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June 2013

Swift Notes

From the Amazon to the Adirondacks, chimney swifts return to area landmarks. A Saranac Laker records her local scene

Illustration by Peter Seward

Saturday, May 5, 2012: Night of the supermoon. My husband, Mark, and I are sitting at a picnic table behind St. Bernard’s elementary school. It’s 7:15 p.m. The sun is low. Chipping sparrows poke around the playground. Crows caw, a robin chir­rups. We listen for another bird.

This is downtown birding. We can see the Hotel Saranac and the high rise. The breeze bangs a metal clasp against a flagpole. Cars pass on River Street.

It’s going to be 36 degrees Farenheit tonight. Tree leaves are still coiled tightly in their buds, but trout lilies opened a week ago. Peepers are now chirping in the wet places. We are waiting for the next sign of spring in Saranac Lake.

By 7:45 I’m bored and shooting funnel ball with a soft red ball somebody left on the ground. No­body else is here. Then at 7:51 we hear it: a rapid chiti-chiti-chiti-chiti-chiti-chiti-chiti-chiti. The un­­mis­takable sound of chimney swifts. We search the sky and see three dark little crescents knifing high to the north. Then it’s quiet again.

As the town hall bell strikes eight, the chittering returns, louder. We stare until a dozen birds materialize out of the blue. They fly fast, weaving, dropping and lifting above us like a hatch of flies. More birds gather. By 8:15 the sun is down, Venus is bright, and more birds spin in the sky. At 8:20 the moon crests sherbet-orange. It’s fat and round by 8:22 and the swifts fly back and forth between it and Venus. One dives toward the school’s red-brick chimney but pulls up at the last second. Then at 8:23, faster than we can count, the swifts swirl single-file down the chimney. Within a minute it’s quiet. Our best guess is that 150 birds are sleeping there tonight.

The annual arrival of the swifts in Saranac Lake goes unheralded, though it marks completion of one of the longest migrations of flying creatures in the western hemisphere. The 49 students who file in and out of St. Bernard’s daily are mostly oblivious that they share quarters with birds from the Amazon. But at the southern end of the Adirondack Park, in Northville, the return of the swifts to the Hubbell Chimney has been a community event for 60 years.

“We probably had a hundred people here Sunday evening for our party,” Linda Mosher told me last spring. The 74-year-old organizes an annual downtown celebration around the bird. “The school band plays. And it becomes quiet around eight, as they’re waiting for the swifts to come. Kids are on their skateboards and bikes and funny little scooters. And there’s loads of dogs—people love to bring their dogs. And it’s really fun. They block off the street to traffic.”

That was last May 6. In Northville they say the birds always return on that date, swallows to Cap­istrano–like. Swifts are remarkably consistent but, like the swallows, sometimes they show up a little earlier and occasionally later, depending on the weather they meet in migration. The question is what will happen this May 6 in Northville.

Over the winter, the owner of the Hubbell Chimney tore it down. The 132-year-old structure was 50 feet tall and freestanding. It was a remnant of the Hubbell Glove Factory and therefore a remnant of the region’s particular manufacturing heritage. The chimney had become a beloved community landmark, but it was also a crumbling liability. Many townspeople are upset that the owner didn’t give the community a chance to stabilize bricks. Now they are hurrying to build a wooden dummy chimney next door. “What will happen is what happens in a lot of birds’ lives,” says Kevin Mc­Gowan, a behavioral ecologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They go back and think, If that’s still there I’m going to use it. But if it’s not there, they can’t use it so they find something else.

“I’m pretty sure they’ll come back and inspect that area, so if there’s [another suitable roost] in place it’s likely they’ll find it,” he says. “I have no idea how far they’ll disperse to do that. Originally these guys were using probably caves and a lot of dead trees. Dead trees fall down. Evolutionarily they are built to deal with that. It’s not like when the castle goes everybody dies. That isn’t going to happen. They will find something else if they can.”

A roost is not necessarily a nest. A misconception about chimney swifts is that they nest in colonies. They do roost (rest for the night) in groups, but in summer, pairs disperse to different places, and there is only a single nest per chimney. Toward the end of nesting season, in July and into August, the birds re­group—in Saranac Lake the communal spot is St. Bernard’s, and in Northville it was the Hubbell Chimney.

The chimney swift has a five-inch gray-brown torso shaped like a fat cigar. The cigar is crossed by a 12-inch sickle-shaped wingspan. It also has a little beak that belies a huge mouth; when it opens, the entire front end of the creature seems to open. Not that I’ve seen a swift up close. They spend their days high and on the wing, mouths agape like basking sharks, scooping up any insects and ballooning spiders that may be aloft: aerial plankton.

Swifts pause only to roost or to feed nestlings. Using salivary cement, they affix sconces of small twigs to the inside wall of chimneys. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior says they grab the twigs from the tops of dead trees—also while on the wing. I find that hard to believe, but McGowan says it’s likely. “Their legs are so tiny there’s not a whole lot they do that’s not flying. They copulate on the wing. Some swifts actually sleep flying—there’s finally some evidence that confirms that. They are built to be flying, not to be perched anywhere.”

The population of chimney swifts and of all aerial insectivores—swallows, nighthawks, flycatchers—is declining in North America for reasons that are not clear. When swifts relied on hollow trees there probably weren’t a lot of them, but numbers grew as settlers and cities brought chimneys. Nowadays, not many new houses have chimneys, and old stacks are often grated. This may be one factor in the bird’s decline.

Because they are so urban, fair-weather and chatty, chimney swifts are an easy bird. You can hear them during summer street scenes of The Wire. Look up and you might see one in any city east of the Rockies. Because I am at best an incidental birder, they are my kind of bird. “They’re not a difficult bird to identify,” agrees Tom Dudones, a birdwatcher who lives down the street from me. “It’s not like, ‘What was that warbler?’”

St. Bernard’s School custodian JoAnn Larabie first noticed them a few years ago. “It was on the Fourth of July,” she says. “We were going to watch the fireworks and got there early. I was sitting there and I look up and was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, look at all those bats in the chimney.’ And Father Tom was like, ‘No, those are swallows.’”

Close but no cigar, though swifts were commonly called “chimney swallows” until the last century. Ever since Larabie identified the flyers as chimney swifts, she’s been paying attention. “I see them mainly in the evening, when I’m doing the summer cleaning,” she says. “They’re a very cool bird, they have their own little routines and they have a flight pattern. It’s fun to watch them as they dive in, they go in one at a time, like little dive bombers.”

St. Bernard’s chimney channels furnace exhaust in cold weather, but the heat is mostly off when the swifts are here. Guano and noise have not been issues for the school. No harm is done either way. “They don’t seem to be hurting the chimney. They’re just there. It’s like we’re in two different environments,” Larabie says.

Tuesday, July 3, 8:45 p.m.: Father Mark Reilly, parishioner Michele Tucker and Danny Ryan are at the picnic table when we arrive. Ryan stopped by on a walk home from the store. He comes to watch the birds from time to time—“when they call me in,” he says. As a resident of nearby Helen Hill, Ryan has kept an eye on them for years. “The swifts went over to the Methodist church for a few years but then they decided to return to being Catholics.” Father Reilly sometimes sits on a lawn chair after dinner to take in the spectacle. Tonight he has a video camera on a tripod. It’s pointed at the lip of the octagonal chimney. The birds flit and chatter but stay high. A family of merlins might be responsible for keeping them at a distance. The little falcons moved into town last summer and have been seen chasing swifts at sunset.

Finally, around 9:00, the swifts start their descent. They feint and balk. It takes seven minutes from first to last to go down the chimney. “They look like reverse smoke, usually,” Father Reilly says. Later he sends me a DVD. Even on pause the birds appear only as wisps. I count 275 of them.

Sunday, August 12, 7:35 p.m.: No­body else here tonight. The watch has been slow, only two swifts two nights before. The chipping sparrows still flit around the playground. Two canoeists sing as they paddle out of town; their voices carry across Lake Flower. A dog barks. A loon flies over the school. Then I hear chiti-chiti-chiti-chiti, but it’s just a car with a loose fan belt.

A rainy spell ended today and the clouds are turning pink. Crickets chorus. Fresh spiderwebs lace the trees and in­sects drift in the slanted light. This is summer in full, with plenty to eat, it would seem. But the northern hemisphere is arcing away from the sun, and somewhere the birds are arcing toward it. The sky is quiet.

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