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The Swift Night Out

The volunteers arrive an hour and a half before dusk. Already the late summer sky has begun to darken; crimson and peach hues cross the western sky. The smell of the cooling grass fills the air.

Onlookers sit in camp chairs on the lawn of the old Frank Wagner Elementary School. The single-story, 1930s school building is made of bricks. On the western end of the school a 25-foot chimney reaches into the late summer night.

Then the first speck starts swirling in the dusky sky. It’s a small aerial dot, swooping and looping. Soon, it’s followed by another speck, and another, until a swarm has formed -- a billowing cloud of winged and spiraling flight.

The annual count has begun. The volunteers have been trained to count the Swifts in groups of ten or fifty as they descend into the chimney. Remotely, conservationists peer inside the darkened chimney via webcam.

The fluttering spiral whirls overhead and surges, regroups. Finally, it is sucked wholly into the chimney like water going down a drain, like a dark tornado. A final straggling bird loops the chimney and enters. It is now night.

The Vaux’s Swifts have come to roost in Monroe. They’ll spend the night at 115 Dickinson Avenue before continuing onward along their remarkable journey.


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Let’s talk about how remarkable the Vaux’s Swifts are.

The first thing you should know is that “Vaux’s” rhymes with “foxes.” They’re known in ornithology circles as Chaetura vauxi.

This hearty avian is a mere 4.3-inches long and sports an 11-inch wingspan. Yet every year these birds will travel from their winter habitat in Guatemala, over 4,000 miles to the Yukon where they will roost and raise their young. The chimney of the Frank Wagner Elementary School in Monroe, Washington is but one waypoint in this epic aerial journey.

How do they navigate during this remarkable transcontinental voyage?

Scientists speculate that migratory birds use a variety of subtle sensory techniques to navigate during their migrations, including visual cues, magnetic cues, and celestial cues.

Swifts use landmarks such as mountains, rivers, and coastlines to help them navigate. They also use the position of the sun and stars to help them determine direction. They may have tiny particles of magnetite in their beaks, which help them detect the Earth's magnetic field. By sensing the strength and direction of the magnetic field, many birds can determine their global position.

In addition, Swifts are thought to use their sense of smell to navigate, and may also use infrasound, which is sound with a frequency too low for humans to hear.

All along their journey, these winged insectivores consume a hearty amount of insects in mid-flight. And they’re almost always in flight; they rarely land except to roost at night. Remarkably, they don’t land on their feet like most birds. Instead they use their feet to grasp onto vertical surfaces, propping themselves upright to sleep with their forked tails acting like a kickstand.

Historically, they have roosted in the tens of thousands, piling in two or three deep to regulate the temperature of their tiny bodies. Their favorite spots are hollowed out tree-trunks. They fill the cavity of the tree and even spill out and down the trunk, looking more like a large fluttering, writhing, single organism than a collection of birds.

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I grew up in Monroe. My brother went to Frank Wagner Elementary, and I also served a brief stint there for daily music classes. I know this building.

Years later, I lived a mere block from the elementary school. I occupied a tiny room, in a tiny apartment, above a tiny house. I was something of an amateur ornithologist, though my mania wasn’t for the Swifts. I was a red-winged blackbird man myself, drawn to the riverside marshes where they perched on the tall grasses of oxbow lakes in the Tualco Valley.

My first appreciation for the birds, then, was as a romantic. I remember the first time I saw the Swifts at sunset. I was walking to an entry level job at a pizzeria for the evening shift. I saw the Vaux’s Swifts then and knew. I got the experience on a gut level.

It was one of those moments where whatever fleeting, trivial thought you’re puzzling over simply evaporates in an instant and your whole attention is drawn into the sensory present. Here was a swarm of birds dancing. They dropped into the chimney tail-first. That didn’t seem right. Rather, it seemed exactly right. One of those abnormalities in nature that lets you know that the world is quirky, and playful, and so, an okay place to find yourself.

“Joy” is maybe the best word I can come up with for the feeling I felt then. Though I was going to spend the night scrubbing a greasy griddle and washing dishes, my heart sang skyward for a moment. There’s no other way to describe it. Emily Dickinson, of course, said it even better than I could:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all …

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A coalition of bird enthusiasts, educators, and City of Monroe leaders established the first Swift Night Out in 2008. The annual event is now commemorated and celebrated as an official civic affair in partnership with the Pilchuck Audubon Society.

This family-friendly event continues to this day, complete with vendors, camp chairs, picnic blankets, informational tables, kids’ entertainment, and a Vaux’s Swift lecture in the Frank Wagner Auditorium, courtesy of ornithologist Larry Schwitters.

So iconic is the Vaux’s Swift that the City of Monroe adopted the species as its official city bird. There’s now a sculpture of Swifts created by artist Kevin Edwin Pattelle on the corner of Lewis Street and Main Street, downtown Monroe.

The Pilchuck Audubon Society has been the secret sauce of the Swift Night Out. They lead the semiannual volunteer count of Swifts to monitor the species’ migratory habits.

Brian Zinke, the Executive Director of the Pilchuck Audubon Society, speaks frankly about the opportunities for would-be bird conservationists who would like to dip their talons into the world of ornithology.

“If you want to know more about birds, be a good observer. A lot of biology and science is just watching for patterns and noticing weird things. It’s curiosity and wonder. Ask yourself, why is this happening?”

Brian notes that the bird count for the Swift Night Out has been entirely run by volunteers for almost fifteen years. This effort has provided scientists and conservationists with incredibly accurate data sets to track the ebb and flow of the birds’ migration.

And, regrettably, bird migration numbers have been down in recent years. Scientists are unsure why exactly this is happening. According to Brian, there’s still a lot of missing information about Vaux’s Swifts. Likely the decline in numbers is due to deforestation (Swift homes), and the increase in agricultural pesticides (Swift food). These birds also struggle to find traditional roosting sites like tree trunks. Hence the attraction to chimneys.

This warrants advocacy. The Audubon Society’s Vaux Happening project is coordinating efforts with other conservation groups all along the West Coast to preserve traditional Swift roosting sites. They also raised $100,000 to renovate the Frank Wagner chimney, making it seismically stable.

What will be the fate of these remarkable transcontinental birds, the Vaux’s Swifts? It remains to be seen.

But we can all show up on a late summer night in Monroe to watch the coalescing of so much life lived on the wing. It’s a place where flocks of birds and humans come together to create a sense of wonder in the twilight.

Experience the Swift Night Out 

Saturday, August 19  

4 p.m. until dusk

115 Dickinson Ave, Monroe, WA 98272 

Article photos: top two images are Shutterstock images, licensed to the City of Monroe. Third image is from Brian Zinke. Final image is from Joachim Bertrands.


Make a weekend of it in Monroe.

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Don't forget to grab something tasty in town!


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