The first thing you might want to know about the Vaux's Swift is how to pronounce it's name. This fast-flying relative of the hummingbird was named after
Sir William Vaux, who was English, not French, so the bird's name is pronounced VAWKsiz Swift, not VOE or VOZE, s'il vous plait.
The second thing you want to know is that I watched clouds of these birds gathering just after sunset this week in Olympia's South Capitol neighborhood. By the hundreds, they moved together in a style described as "twinkling," turning this way and that in unison like schooling fish, until they swooped down into a chimney as if they were being sucked into it. Quite an amazing bit of aerial acrobatics and tail-first descent the chimney where they roost for the night.
By day, they fly swiftly (yes! it's true!) through the air and over the water to catch insects. Scientists estimate one bird can consume 20,000 insects a day.
Vaux's Swifts' natural nesting sites are tree hollows, though trees large enough to accommodate tens of thousands of swifts are becoming less common--a similar problem faced by the endangered marbled murrelet. Swifts have adapted to the old-fashioned, open brick chimneys common with older homes.
My chimney--capped and screened for a gas fireplace insert--is not suitable for these birds, though the flickers love to rat-a-tat-tat on the metal cap to claim their territory this time of year.
Tree hollows and fireplace chimneys allow the swifts to huddle together to conserve body heat--they roost earlier in the evening on cooler nights. A nesting pair will produce 3-7 young during the summer in their nests attached to the inside of the chimney.
Relatively little is known about this swift (Chaertura vauxi), but the Black Hills Audubon Society in Olympia (and other Audubon chapters around the state) are seeking citizen volunteers to look for and monitor the swifts flying around and entering chimneys around the state.
Please follow this link for the Black Hills Audubon Society's page "Swifts in Olympia."
There are plenty of links here to videos of the nightly swoop in, webcams, and information on this unusual bird's life history. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife site is especially good.
These birds are migratory, moving between Mexico and British Columbia in the spring and fall. Northbound birds show up in the last week of April; southbound birds in mid- to late-August. If you are out strolling around in one of Olympia's older neighborhoods, watch the skies for clouds of Vaux's Swifts and listen out for their chirpy little call around sunset.
Vaux's Swifts and related Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) both look like "a cigar with wings" in the field because of their long, tapered bodies and squared-off tail--not notched, fanned, tapered, or scissor-like as are easily confusable Swallows. They do not rest on telephone wires as do swallows; all four of the swift's toes point forward, which allows them to cling onto vertical surfaces but not perch. Vaux's is found west of the Rockies and the Chimney Swift eastward.
NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH: Here is how the Accidental Naturalist works: Pack camera and cellphone, get on bike just after sunset. Bike to neighborhood while talking on phone to son. Stand with bike in front of chimney watching swifts while conversing about son's college courses. Fumble with camera and video tape swifts. Ride, then walk bike home in near-dark while still chatting. Spend one hour attempting to edit then post here excellent but herky-jerky video of swifts. Fail. Play video on computer and photograph swifts on monitor screen with digital camera. Upload and post photo here. Think about YouTube, then get distracted and go to bed. Call son to apologize for scatter-brained conversation.