- Associated Press - Friday, September 11, 2015

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - A black cloud descended on Pendleton last September and local birders hope it returns.

The cloud was actually a huge flock of Vaux’s swifts - tiny, cigar-shaped birds with short tails and a rapid wingbeat. For the first time, more than 500 swifts found shelter inside a chimney at the Pendleton City Hall (above the Vert Auditorium) during Round-Up week last summer on their way south.

This week, local birders started a swift watch, staking out City Hall each night starting a half hour before sunset. On Sunday, Jack Simons and Jean Reiher counted 45 swifts, but none that disappeared into the Vert chimney.

On Tuesday, Pendleton Bird Club members Simons, Aaron Skirvin and Diana LaSarge stood in the Baxter Auto Parts parking lot near City Hall. The trio of birders lifted their binoculars and peered intently at several tiny dots in the sky somewhere over the river. Only a few, though, not the same swirling horde as last year. Twenty minutes later, Skirvin and LaSarge detected another dozen from the Pendleton River Walk, flitting over the Elks Lodge. The birders hope hundreds more will arrive in the next several week.

Last year, the pair first spotted the cloud of swifts on Sept. 12 as they walked back to their car from the carnival on Main Street. Skirvin called Simons, who headed to City Hall with his camera.

“Aaron call me and said to check out the Vert chimney,” Simons said. “It was a home run. It was a tornado of swifts going into the chimney. They were a horde, twisting and diving in.”

“They look like little jet airplanes,” LaSarge said.

Simons set up his tripod and took photos. He printed one out the next day and counted each black dot in the sky for a total of 508 birds. A couple of nights later, Skirvin counted by tens as he stared at the swirling mass above the chimney and got 520.

The swifts prefer to roost in hollowed-out trees found in stands of old growth timber, but much of that habitat is dwindling, a loss of critical shelter. Unlike most birds, Vaux’s swifts can’t fluff their feathers for warmth or wrap their toes around branches and wires to perch. Instead they cling to the mortar in brick chimneys and snuggle together for warmth.

“They’ve adapted pretty well,” Simons said. “All up and down the west coast, they find these big industrial chimneys.”

During the four nights the swifts bunked down in the Pendleton chimney last September, tourists took notice as they walked by. When observers misidentified the creatures as bats, the birders cheerfully set them straight.

One night, Simons watched with trepidation as a helicopter giving sightseeing rides headed toward the chimney.

“The swifts saw the helicopter and dropped from the sky, 500 black ribbons falling as fast as you can imagine,” he said.

The birds turned toward the river, but within minutes, they were back.

If the swifts show up en masse again, the birders say, it could mean a new pattern has been established. As the birds migrate to Central America and Venezuela and back, they often return to the same roosting spots.

The tiny aerialists have a regular route that includes stopovers at La Grande and the University of Oregon campus. Thousands of swifts have roosted at Chapman School in Portland since the 1980s. Human observers come with lawn chairs, blankets and cameras to watch.

Simons hopes the swifts will bless Pendleton, too, and is encouraged by the early birds that are likely choosing smaller roosting spots in homes, trees or commercial buildings.

“As the flocks grow in size, they need larger roosting sites and eventually will end up at the Vert chimney, which can accommodate hundreds of birds,” he said. Vaux’s swifts are very gregarious during migration and prefer to roost together.”

The birders will count the swifts nightly through Round-Up.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide