Ah Portland, the longer I live here the more I fall in love with the city. I mean, there’s SO many interesting things to do! One of which is experiencing roosting swifts in Portland.
In this city, there’s no shortage of natural wonder, and I’m not just talking about the stunning greenery and lush forested landscape. No, I’m talking about an annual event that occurs at Chapman Elementary School when a flock of Vaux’s Swifts (sometimes 12,000 strong) enter the school’s chimney one by one.
In fact, this is one of the largest known swift roosts in the world, think about that. It’s incredible!
Seeing the swifts in Portland feels like a rite of passage of sorts. Read on for everything you need to know before you go!
2021 Update: This event has been cancelled due to COVID. I will provide updates when they become available.
How to see the swifts in Portland
If you’d like to witness the swifts in Portland for yourself, visit Chapman Elementary School (located in NW Portland) about an hour before sunset any day in September.
Watch with bewildered eyes as the sky turns black with swifts while they start to circle the school in the late evening hours. The school’s chimney becomes a temporary home for 12,000 – 15,000 swifts per night as they migrate south toward Central America.
The swifts circle around the chimney until one is bold enough to enter, at which point the others follow suit. What ensues is a tornado of swifts flying in by the dozens until the entire flock disappears as quickly as it arrived.
Parking options: Watching the swifts in Portland is a very popular event. Sometimes up to 3,000+ spectators pepper the lawn in a single evening (yeah, it’s that good). But as you can expect, parking is limited and hard to find. I suggest parking (for free) at Montgomery park — it’s just 6 blocks away from the school.
In short, show up an hour before sunset (with a picnic and blanket in hand) and watch the splendor unfold as the sun sets.
Oregon Chimney Swifts (Chapman Swifts)
Portland’s Chapman Elementary is considered one of the largest known swift roosting sites in the world. Even still, it is one of many integral evening reprieves that provide an important layover for Vaux’s Swifts during their fall migration.
And since Portlanders are keen to live up to their passion for nature and the environment, they quickly realized the importance of Chapman Elementary School and the critical service in provides.
So much so that when the school’s chimney was decommissioned (many years ago), the community passionately rallied together to preserve the chimney and went so far as to make it earthquake proof!
Seeing the love of this event, the Audubon Society made the swift watch at Chapman Elementary an official community event in 2009. Earning these swifts an unofficial moniker — the “Chapman Swifts.”
The Chapman swifts were first observed roosting in Portland in the late 1980s and have since returned every year without fail (even during the smoke haze in the summer of 2020). The Audubon Society counts the number of swifts entering the chimney every evening — averaging up to 12,000 per night!
Heads up: Every once in a while you may catch a Cooper’s Hawk perched atop the chimney, patiently awaiting dinner. The circle of life, my friends.
Vaux Swifts Migration
The gray-coated Vaux’s swifts clocks in at a mere 5-inches long and has a short stiff beak. The body shape is often compared to the shape of a cigar and when witnessed in flocks, they look like winged cylinders.
In the spring and summer months the swifts life in the Pacific Northwest, but then come August, they must make their journey south. They mate in early spring, lay eggs in July and fly out in August.
The layover at Chapman is but one stop on their yearly migration to Central America and South America. The biggest difference between swifts and other migrating birds is their sleeping habits. They fly in flocks, thousands at a time, and take flight during the daytime. Come the night, they must find places to roost.
Because of the sheer size of the flock (sometimes 15,000 strong), the Vaux’s swifts cannot rely on nests. No, they need to find enclosed areas that provide shelter and can accommodate the entire flock — preferably cavities of old-growth trees.
But since many forests have been logged, this option has since diminished. So now the swifts in Portland have learned to roost in the large man-made structure that is the Chapman Chimney.
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I hope you found this quick guide helpful. Enjoy the swifts in Portland!
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Until next time,