Courtesy photo: Swifts inside the Wagner chimney.
Courtesy photo: Swifts inside the Wagner chimney.

This year marks a decade celebrating the autumn migration of the Vaux's Swifts in Monroe.

Pilchuck Audubon Society will host the “Swift Night Out” event starting at 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, on the lawn of the Wagner Performing Arts Center on Main Street. Society president Cindy Easterson said the public should bring binoculars and comfortable chairs.

“We hope people will come and join us again this year, and find some awe in this little bird that migrates so far every spring and every fall, and help develop some appreciation for our natural world,” she said. “So, welcome all.”

Monroe Mayor Geoffrey Thomas signed a proclamation solidifying the event’s date during last Tuesday's city council meeting. He honored the Vaux Swifts two years ago by naming it the city's official bird.

Easterson said it is “truly appropriate” the Pilchuk Audubon ensure the show goes on again this year. In part, “because we believe it's a tradition for the city of Monroe — they have been great partners on this,” she said.

Monroe is one link in a vast network of communities, organizations and individuals that work to preserve swifts habitat; the birds are most closely related to swallows. The city is one of four sites in the Puget Sound region that has a Partners In Flight Important Bird Area designation. The title doesn’t offer legal safeguards, but brings more awareness to the birds' status.

The world Vaux’s Swift population is estimated to decrease by about 2 percent each year, and between 200,000 to 250,000 are alive today.

Up to 25,000 Vaux’s Swifts have been found to roost in Monroe's chimney one night during their annual trek from Canada to Central America — the largest count of any known site.

They mostly stick to the West Coast along their migratory route. Some also speculate they fly into other areas like the Sierra Nevada range.

More than half of the population heads north to breed in April and May. New families then head back down to southern Mexico and Costa Rica in the fall in August.

The swifts have stopped in Monroe for about 30 years, according to some of the city’s longtime residents. Regional and local partners watched the birds closely for a year before the first “Swift Night Out” was held.

Their initial counts showed the decommissioned Frank Wagner Elementary School chimney to be a crucial roost site for the species. Around the same time, the Monroe School District was planning to tear the chimney down, because it was considered a safety hazard. Regional Audubon societies were able to convince administrators otherwise in 2007.

Instead, $100,000 was secured so the school district could earthquake-proof the structure. Deterrents were placed around the entrance to protect the swifts from crows and hawks. Predators are believed to influence whether the swifts will return to a roost.

Few swifts stopped last year in Sedro-Woolley, which is another important migration area, along with Selleck and Joint Base Lewis-McChord near DuPont.

Larry Schwitters, who heads the Vaux's Happening project, is the leading regional expert on swifts. He will speak from 5-6 p.m. during this year's Swift Night Out. Easterson said the talk is a little earlier than usual, because the Monroe Arts Council is hosting a show afterward.

MAC has allowed the Audubon Society to use the auditorium, which volunteer members are renovating, in recent years for the event. Easterson said there will be snacks available, but the traditional spaghetti feed will not be a part of the event this year. She said for the public to be aware there is still construction happening in the parking lot.

A number of educational booths will be set up on site, she said. Docents will be available to answer questions. The traditional Vaux's Swift headbands also will be available for purchase.

Volunteer counters observed the lowest counts in Monroe last year, but also one of the largest migrations yet. Schwitters speculated lingering smoke from forest fires may have had something to do with the decline, or that they may be choosing a new roost.

Last year was the first time rain came down on swifts spectators. About 14,000 of the birds flew in through the 31-inch-wide chimney entrance in 2008. That remains the highest count for the occasion.

There is only room for about 12,000 swifts to cling to the rough brick surface. That means they must hang on each other when they are packed in; they don’t squirm or fight.

Vaux’s Swifts don’t seem to be good at fluffing up to keep warm, which is the tactic used by other varieties. Instead, they share each other’s body heat and choose nest locations that bake in the sun all day.

Schwitters recorded one of the highest single-day counts in the history of known northern migrations on June 11, which was the highest count this year by far. About 12,420 swifts took nearly an hour to funnel out of the brick opening.