Thousands of swifts swarm in Monroe, Washington

Thousands of birds swarm chimney in Monroe, WA.


It's almost sunset when they start showing up. A small flock of people, here to witness a much bigger flock of birds.

Every September, in Monroe -- what may be the largest gathering of Vaux's Swifts in North America swarms into this chimney at night. They do it to keep warm.







'You look in the sky and it just starts filling with birds. At first, you're like there's no way there's gonna be that many birds, but then they just keep going and going and going," said volunteer swift counter Nick French.

The nightly mega roost attracts a small crowd. Nick French was the first to arrive this night. His job is to count -- or attempt to count -- how many birds fly in:

"Generally, you count in hundreds, some people use a clicker. Generally, I start at ones, and you work your way up, and when they just start going in it's fast and furious."

The Vaux's Swifts flock around the chimney, getting a last mosquito meal before nightfall. Then the birds begin to swirl in one direction..... and funnel into the chimney. Headfirst.

"It's mesmerizing,"said Nick, beginning his count.

Watchers can see the inside of the chimney too: A camera streams live as thousands of birds layer themselves inside like shingles. Vaux's Swifts can't perch because of the way their feet are shaped, and when they can't find a hollow tree to roost in, an old brick chimney will do. This one, atop a Monroe elementary school, was almost torn down for earthquake safety, until local Audubon Societies successfully rallied to save it.

Susie Schaefer of Pilchuck Audubon Society jokes: "At the moment I think the school could fall down and the chimney would never fall down, because it's so well retrofitted."

As the birds flood in, the spectacle stops people in their tracks.

Larry Schwitters, an expert on Vaux's Swift, says the spectacle is not just a nice night out. It's a great tool for conservation.

"Here's a place in town in an urban setting where they can have an encounter with wildlife. If you get people up close and personal with wildlife they begin to care about them. And if they care about 'em, they want to keep 'em around."

Every year there's a special gathering called "Swift Night Out" to celebrate the return of these birds. Will the Monroe Swifts become as well known as San Juan Capistrano's swallows? Susie Schaefer, who helps organize the gathering, hopes so.

"That first year we decided to do all this, I made a goal that first year, I said my goal is to get everyone in Monroe to love these little birds. It's taken us awhile, and I don't know about love, but I think they do like having this in their town."

The swift show wraps up like it always does. According to Larry Schwitters, "The last swift, we believe, has to check to make sure everybody's found."

As the last Vaux's Swift descends into the shelter of the chimney, the crowd claps, and Larry declares: "Yay Birds!"

The night's count? Somewhere around six thousand. Yay birds, indeed.

(Click Swift Night Out, to watch the live stream of Vaux's Swifts in the chimney. They currently begin to flock in between 7:30 and 8:00 pm, right after sunset.)



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