Thousands of small black birds swirled around a tall chimney at twilight Wednesday, delighting a group of enthralled observers who turned out to watch the spectacle.
“Wow, look at that,” Lupe Preciado-McAlister, 58, of Roseburg said as she craned her neck skyward to see the swarm of Vaux’s swifts prepare to spend the night in the concrete Clay Place chimney behind the Umpqua Valley Arts Center in Roseburg. “That’s pretty cool.”
Preciado-McAlister was among those who showed up to Swift Watch hosted by Umpqua Valley Audubon Society to raise awareness about the birds’ migration through Roseburg on their way between Canada and Central America. The Audubon Society will host another Swift Watch from 6:30 p.m. until dusk Sunday at the edge of Fir Grove Park and on Wednesday and Sunday evenings until the end of the month, the group’s president, Diana Wales, said.
“We have such a lovely setting here and there were so many people who had no idea this happens, so we decided to draw a little attention to it,” she said. “It’s pretty spectacular in terms of the numbers and the aerial display. You don’t have to have binoculars, you don’t have to know bird species and it’s predictable.”
This is the second year the Audubon Society has hosted the Swift Watches and the first the group has teamed up with the Umpqua Valley Arts Association to offer arts activities for kids, Wales said.
Denise Dammann of Roseburg held small clay swifts made by her daughters Katie, 6, and Hannah, 4. Dammann, who was joined by her husband, Dan, said it was the first time the family had come to observe the swifts.
“It sounded like a neat opportunity. Pretty fascinating that they come out here every year,” she said. “It’s such a neat hidden treasure too.”
Preciado-McAlister, who retired to Roseburg about year ago from Southern California, was also watching the birds for the first time. It was fascinating to learn about Vaux’s swifts, she said, including the fact that the birds can eat 20,000 insects a day.
“That’s one big benefit of those birds,” Preciado-McAlister said.
Wales said swifts also nest in hollowed-out trees, but have developed a taste for roosting in chimneys. Since chimneys absorb heat from the sun during the day, the structures keep swifts warm and safe at night, she said. The large Clay Place chimney can hold several thousand birds, Wales said. She counted more than 2,000 staying in the chimney Wednesday.
Vaux’s swifts migrate through Roseburg on their way to Central America from mid-August through September, Wales said.
“As long as there’s bugs to eat, they’ll hang out and eat bugs,” she said.
The birds are about 5 or 6 inches long and have a foot-long wingspan, Wales said. They spend much of the time in the air — foraging, courting, mating and collecting nesting materials in flight.
Bonnie Barnhart of Milo said she’s observed the swifts’ arrival in Roseburg with her husband, Merrill, for 15 years. The couple came with Bonnie Barnhart’s mother, Mavis Jones, 90, of Milo and her longtime friend Rosie MacPhee, 89, of Canyonville.
“They’re like little helicopters,” Barnhart said as she watched the swifts.
MacPhee was captivated by the sight of the birds preparing to roost in the chimney.
“Isn’t that something? How do they know to do that every night?” she asked.
Suzy Liebenberg, 59, of Roseburg and friend Donna Fouts, 50, of Umpqua said watching the swifts brought up many questions about their behavior.
“I wonder if the first ones in go to the bottom,” Fouts said.
Liebenberg wondered how a couple of thousand birds managed to fit in the chimney.
“Just wonderful free entertainment,” she said.
Merrill Barnhart said the show the swifts put on doesn’t get old.
“It’s just so fascinating and unusual,” he said.
• You can reach reporter Inka Bajandas at 541-957-4202 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org