Almost every night in September – just before sunset – you’ll find people flocking to Chapman Elementary School in NW Portland. They’re watching the sky for the Vaux Swifts. And every night of the migration, like clockwork, the swifts dance through the sky above the old smokestack chimney, before darting into the chimney just after sunset in one big funnel of a dark cloud. Watching the swifts flying feels like it marks the changing season from summer to fall! As thousands of Vaux’s swifts magically spiral into the chimney! Here’s everything you need to know about seeing the swifts in Portland.
2021: The official stance from the Portland Audubon, is that Swift Watch at Chapman Elementary is canceled due to COVID precautions and inability to social distance. Tell that to the birds! Swifts gonna roost! So be good citizens, and if it’s crowded try another day or next year!
While we call them the Portland swifts, the reason they’re only roosting in September, is that they’re migrating birds. Every September, thousands of Vaux swifts migrate south from Canada to Central and South America. At night, Vaux swifts roost in trees and chimneys (why they’re often called “chimney swifts”). Which makes the giant smokestack style chimney at Chapman Elementary in NW Portland a prime roosting place for these little birds. The chimney is no longer active, by the way, but the swifts have been roosting here since the late 80s! And the school’s mascot is fittingly – the Chapman Swifts.
At dusk, you can gather and watch as the swifts fly and swoop into the chimney. They fly wildly for about an hour and suddenly it’s like their timer has run out they go faster and faster in formation like a little funnel tornado being sucked into the chimney. According to the Audubon society, the Chapman Swifts are considered the largest group of migrating Vaux’s swifts in the world. You can learn more about the history of Vaux (pronounced VOX) swifts from the Portland Audubon. They are most commonly seen flying over cities, as few forests have large enough hollow trees to serve as a roost anymore.
How to See the Chapman Swifts in Portland
NOTE: Please respect the private property of neighbors and Chapman Elementary school! No smoking, no drinking and no littering! Be cool everyone!
Getting There: Chapman Elementary School – 1445 NW 26th Ave, Portland, OR 97210 (corner of NW 26th Ave and NW Pettygrove St) and Wallace Park.
This area is a quiet and compact neighborhood in NW Portland. Please don’t crowd their streets by trying to drive right up to the school. Use public transportation, walk, or bike. And if you do drive, park far away and walk in! Portland Audubon recommends free parking at Montgomery Park.
When are the Swifts in Portland: The month of September, with some overlap in late August and early October as the birds migrate south.
What Time: To see the Portland swifts, plan to get here around 30-60 minutes before sunset. So by 7:15pm toward the beginning of September and by 6:30pm near the end of the month. Sunset in Portland in September shifts from 7:45pm to 6:50pm.
Bring: something to sit on, snacks, your patience (for the birds and other humans), and warm enough clothes (remember after the sun sets this time of year it can feel pretty chilly!
Swift Watch 2021
Each day, the Portland Audubon Society counts (ahem estimates) the number of birds entering the chimney. And even with the wildfire smoke in September 2020, the swifts still came to Portland. Nature is pretty incredible.
As with last year, the official stance from the Portland Audubon, is that Swift Watch is canceled due to COVID precautions. Well tell that to the birds. Swifts gonna roost! In all seriousness though, please be respectful of Chapman Elementary school, and the neighbors of NW 25th/26th and Pettygrove area. There are still ways to observe the swifts without intruding on neighbors and crowding areas and being safe with COVID. I would suggest walking or biking, or parking far away and walking by. If it’s crowded, maybe try another time. And if you find a spot, give people space and wear a mask. Last year, they had fencing up and it wasn’t the same feel of previous years. Not exactly bring a picnic and chill out kind of activity in past years. However, we still were able to bike by and observe from across the street. Still magical!