Birds nest in historic chimney swift tower

Structure was re-erected a little over a year ago in Cedar County

Five chimney swift eggs sit Saturday in a nest within the historic Althea Sherman chimney swift tower at the Bickett-Rat
Five chimney swift eggs sit Saturday in a nest within the historic Althea Sherman chimney swift tower at the Bickett-Rate Preserve in Cedar County. Barbara Boyle photo

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman’s historic chimney swift tower, unused by birds for many decades, again houses a nest with hungry swift chicks.

“This is astonishing — such a gift,” said Barbara Boyle of Williamsburg, who spearheaded the effort to restore the forsaken structure and re-erect it at a site frequented by its intended inhabitants.

Boyle said she discovered the active nest Aug. 2 during a routine inspection of the 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square tower situated a little over a year ago on a 560-acre nature preserve along the Cedar River near the Cedar County town of Buchanan.

“I did not expect this to happen at all,” she said, referring to the five luminous white eggs that began hatching Wednesday. “Late July is way past prime time for chimney swift nesting.”

Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist, built the tower in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National to aid in her study of chimney swifts.

The tower’s artificial chimney attracted nesting swifts, which Sherman observed through windows and peepholes accessible from a circular stairway. Her groundbreaking bird study methods and meticulous observations attracted renowned ornithologists to National.

After Sherman’s death in 1943, the family property in National was sold and the tower was moved to Harpers Ferry, where it stood until the Johnson County Songbird Project acquired it in 1992. The substantially-deteriorated tower had been in storage until May 2013, when it was refurbished at the Bickett-Rate Preserve, owned by the Cedar County Historical Society.

“I am absolutely tickled,” said Sharon Lynch-Voparil, a member of the historical society’s board of directors.

Though Lynch-Voparil often had worked at the site in July, she said she never once thought to look inside the tower. “I just thought it was too late for this year,” she said.

So did Mike Bixler, historical society president, who said the nest provides momentum to complete other projects at the site, which temporarily will be closed to visitors to give the swift family privacy.

Raptor expert Bob Anderson of Decorah eagles fame installed two cameras and a microphone in the tower last fall, but more work remains before streaming video will be available online.

Boyle said she thinks she “felt much the same as Althea did nearly 100 years ago when she was stunned to see the chimney swift nest in front of her eyes.”

Like the first nest built in the tower in 1918, the new nest is glued — with chimney swift saliva — to the north wall of the chimney just beneath the observation window.

“Well chosen!” wrote Sherman in her 1918 Chimney Swift Journal. “The projecting angle of the window must protect from rain, the north side must be the coolest one.”

Nearly identical to Boyle’s observations last week, Sherman also noted in her journal an aborted nest attempt lower in the chimney.

Though Boyle had often peered into the chimney, she said “seeing this nest with its eggs crystallized a recognition and appreciation in me that I had not experienced before, of seeing the tower in its true intention and purpose as the remarkable, pure tool of scientific observation that it is.”

Boyle said the tower’s design, with light streaming down the chimney to illuminate the nest and well-placed observation windows, “will surely serve its purpose of revealing but not disturbing the birds.”

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