Great blue herons, bald eagles and peregrine falcons are just few of the Rose City avian residents routinely spotted by visitors. But to really “put a bird” on a Portland memory, mark the calendar for September — the time of year when thousands of Vaux’s swifts drift through the city on their annual migration from Canada to Central and South America. The tiny birds spend their days hunting for insects and their evenings roosting, bat-like, in trees and chimneys.
The most popular perch is the towering smokestack of Chapman Elementary School in Northwest Portland, which attracts as many as 16,000 swifts looking for a place to hunker down for the evening. (The gathering is thought to be the largest group of migrating Vaux’s swifts on the planet.) It’s plenty popular with spectators too: Each night at sunset, hundreds of onlookers flock to a nearby grassy bank and watch in awe as a shadowy cloud of birds swirls acrobatically for up to an hour before darting inside the craggy chimney for the night. (Onlookers also keep an eye out for hawks, raptors and other birds of prey, which sometimes add a dose of drama to the nightly ritual.)
Chapman Elementary School students have embraced the annual event, even electing to make the swift their official mascot. Volunteers from the Audubon Society of Portland are also on hand most nights to help educate the curious public.
Ready to join the swift watch? A quick Portland Streetcar ride from downtown takes visitors within a few blocks of the elementary school. If you do choose to visit, please be a good neighbor to Chapman-area residents by following the spectator tips provided by the Portland Audubon Society. Among them: Respect private property, use public transportation, and do not smoke, drink, litter or loiter on school property.
To catch all the avian action, plan to arrive at least half an hour before sunset — that’s about 8 p.m. near the start of September, and 7 p.m. by the month’s end. Bring your binoculars, snacks, jackets and something comfy to sit on, and settle in for one of the city’s best free spectator events.