2020 Fall Chimney Swift Counts

Chimney Swifts

For the eighteenth consecutive year, I counted migrating Chimney Swifts as they dropped into chimneys to spend their nights clinging to bricks and mortar before emerging after sunrise to hopscotch another one hundred or more miles to another welcoming chimney for another night’s sleep as they continue their journeys to their winter homes in Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, and Brazil’s northwest corner. Compared to their challenges, my part of the count starts with showing up at a public chimney one-half hour before sunset while staying alert, counting and recording by the minutes until one-half hour after sunset. It’s a peaceful hobby that has more to offer than swifts.

During previous years, I have downloaded a sunrise/sunset chart from the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. that lists every day of the year. The chart was not available this year and their website said they were working on it, etc. Well, local newspapers list sunset times on their weather pages, so no problem.

I counted at eight chimneys, only two were not within the city of Delaware. On August 14, I counted 105 swifts at Sells Middle School in Dublin during a Swift Night Out organized by Darlene Sillick. I counted my season high of 1249 swifts at the Galena Village Hall on August 23, and the highlight of the evening was not the swifts, but an immature Bald Eagle that launched from the Big Walnut Creek to fly west across Galena.

The season started off with disappointments as Carlisle Elementary’s chimney failed to be active with swifts. I watched the chimney from my car for five nights between August 4 and September 9. Swifts were rare and when they did appear to “dip,” a term I use to describe an actual effort by a bird to fly closer to the chimney’s opening in order to scan and smell to appraise  the chimney’s status as a possible roost for the night, but after one dip, each swift just flew onward toward a busier Delaware.

During my five nights at the elementary school, I saw a solitary rabbit once, and a flying bat once. Most exciting was counting eleven Common Nighthawks, or goatsuckers, on September 9. During my fall swift watch, I counted a total of 22 nighthawks that were migrating over Delaware between August 25 and September 11.

As I do every year, once I select a dominant chimney, I count at other chimneys every other night in order to acquire a list of active roosts. When it appeared that the Carlisle chimney was “dead” after failing to attract roosting swifts, the chimney at the Zion United Church of Christ became my new primary chimney. I sat in a director’s chair to count swifts at the church, and things were going well until August 22 when no swifts entered. By September 7, the church’s chimney was also declared dead, possibly because it was being used as a chimney. For five of the 17 nights that I counted at the church, a solitary rabbit entertained me as it grazed on green grass. And during eight nights, a bat really brought a smile to my face. It would fly in an east to west path before hovering over me at five to ten feet. Was it being curious? I never had any insects land on me, so I assumed the bat wasn’t hunting, or was it just assessing its world before it left to hunt? Who knows?!

Oh, I should add that I don’t worry about bats giving me rabies since during the early days of the Ohio Wildlife Center, I endured shots of rabies vaccine to make me immune.

OWU Edwards Gym - Chimney Swift Roost
Chimney Swifts roost in the chimney (indicated by the arrow) at Edwards Gym at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.

During the decline of swift numbers counted at the church, August 28 became a new turning point as I counted 480 swifts entering Edwards Gym’s northeast chimney on Ohio Wesleyan’s campus. The second Wesleyan chimney that I watch each year is located on the north face of Gray Chapel and it had failed to house more than four swifts during my earliest counts. Therefore, Edwards Gym became my dominant chimney for my latest counts.

To count the gym’s swifts, I sat in my car in the power plant/motor pool parking lot along Wilmer Street that is also known as the OWU Power House. I would roll down my window, listen to my radio, and read the time on my dashboard as I recorded data, and there was always more than swifts that won my attention.

While watching the gym’s chimney from the parking lot, I was also scanning the sky over downtown Delaware. The Olentangy River is found nearly three blocks east of the city’s main downtown intersection and flying ducks became a common site as they flew into town seeking their aquatic hotel for the night. Not only the Olentangy, but some of its small stream tributaries were also sought.

Whenever I am walking in downtown Delaware, I check on the Delaware Run that flows east under some of the business buildings and under South Sandusky Street to emerge into the open flowing along the northern edge of Wesleyan’s campus. Most times, I can watch Mallard ducks as they harvest food in the flowing stream.

During 31 of the 69 evenings that I counted in Delaware, I recorded 422 ducks in 80 different flocks, ranging from one to 17 ducks per sighting. I also recorded three flocks of geese that added up to 21 individuals. I am sure that a serious birder with a spotting scope, or a camera with a telephoto lense, would enjoy identifying the passing waterfowl.

Mammals counted during my swift nights at the gym’s chimney included one rabbit for one night, single bats for eight nights, and a mature groundhog during six nights. The groundhog had a burrow near the Power House building where it would emerge to cross the street to graze on a steep hillside behind the Branch Ricky Arena. Initially, I was worried about the groundhog’s safety since Wilmer Street has a fair amount of traffic, but I soon learned that the wise animal was blessed with good hearing and would break into a fast run to safely cross the street with time to spare. Of course, it has additional burrows in the hillside near the arena.

In mid-September, climate change became a visible reality as I watched the sky. On late afternoons showing no clouds, instead of a blue sky, skies were light gray. Then, TV’s meteorologists revealed that Central Ohio was experiencing a gray haze of forest fire smoke carried in from our country’s western states.

I found myself thinking about beavers in the western mountains as described in the 1913 book, In Beaver World by Enos A. Mills. Known by some as the “father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” his book is still published and tells of beavers that lived in the Rocky Mountains. The obsessive dam builders would not be able to solve today’s entire forest fire problem, but they could certainly help in some situations. The book is worth a read.

The swift’s 2020 fall migration peaked on September 28 as 610 swifts dropped into the gym’s chimney. Swift numbers always decline after a high number in September, and then there is always a minor increase in numbers during the last days in early October. Swifts usually circle repeatedly above their targeted chimneys before dropping in, but during the last days of the migration season, remaining swifts fly directly to the chimney to quickly drop in, requiring a concentrated focus on the chimney by the counter. Perhaps, they are running out of energy due to shorter days and lower temperatures that lead to fewer flying insects that serve as their prey items.

The last day when swifts entered their nighttime roost was October 12 when 14 sought shelter. I spent the next night watching the gym’s chimney to count zero swifts, and spent October 14 sitting in my director’s chair watching the sky over downtown Delaware to make sure that no swifts were missed.

October 12 remains the average date for seeing the last swifts during my eighteen-year quest to describe their migrations. Annual last dates range from the earliest on October 6, 2004, to the latest of October 22, 2018.

During my nightly counts, I try not to forget to take with me a map downloaded from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and three swift study skins from Wesleyan’s zoology Museum so I can explain what I am watching should I have questions to answer. I have state and federal permits that allow me to temporarily possess the study skins outside of the museum. I must submit detailed reports to the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the end of each year. When members of the public ask questions, I record the encounters as “programs” in my data book. This year, I recorded six programs totaling eight people. I enjoy these environmental interpretation events as members of the public, of all ages, become aware of Chimney Swifts that share our world. I believe that every human being should see swifts entering a chimney at least once in their lives. I have seen people that have lived for decades without ever seeing hundreds of birds dropping into a chimney. While watching the event for the first time, they became highly excited and impressed while feeling more alive.

In these modern times, more people, mostly girl and boy scouts, are leading projects to erect swift towers that mimic the function of chimneys used as roosts. Also, more retired chimneys are being preserved for nesting and migrating swifts. At OWU, members of the Buildings and Grounds Department confirmed that the NE chimney at the gym is no longer used as a chimney. Modern hookups are now doing the work of a chimney.

I would like to see modern bulletin boards installed so anyone rounding the corner of the gym could read about the natural history of Chimney Swifts and their need for chimneys and swift towers, and where they are from, and where swifts spend their winters. Yes, that’s an educational process called environmental interpretation.

Videos that show how to build swift towers can be found on the Internet. Also, check chimneyswifts.org for much information and books that have the best plans for success.

Conserve on!

2020 Fall Chimney Swift Counts, N=71

When I record times, I prefer military time so morning and afternoon times are never confused. Simply subtract 12 from times greater than 12:00 to return afternoon times to standard time.

For the data listed below and for dates where swifts entered their chimney, earliest entry times are listed in the next to last column. Times of last entries make up the last column.

Carlisle Elementary School, 746 West Central Ave., n=5

August 4zero swiftswatched 20:18 – 21:15
August 6zero swiftswatched 20:13 – 21:12
August 10zero swiftswatched 20:08 – 21:07
August 17zero swiftswatched 20:07 – 20:57
September 9zero swiftsLeft early – construction noise

Zion United Church of Christ, 51 West Central Ave., n=17

August 7559 swifts20:33 – 21:07
August 11289 swifts20:15 – 21:03
August 12281 swifts20:16 – 20:59
August 13315 swifts20:09 – 20:55
August 15355 swifts20:34 – 20:55
August 16238 swifts20:20 – 20:56
August 1878 swifts20:23 – 20:54
August 1934 swifts20:36 – 20:52
August 2028 swifts20:33 – 20:47
August 216 swifts20:19 – 20:40
August 22zero swiftswatched 19:49 – 20:51
August 261 swift20:35
August 291 swift20:34
August 31zero swiftswatched 19:40 – 20:36
September 23 swifts20:21 – 20:30
September 7zero swiftswatched 19:25 – 20:15
September 11zero swiftswatched 19:40 – 20:36

First Commonwealth Bank, 41 North Sandusky St., n=3

August 85 swifts20:49 – 21:04
August 25zerowatched 19:55 – 20:46
October 14zerowatched 18:29 – 19:22

Gray Chapel, OWU, West chimney on North face, n=3

August 94 swifts20:52 – 20:55
August 272 swifts20:27 – 20:28
September 62 swifts20:09 – 21:11

John Sells Middle School, 150 Bridge St., Dublin, n=1

August 14105 swifts19:49 – 20:52

Galena Village Hall, 109 Harrison St., n=1

August 231249 swifts20:00 – 20:45

West Winter Street Chimney, Delaware

August 20102 swifts20:15 – 20:28

Edwards Gym, OWU, North Chimney on East face, n=41

August 510 swifts20:28 – 21:00
August 28480 swifts19:37 – 20:27
September 1207 swifts20:06 – 20:28
September 3217 swifts20:06 – 20:29
September 488 swifts20:04 – 20:26
September 5192 swifts20:06 – 20:24
September 897 swifts20:04 – 20:17
September 10*157 swifts(76 today)19:59 – 20:13
September 12262 swifts19:51 – 20:08
September 13127 swifts19:56 – 20:08
September 1464 swifts19:52 – 20:02
September 1547 swifts19:30 – 20:00
September 1663 swifts19:49 – 19:58
September 1750 swifts19:48 – 19:59
September 1867 swifts19:48 – 19:56
September 1947 swifts19:51 – 19:58
September 2034 swifts19:51 – 19:56
September 2182 swifts19:43 – 19:52
September 22221 swifts19:40 – 19:51
September 23460 swifts19:31 – 19:45
September 24346 swifts19:39 – 19:50
September 25345 swifts19:40 – 19:53
September 26347 swifts19:37 – 19:46
September 27361 swifts19:33 – 19:47
September 28610 swifts19:09 – 19:36
September 29380 swifts19:27 – 19:44
September 30260 swifts19:23 – 19:34
October 1138 swifts19:11 – 19:22
October 2347 swifts19:24 – 19:35
October 3531 swifts19:16 – 19:28
October 4474 swifts19:07 – 19:26
October 5137 swifts19:24 – 19:31
October 623 swifts19:20 – 19:32
October 725 swifts19:12 – 19:32
October 8one swift19:25
October 930 swifts19:17 – 19:25
October 1016 swifts19:07 – 19:25
October 1150 swifts19:16 – 19:23
October 1214 swifts19:00 – 19:05
October 13zerowatched 18:26 – 19:25