They will get to be a part of the art,” Worthen said.

People can also purchase blank birds to take home for $50 each, she said. The steel swifts will be available for purchase through the DMA until they run out.

The 2017 Swift Night Out was the first time Wendi Hillard made it to the show. Friends told her about the local spectacle. She said she loved the educational displays set up by the various partnering groups.

That evening videos played in the Frank Wagner Performing Arts Center, offered to the Audubon societies by the Monroe Arts Council, which came to the call this year. A spaghetti feed fundraiser was held at $6.50 a plate, and Schwitters gave one of his coveted talks once all the birds had either called it a night or flown the coop.

Hillard said she was amazed the tiny birds could fly around all day long and never land. Putting her hand to her chest, she said she was concerned for their “poor little hearts.”