Outdoors

Chimney swifts put on a beautiful show

The Nature Call: While teens danced inside, bird frolicked in the sky

Chimney swifts have been putting on nightly shows for thousands of years. (Mark Brown/correspondent)
Chimney swifts have been putting on nightly shows for thousands of years. (Mark Brown/correspondent)

A two-and-a-half hour back-to-school dance: loud “music,” sweat, glitter and a fire code limit of teens. Uff.

The very scene I avoid like the plague. I didn’t like it 30 years ago and I still don’t like it today. Which is why I volunteered for foot patrol in the parking lot.

About 7:45 p.m., a ringleader group made its way to the doors, soon most of the student body was crammed near the entrance, chanting and jockeying; a foretaste of the fest to come.

At 8 p.m., the doors opened and my intense watch relaxed. Looking east and low on the horizon, I saw our moon putting on a show of its own. Earth’s moon was full and the color of a tangerine, it used the haze from distant forest fires for a more glorious purpose. Just spectacular. I wondered if any teens noticed.

My duties continued for another half-hour. Surveil I shall. My foot patrol halted at 8:09 though. Now my surveillance was redirected from the increasingly quiet parking lot to the blister of chirps from above.

Chimney swifts were amassed overhead, not in pairs or singletons as I am accustomed. This array wasn’t a shapeless lazy cloud, but rather an organized movement, a swirl.

The swifts were prepping to roost. Actually the swifts weren’t just a swirl. They were in a dance. It was a three-dimensional dance but without a noticeable beat or rhythm. Yet clearly there was the semblance of an order and pattern. My primate brain has had too much book learning to comprehend its nearly primordial form and sequence.

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Inside the gym, a throng of teens were undoubtedly hustling and weaving to a beat. Their beat gave clarity to what old people — read anyone over 25 — would see as pure bedlam.

The diminutive moves of the swifts were known only to them. Such evocative abilities would be the envy of a “cool” teen.

The axle of the birds’ performance was an old chimney, a stalagmite of former times. Worthless to humans save aesthetics, it was home to the swifts. This peculiar bird that cannot perch but rather cling will soon be airing its way to the Yucatan and Caribbean.

Now I was stock-still, captivated by the timeless display. For the swifts it was their nightly routine. For me, a firsthand acquaintance to something marvelous.

Taking turns, a swift dove at the superior orifice only to bank away at the last moment. The twilight and their dark forms made it impossible for me to track an individual in order to glean insight.

The aerial knot grew tighter and in an almost steady progress swifts would drop like stones, not to return. By 8:16, the chatter was no more albeit about 4-6 swifts remained in small orbits. Two minutes later it was all done.

A moment of stillness, of sight and sound. I felt the weight of my own body return to my feet.

This triumph of coordination has shown nightly for at least hundreds of thousands of years. Yet my midcentury body only now bore witness. Thank goodness. Because now I’m ready to be amazed by such things.

At 8:19. the nearby AC unit kicked on. Its ugly whine invaded the soundscape so recently occupied by mirth and wonder. I was grateful it waited.

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The dance for the swifts was over for the night. Nearby, the dance of the teens was just getting started. The teens get one night, the swifts eternity. That sounds about right.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

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