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Mobtown Beat

For the Birds

Bird-Watchers Gather For Annual Counting Of Chimney Swifts

Michelle Gienow
THE WATCHERS: Alice Greely-Nelson and Rob Olsson count chimney swifts nesting in the Druid Hill Park Conservatory chimney on a recent summer evening.

By Chris Landers | Posted 9/26/2007

Joan Cwi, standing outside the conservatory at Druid Hill Park, asks, "Do you see them coming?"

"I think I see one," comes the answer.

The air outside the conservatory is thick with anticipation on a recent Sunday evening, but not yet with birds, as 30 or so people gather on the sidewalk to witness the annual southward migration of the chimney swifts. The birds' ultimate destination is the Amazon Basin of Peru, where they will spend the winter. At the conservatory, some birders watch the skies with binoculars, others focus on the ornate brick chimney rising behind the glass greenhouse of the Victorian building. Everyone listens for the distinctive twittering of the swift, drowned out by the engines of dirt bikes and four-wheelers pulling endless wheelies up and down McCulloh and through the park.

"Come on," John Fleishman, Cwi's longtime partner, encourages a passing flock of swifts. "It's a good chimney."

The birds continue on.

Cwi, Fleishman, and other members of the Baltimore Bird Club have been counting the swifts as they pass through Baltimore since 2001, and tonight they have invited the public to join them on a "Swift Night Out." The club is a chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society.

Chimney swifts are small, grayish birds, often described as cigars with wings. Their wings are actually larger than their bodies, Cwi says, and when they land on the ground (which is seldom, as the birds eat, drink, and bathe in flight) they need to find a vertical surface to climb so they can take off again. As development and industrialization destroyed the hollow trees where they made their homes, the birds adapted to chimneys, where they create basket-style nests on the inside walls. As they migrate, they hang from the brick in groups. Every year they return to Baltimore, although their exact whereabouts change by the day. In addition to the conservatory, Baltimore Bird Club members have been monitoring chimneys in Hampden--at the Mill Center on Chestnut Avenue, and at Free State Bookbinders a few blocks away.

The counting record, according to the club, is 7,330 birds, which entered the bookbindery chimney on Sept. 19, 2005. Last year 4,680 were counted at the conservatory. This year the official count, taken the week before the night out (Cwi says it's difficult to count while explaining the birds to the public), was 856 at the bookbindery, 660 at the Mill Center, and 150 at the conservatory.

The birds enter the chimneys at dusk, and at 7:19 p.m. the first swift swops down into the conservatory chimney. A cry goes up and notes are scribbled.

"All right," Fleishman says. "It's not zero."

That pioneer is followed, in dribs and drabs, by other swifts, as Cwi watches through binoculars, clicking off the count with a museum-style counter in her right hand.

Not everyone is impressed. A teenage girl, speaking into her cell phone in the back seat of her mother's car parked next to the sidewalk, explains what she is doing. "We're watching birds fly around a chimney," she says. "Literally. Birds. Flying around a chimney. And dropping in."

A report comes back from a birder dispatched to Hampden, and Cwi relays the information: "She says they're favoring the Mill Center. There's maybe 100 to 150, but it's not 7,000."

In larger numbers, the swifts form a distinctive vortex as they circle, darting about batlike as they go, before spiraling down to dive into the chimney.

"I'm not sure that our counts are totally accurate," Cwi says. "You get a sense of it. You count by tens, once they start going in, but--." (a swift enters the chimney) "Oh, that's four? Four just went in.

"It does give you a sense of volume, though," she continues. "When you get a mass of 7,000 going in at once, it's almost like a liquid funnel of swifts, and then, God knows. If anything we undercount."

Once tallied, the number of birds is sent to the Driftwood Wildlife Association in Texas, which monitors counts from chimneys across the United States. The association maps the counts on its web site from an antique warehouse in Austin (695 swifts this year) to an elementary school in Oxford, Conn. ("hundreds"). The Baltimore count was coordinated by Cwi and Carol Schreter.

"Sometimes, when there's just huge amounts," Cwi says, "they'll, like, pour in--I mean, like a thousand will pour in, and then they'll just spread out and go everyplace, just circling around and around for a while. My vision is that they're rearranging themselves in the chimney, making room for more."

"That," announces Schreter, pointing, "is a night hawk. To the left, high."

According to the association, the swift population has been declining in North America since the 1960s. The birds face problems finding nesting sites as large industrial chimneys are demolished and residential chimneys are capped. Although the swifts flock together, they nest in pairs, two to a chimney. The organization focuses on education for homeowners--tolerance of birds in the chimney is encouraged, as is building a chimney swift tower, based on one built in 1915 by the pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman, who studied the swifts and other nesting birds for her book Birds of an Iowa Dooryard.

Fleishman and Cwi joined the Baltimore Bird Club about 10 years ago.

"I've always been interested in birds," Fleishman says. "And we thought it was something we could continue doing as we get older, into our retirement years. We wound up taking a course in beginning bird-watching--at Hopkins, actually, through the continuing education program. The guy who teaches that course, David Holmes, is wonderful. We took the course repeatedly with him and sharpened our skills a bit. We've been on birding tours in Mexico, the Yucatan. We went birding at Chichen Itza."

Cwi: "We haven't been to Belize."

Fleishman: "Or Honduras."

By 7:30, more birds arrive, creating a loose funnel as they circle and fall into the chimney. Cwi, on the phone with the birder in Hampden, exchanges tallies.

"It was good enough when they started coming," she says. "Then they got thicker, and a little bit of the spiral effect."

"It wasn't a total waste," Fleishman chimes in.

The tally for the night, Cwi says, was "234 chimney swifts, five night hawks, and a couple of Canada geese."

"And a couple of unidentified ducks," Fleishman adds.

When the counting is done, most of the group departs, leaving Cwi, Fleishman, and Schreter standing on the sidewalk in the deepening darkness. Two police cars drive by, on their way to usher out the crowds of people who had gathered Sunday evening next to their cars along the winding roads by Druid Hill Lake. A handful of dirt bikers lead the parade out of the closing park.

As the first police car passes, an officer questions the birders from her window: "Are you all right?"

"We're fine," Cwi answers. "We're just counting chimney swifts."

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