Vaux’s swifts and a super harvest blood moon

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.

Nightly swift-watching crowds reach thousands in mid-September. Chapman Elementary happens to have the perfect hill for both accommodating large crowds and providing great views in all directions. This is the south (highest and farthest from the swifts) part of the viewing area.

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).

Chapman Elementary and its tall, historic smokestack. It’s now well past sunset, but the swifts are still swirling because a hawk cleverly found a home atop the chimney for about 30 minutes. It flew off after its hunger was satisfied.

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.

Facing west now toward another part of the viewing area. A sliver of 5100-acre Forest Park is in the background.

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. 🙂

Kids have found creative ways to have fun while watching the swifts and waiting for the dive-bombing finale. It’s the end another long, dry summer, so conditions are perfect for sliding down the brown lawn.

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.

Parents appear to have been excluded from this part of the hillside, which probably worked out best for all involved.

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.

There are still hundreds of swifts viewable here, but they’re only 4-inch-long birds. Thus, they’re difficult to see, even if you click to see the full-sized image.

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.

My friend Kol waxes poetic about the astronomical ramifications of tonight’s events.
Puppies and parties are perfect Portland perched pairings.

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! 🙂

Kol and Deb celebrate another finale to the swifts’ show.

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. 🙂

The big pink skyscraper that everyone in Portland naturally calls “Big Pink” blended in quite well with the pinkish-purplish skies. I wish the blob above Big Pink were the eclipsed Moon; it was approximately in that spot, but that blob is dirt on my lens.

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.

My favorite part of a total lunar eclipse is actually seeing it partially eclipsed like this; the un-eclipsed edges always look much brighter than normal.

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.

This is definitely the darkest, most confusing picture I’ll ever post. 🙂 The fully eclipsed “blood moon” was nearly impossible to capture on my little pocket camera. But if you look at the full-sized version, you can just barely make out the faint, deep blood red Moon near the upper right corner.

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.

Big Pink put on an extended show for us, as did the swifts.

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. 🙂

And…the full moon–a harvest super-supermoon, no less–has re-emerged from its dark blood-red shadow!

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. 🙂

These are the famous Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings from Pok Pok, a Thai restaurant in Portland over which the New York times had a massive crush for many years.

And now you can make them at home! You’re welcome. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Vaux’s swifts and a super harvest blood moon”

  1. Hi Tim,

    It was lovely meeting you yesterday at the Tiny Digs event. Thanks for sharing your blog with me–it’s fantastic!

    Hard to believe that I’ve lived in Portland for 15 years and have never witnessed the magic of the Vaux’s Swifts. Your blog post has definitely inspired me to get to Chapman this September and see this spectacular force of nature in action. Now if only I can be so lucky as to catch the harvest moon!

    I look forward to running into you around the neighborhood.

    Take care,

    1. It was really great meeting you, too, DJ! Tiny Digs is such a wonderful place, too; in fact, it will be the subject of an upcoming blog post!
      Yeah, the Swifts are *definitely* something to put on your calendar for mid-September. It is a truly beautiful, inspiring experience! I can’t think of a more fun and effective way for kids (of all ages LOL) to learn about protecting bird habitat!
      I look forward to seeing you in the neighborhood soon! Thank you so much for your wonderful comments, DJ! 🙂

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