CUPRESSACEAE, The Cypress family
Last night M. and I went to see the Vaux swifts at Chapman school. Nicole and Martin had been a few nights ago and told us about their experience. I was surprised to see that the autumn gathering of the swifts, Chaetura vauxi, was a huge community event. People of all ages attended, bringing dogs, babies, wine, crackers.
We found a parking spot in the neighborhood near the school and as we walked along the well-groomed streets I was excited to see in the gardens many kinds of mature shrubs of the type I use at work but usually only see in their juvenile stage. It was really neat and affirming to see tall weeping beeches, Juniper ‘Blue arrow’, Italian cypresses, and gold tipped arborvitae, ‘Sunkist,’ which grows slowly to around 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
The swift-watching grounds were marked by an informational pillar telling about the gathering and migration of the birds, their habits and history. Loss of habitat containing nice tall hallow trees has prompted birds to gather in chimneys. The huge smoke stack at Chapman school hosts up to 40,000 swifts each fall. The children returning to school in years past wore their coats in class to avoid using the furnace until the birds have flown south, usually in the last days of September. A fundraising effort and support from the Audubon Foundation has provided a modern heating system, and preserved the chimney for the roosting birds.
For most of an hour, as the sun was setting, the small birds came in groups towards the chimney, converging and then flying away in wide spirals. Mean while, a large Cooper’s hawk perched in the edge of the chimney. When a critical mass of swifts had arrived, they began flying down the chimney and finding spots to perch inside. In the confusion of the whirling of thousands of birds, the hawk pounced and flew off with a swift in its talons. The crowd gasped and booed. The other swifts continued their patterns across the sky, flying first clockwise, then reversing direction and diving in the chimney.