Doesn't look like it's going to be a great night," Larry Schwitters says, sitting in his car outside the Old Selleck Schoolhouse, about 40 miles southeast of Seattle. It's nearly sunset, the sky is cloudless and warm. "It's too nice for swifts," he grouses. "If there were going to be a lot of them, they'd be here by now."
Schwitters, lean and craggy, coordinates "Vaux's Happening," a research and monitoring project devoted to Vaux's swifts. These particular swifts –– one of seven subspecies found from southern Alaska and Canada down to Venezuela, and the only one that migrates to the U.S. –– are roughly the size, shape and color of cigars smoked one-quarter of the way down. Their bodies seem to exist only so their wings have something to attach to: They eat on the wing, even copulate in mid-air. Unlike perching birds, whose feet let them grip or walk, swifts lack a hind toe, and so can just cling. The only time they touch anything solid is to roost, nest, or get out of the rain.
In the past, Vaux's swifts clung primarily to the insides of large, hollow snags, wedging together for warmth. (On balmy nights like tonight, they might roost alone, or in low numbers -- hence Schwitters' pessimism about seeing more than the few we have.) Partly because of deforestation, suitable snags along the migratory routes have become harder to find, and so the birds have started to occupy old brick chimneys, which have rough, clingable surfaces, rather like snags. Swifts return to some year after year. But the chimneys are something of an endangered species in their own right. Many on the West Coast have been torn down; people fear they will collapse during an earthquake.
What will become of the swifts as they lose their roosting sites? The overall population –– estimated at well over 1 million –– is thought stable, but Schwitters has his doubts. Little is known about even the most basic habits of Vaux's swifts, to say nothing of how many there actually are. And so, almost every night for the past five years, during the spring and fall migrations, Schwitters has kept vigil at Selleck or elsewhere, counting swifts as they fly in to roost. Sometimes, they gather by the tens of thousands. Sometimes, like tonight, apparently they don't.
Schwitters first encountered swifts in 2003, when the American Bird Conservancy asked for volunteers to visit Pacific Northwest waterfalls and look for nesting black swifts, a relative of the Vaux's. He went to four waterfalls in Washington, and was skunked at all but one. Two years later, he was asked to check 20 more. He surveyed those, and -- why not? -- kept looking. "I tracked down every waterfall in Washington that made sense for black swifts," he says -- around 120, he figures.
After the project ended, Schwitters was still interested in swifts but no longer keen to hike to remote falls and retrace his steps by flashlight. ("I felt like cougar bait.") Then, in 2007, he got a call from Seattle Audubon about the Frank Wagner Elementary School in Monroe, Wash. The school's brick chimney -- a relic of heating systems past -- was the second-largest known roost site on the West Coast, a stopover for thousands of Vaux's swifts during their migration between the Northwest and Central America. But it was slated for demolition, believed unstable. Would Schwitters help save it?
He would: Schwitters helped organize events to educate people about a phenomenon taking place right over their heads each night, and local Audubon chapters secured $100,000 from the state to stabilize the chimney with angle iron. That chimney spared, Schwitters began looking for other major roosting sites in Washington and found several previously unidentified, including the Selleck chimney.
Now, during winter Schwitters combs the Internet for possible swift haunts. All the big roosts in Washington and Oregon are probably known, but California is largely a mystery. He googles "California" and "brick" or "chimney," then uses Google Earth to scout remotely. He's flown to California four times on his own dime to search on the ground. His methods are basic: "I go up to a high elevation, and I look around." When he finds a likely chimney, he asks people living nearby to keep an eye out for masses of small birds. Major roosting sites have turned up in Los Angeles and San Diego, but few of the chimneys are protected. Some were capped or torn down shortly after being discovered. "The challenge," Schwitters says, "is always going to be keeping the chimneys up."
At Selleck, swifts have arrived by the dozens, but the effect is diffuse. Schwitters, relaxed, keeps a loose count. "The swifts' closest relative is the hummingbird," he remarks. "They flap from the wrist rather than the elbow and -- hey!" A Cooper's hawk lands on the chimney lip to feast on the assembling bounty. Schwitters bounds out of his car, waving his arms and yelling: "Hey!" The hawk stares at him, then flies off. "If I were a real scientist, I would let Mother Nature play out," Schwitters says. "But I am an educator."
The swifts sally back and forth for another 15 minutes before entering the chimney. Schwitters ticks them off by 10s: 174 birds. "The show was OK tonight," he says, "but you should really try to see them in their full glory." I ask why. "I once read something where a fellow argued that swifts are the highest form of life, since flight is the most artful act, and swifts fly all the time," he says. "I don't really buy that." He considers a moment. "I've never seen one swift oppress another. They're gentle birds, just haunting to watch and listen to."
I wasn't expecting this -- Schwitters' style tends more towards the pithy and wry -- and so it is that I find myself driving to Monroe a couple of weeks later. The evening before, one of Schwitters' minions counted more than 8,000 swifts at the Wagner chimney. When I arrive, I see only one. But before long, that one becomes dozens, becomes hundreds, becomes thousands, chittering across the sky. Sometimes, they mass loosely around the chimney. A few feint toward the opening, but none enter, and after one or two circuits they all scatter.
Then the light drops below some mysterious threshold, and the swifts gather with a surer purpose, swirling above the chimney. The bottom of the flock extends like a funnel cloud, and the swifts pour into the opening as if from a spout. I linger in the fading light, watching frantic stragglers beeline over in pairs and trios. At last, a single bird materializes, streaks to sanctuary, and then it is too dark to see.