Suite: A Swift Journey

At dusk, in September, something spectacular happens in Portland. For the last 30-plus years, anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of Vaux’s swifts, the smallest swifts in the Chaetura family, come to roost inside the chimney of Chapman Elementary School as they head to Central America and Venezuela for the winter. The chittering birds fly in expansive, cyclonic patterns as a flock before dramatically hurtling into the chimney crown as if sucked in by a vacuum.

A black and white image of Chapman Elementary School's brochure for the migrating event.

Thousands of spectators gather nightly at Chapman Elementary to observe the swift phenomenon.

The Northwest Portland school is a seasonal home to one of the largest known roost of Vaux’s swifts in the world. To protect the birds, the school adopted an alternative heating system independent of the chimney more than 15 years ago. Today, the chimney is maintained solely as a wintering roost for Vaux’s swifts.

For the Portland Audubon Society, the annual roosting provides an opportunity to educate the public about conservation efforts. Though the swifts’ count may reach as high as 12,000 during peak roosting season, the bird faces population decline. “These chimneys
are acting as a surrogate for these old-growth, nest-cavity trees,” said Joe Liebezeit, avian conservation program manager with the Audubon Society of Portland. “It opens a new door for discussion about logging.”

A close up of the chimney at Chapman Elementary School where the Vaux's Swift roost in before migrating for the winter.

A full shot of the chimney at Chapman Elementary School where the Vaux's Swift roost in before migrating for the winter.

The event draws thousands of spectators each night, who come to watch the acrobatics and listen to the birds’ fluttering wings and cheeps from the nearby school lawn. Most evenings, Portland Audubon Society volunteers are onsite to answer questions and share information.

“It’s one of the great ways for people in an urban area to connect with a wildlife spectacle,” Liebezeit said.

A young boy with binoculars getting ready for the migrating event.

The chimney at Chapman Elementary school that draws the swifts and their audience serves as a surrogate for the old-growth trees in which the birds naturally roost.

An elder gentleman looking at his phone as he tries to capture an image of the birds migrating.

Chapman Elementary School is located at 1445 N.W. 26th Ave. Free parking is available at Montgomery Park and SELCO Community Credit Union. Arrive around 6 p.m. for the best seats and expect to stay for a couple hours, as the roosting doesn’t occur until 10 to 30 minutes after sunset. Bring a lawn chair or blanket to sit on while waiting.

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