Late August marks the beginning of Portland’s greatest six-week-long aerial spectacle. North America’s largest concentration of Vaux’s swifts gathers above a giant chimney in northwest Portland, where they’ll rest before migrating thousands of miles to the south.
Shortly before sunset every evening in September (plus a little of the surrounding months), thousands of swifts gather from miles around to swirl above the chimney at Chapman Elementary. The nightly crowds have grown to numbers nearly equaling ths swifts, which have reached estimates as high as 35,000 in a night (a more typical peak count is 8000 swifts).
For roughly an hour, the swifts dazzle the crowds and appear to tease them about descending all at once into the chimney. Often a peregrine falcon (or, in tonight’s case, a Cooper’s hawk) will be sitting on or flying near the top of the chimney, picking off dozens of one-pound meals, which makes the spectacle all the more fascinating. It also delays what’s sometimes a nearly simultaneous dive-bomb into the chimney.
Predators notwithstanding, the swifts always settle in, hundreds at a time, and disappear completely into their nightly roost around 30 minutes after sunset. There’s always applause at the end of the show. 🙂
I can only imagine the pride anyone associated with Chapman must feel, knowing that that their school year starts exactly when this universally beloved nightly display commences. Its origin, however, is troubling: In the early 1980s, the swifts began using this chimney, whose dimensions were similar to those found in their rapidly declining habitat of tall old-growth Douglas fir tree snags.
The Chapman Elementary community took to “swift” action; first, they stopped using the heating system during the weeks of roosting. Teachers and students had to endure classroom temperatures that sometimes dipped to the low 50s. If you’ve ever spent several hours in an office whose temperature was below 70, you’ll begin to understand their sacrifice.
Finally, about 20 years later, the Audubon Society of Portland, corporate sponsors and fundraisers donated $75,000 to build an alternate heating system that no longer uses the brick chimney, which is now maintained solely for the birds’ use and enjoyment. So, at least this part of the story ends happily for all involved.
But smokestacks that are very tall, old and brick-lined—such as the one at Chapman Elementary—are increasingly rare, and the swift bird counts are noticeably down from previous decades. Unlike East Coast swifts, the Vaux’s swifts native to the West Coast can only perch vertically. Thus, they can only roost in either hollowed out trees (the taller the better, due to their enormous numbers) or—in urban areas—the insides of old chimneys.
Their urban roost habitat is actually quite specific: tall brick smokestacks built before 1940; newer smokestacks have liners that prevent the birds from gaining a foothold. The survival of the swifts depends on finding chimneys like Chapman’s roughly every 100 miles throughout their migratory path.
The population of Vaux’s swifts is declining by about 3% per year, and a new roosting site hasn’t been found on the West Coast in at least five years. These classic old brick smokestacks are increasingly being dismantled or capped off due to redevelopment, seismic concerns, and complaints from neighbors about noisy flocks and visual “blight.”
Tearing down an old smokestack may seem innocuous, but it has major consequences for this species of bird—and thus on all species up and down the chain. The Aububon Society is trying to raise funds to create a network of suitable replacement towers at key locations along the West Coast so that this crucial migration can continue indefinitely in numbers suitable to benefit all species that rely on its success.
While this post differs from my usual articles about great places, it shows the powerful impact that critical actions and sacrifices taken by friends of Chapman and of endangered migratory species have had on nature and community. We all need each other, and I think that the beautiful story of Vaux’s swifts at Chapman makes a perfect fit for “Places for Everyone” – and for every species! 🙂
OK, but what the heck is a super harvest blood moon?
It turned out that this night, September 27, 2015, was also a very special night for amateur astronomers. First, there was a total lunar eclipse happening–coincidentally starting just minutes after the swifts ended their show! That was very considerate of them. 🙂
Secondly, it was the night of the “harvest moon,” which is defined as the full moon occurring closest to the autumnal equinox, when day and night are equally long. The harvest moon is a beautiful (and sacred in some traditions) harbinger of the year’s darker half in northern latitudes.
But why does the harvest moon really appear brighter, closer and, above all, more *orange* than most full moons? Here’s a quick digression to explain some of the harvest moon’s mystique. During the equinox, the sun rises at exactly 90 degrees (due east) and sets in the due western horizon. Due to these extreme angles, the moon appears slightly lower in the sky than on most nights, making it appear larger than normal. Also, the fall harvest creates more dust particles in the atmosphere than any other time of year, causing the low-lying moon to appear unusually orange (similar to the atmosphere’s effect on an ever-lowering sun). Isn’t that cool? 🙂
Anyway, back to what made this night so rare, lunar-show-wise…There wasn’t a cloud in sight, so we all had an unobstructed view of the entire sky: the swifts, the planets (coincidentally, all eight others, including poor old Pluto, were above the horizon and could thus be seen that night with proper magnification), the stars, and the real star of the night: the Moon, whose total eclipse lasted 72 minutes.
But beyond all this, we were treated to a “supermoon,” which occurs when a full moon appears when it is simultaneously closest to Earth in a given orbit. Supermoons appear 7% larger and 16% brighter than average full moons, but this one was much brighter than most supermoons. The Moon on this night was only 221,000 miles away; its average distance from Earth is 239,000 miles. I believe that the next time the Moon will be this close is 2034.
Interestingly, neither a supermoon nor a total lunar eclipse (or “blood moon,” explained below) are nowhere near as rare as most people believe. It reminds me of the “silver pockets full” myth in which a month containing 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays is said to occur only once every 823 years (I’ll wait here while you Google this urban legend). Such a month, in fact, occurs almost *every* year. Similarly over-the-top claims are made about astronomical events all the time.
So, while it’s commonly thought that total lunar eclipses are super rare, they actually occur (as do supermoons) more frequently than the harvest moon, which returns once per year. But a total lunar eclipse occurring during a supermoon is a little more special; the previous “super blood moon” was in 1982.
Now, add “harvest moon” and an extra dash of “super” to the supermoon and combine it with “blood moon” (a total lunar eclipse), and we’re now talking about an event that occurs less than once per century. So, this evening’s lunar event actually *was* a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.
The shortest possible description for this exact lunar event is “super harvest blood moon”–and now you know the original of the title of this post. 🙂
The fully eclipsed moon really did appear blood-red; that alone was worth seeing in person, especially because my photos couldn’t capture it. The moon was red because, just like sunset, the sun’s pure white light refracts through Earth’s atmosphere at a severe angle (tangentially, rather than from straight above), with only the red-most part of the spectrum getting through. And a fully eclipsed moon is actually a deeper red than the sun, because there is *no* light from the sun is reaching the moon, whose only light is from scattered light refracted from Earth’s atmosphere.
So, it was a truly magical night! After all of the night’s amazing shows, one after another after another in clockwork succession, Kol, Deb and I knew the perfect final treat of the night for our out-of-state friends: the greatest chicken wings found anywhere. Sorry, Buffalo, it’s true. 🙂
And now you can make them at home! You’re welcome. 🙂