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Swifts provide early-evening entertainment in downtown

By Sarah Brown

Lebanon Local

For some, watching a bunch of birds fly into a chimney might not seem like an entertaining way to spend the evening, but a select few in Lebanon know just how exhilerating the experience really can be.

The birds in question are Vaux’s Swifts (pronounced vōkes-es). Like their Chimney Swift counterparts on the East Coast, they are known for the spectacular way they descend into chimneys by the thousands.

“During migration, large flocks circle roost sites until they abruptly pour out of the sky like a tornado to enter a chimney or hollow tree,” said Kaynor Heineck, who’s been watching the birds for nearly a decade.

Lebanon plays host to some of these birds every September, and again in May, as they return to their northern homes. One of their known locations is the chimney at the old Lebanon Hotel downtown.

Chelly Thomson lives behind the hotel, off Main Street. She’s watched the migrating birds roost in the old building’s chimney for more than 20 years.

“At first we thought they were bats,” she said. “They’re all scattered, and they come in and they do this formation. They get the formation going and – I don’t know if others come or one of them screws up – but they gotta start all over again. Then all of a sudden it will be a perfect funnel just going right into the chimney, like somebody’s pouring them in.”

Vaux’s swifts live near forests, lakes and rivers between Canada and northern California. Though they prefer to dwell in hollow trees, human interruption of old growth is causing a decline in their numbers, according to the Audubon Society.

Swifts spend most of their time in the sky, and their feet can only cling to rough, vertical surfaces. In the fall, they migrate from America’s northwest coast down to Central America.

Heineck has been counting Lebanon’s bird migrations since May 2010, when she counted as many as 3,200 birds in one night.

“I’d wanted to see a swift tornado for years, when I lived in California, but never got around to it,” she said. “One evening, I was getting ready to go into a square dance, and suddenly the light bulb went on that there were a lot of birds in the sky above.”

The swifts can be seen about 45 minutes before sunset, as a few of the small birds fly sporadically in the sky. Their numbers slowly multiply until there are several hundred to a few thousand circling the area.

Just watching the birds soar swiftly around is a sight to see, but it gets better as they begin to fly together in a circle above the chimney. Then, as if the sky itself is pouring a cup of coffee, the birds descend into the chimney for the night.

“There will be a couple of them – I don’t know if they’re in charge of formation or making sure everybody gets in okay – but there will be two or three that will fly around for a couple of minutes after all of them are in, and then they’ll go in,” Thomson said.