Ever wonder what it looks like to see smoke go down a chimney in reverse? That is what a cloud of thousands of Vaux's swifts resembles as they descend their seasonal chimney roost every night during their stay at the Wagner Center in Monroe, Washington.
These tiny insect-eating birds congregate in Monroe every year for several months in the late summer as they migrate south for the winter. As dusk falls, they gather in the thousands to roost within a single chimney.
The city of Monroe has fallen in love with these birds, restoring the decommissioned chimney at the former elementary school to preserve this seasonal roost into perpetuity. Monroe hosts a community event to celebrate the birds' annual stay, Swift Night Out. This year, it will be held Saturday, Sept. 12, from 4 p.m. until dusk.
The event is a lively one, drawing hundreds of people, who bring their camp chairs to wait for the birds to gather. While waiting, families picnic, peruse the various booths featuring informative displays and nature-related items, or enjoy the slide show and lecture in the school auditorium.
Once the birds begin to gather in large numbers over the school, however, all eyes are skyward, and the crowd grows quiet as the birds begin their descent into the chimney. The night I attended the event, I heard oohs and ahs all around me, and outright cheering once the last bird made his drop into the chimney.
Where: Frank Wagner Center, Monroe, WA
When: Saturday, Sept. 12, 4 p.m. to dusk
Other opportunities to see wild birds in large numbers
Swift Night Out is an example of something I call "instant gratification birding" — easy opportunities to see wild birds in large numbers in their natural surroundings.
I’ve been watching wild birds most of my life, having begun with my parents as a little girl. Living in the Northwest, we can listen and watch for birds in habitats all over our region. From the dramatic scene of a field covered with thousands of snow geese to the more intimate encounter with an adult male red-winged blackbird on a bulrush, wild-bird watching is a rich sensory experience that can be easily fostered in kids.
If you are just starting out, you may not know where to begin looking, or how to identify the birds that you see. Backyard birding (see my earlier article in ParentMap) is one of the simplest ways to get started. But it's wonderful to get out and see birds en masse. Below is a sampling of my favorite local places to see and identify large numbers of wild birds throughout the year without a lot of effort on your part.
1. American crow at night roosting sites
Where: various locations around Lake Washington
When: September to April at dusk
Highlights: Catch this dramatic sight every night as thousands of crows fly in from all over the region to roost in their respective stand of trees.
2. Snow geese and trumpeter swans
Where: Skagit Valley, Wash., between Conway and LaConner
When: December to March
Highlights: Imagine farmland covered in what looks to be patches of snow from a distance, but what are instead hundreds of magnificent white birds from the Arctic, in the Northwest for the winter.
Info: See fidalgo.net/~audubon/Locate.htm or this ParentMap article
3. Sandhill cranes
Where: Othello, Wash.
When: Late March to early April
Highlights: North America’s largest bird passes in flocks of hundreds through Eastern Washington every year to spend a few weeks eating waste corn in the fields outside the town of Othello.
4. Red-winged blackbirds
Where: Montlake Playfield Wetland (Seattle), Juanita Bay Park (Kirkland) and other Lake Washington locations
When: February to July
Highlights: Male red-winged blackbirds are assertive and easily seen amid marshes and wetland areas surrounding Lake Washington and other area lakes.
5. Great blue heron nesting colonies
Where: Various locations Lake Washington
When: May to July
Highlights: Great blue herons build nests in cottonwoods above waterways in order to be close to food sources and have the added protection of each other's company
6. Pelagic cormorants
Where: Local ferry landings
When: July to September
Highlights: A special way to see these birds close up in their nesting colonies is from the car deck of the San Juan Islands-bound Anacortes ferry.
Basic birding rules to follow
- Always keep a respectful distance from wild birds and never disrupt their natural behavior or threaten them in any way. Do not induce them to fly in order to get a better photo, for instance.
- Follow the rules wherever you are viewing birds — if there are designations as to where to park or view, or fees to pay, do your part as a good neighbor and comply.
- Binoculars will enhance your viewing experience, and nowadays many outdoor stores rent them if you don’t own a pair. (Local nature centers often loan them, too. However, optics are not essential for the places listed below — you will still see plenty of birds without them!)
About the author: Bryony Angell grew up in Seattle and enjoys sharing the hidden gems of her native city with others. You can see more of her writing about
birds and nature on ParentMap. She lives in North Seattle with her family.
About the photographer: All the photos of the birds in the article, except for the photo of the cormorants (by Bryony Angell), were taken by Mike Hamilton. His favorite birds are those that stay in one place, at least for a few seconds!