A Swift Game of Skittles

Peregrine approaches, dangling a menacing foot, 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

19 September 2021

The rooftop deck of my building overlooks the largest chimney swift roost in the Pittsburgh area, the Cathedral Mansions chimney, so I wasn’t surprised when Sarah Koenig of Audubon Society of Western PA emailed to arrange a location for a live online Chimney Swift Watch.

(Roosting chimney is on the left, below, with a sun pillar coming up on its right during today’s sunrise.)

Sun pillar next to tall chimney (swift roost) at Cathedral Mansions, 19 Sept 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Unfortunately the situation at this chimney looked boring for a live event. Since Hurricane Ida I haven’t seen many swifts but I decided to make sure. On Thursday evening, 16 September, I went to the roof at sunset to count the swifts.

Chimney swifts near a peregrine nest site in Ohio, 2021 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

By 7:40pm about 100 swifts were circling the chimney and one had just dropped in. Suddenly I was distracted by a large bug that banged right into me. I brushed it away and I looked at the chimney again and there were no swifts at all! I’d been distracted for mere seconds and I know it takes many minutes for the flock to drop in. Where did they go? As I waited and watched, the swift inside the chimney came out and flew away, too. Huh?

I tried again last night, Saturday 18 September. This time I looked for all species. I saw 400+ crows heading for Oakland after sunset and a peregrine perched on the Cathedral of Learning.

As the sky darkened I focused exclusively on the chimney. Again, 100+ swifts circled the chimney and I waited to count them when they dropped in. It was 7:40pm.

Cathedral Mansions chimney with swifts circling, September 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

And then they were gone.

But this time I knew why. As I watched a peregrine approached the chimney from the darkened eastern sky. He could see the flock silhouetted against the sky but the swifts couldn’t see him until he flew through the flock and scattered them like bowling pins.

Peregrine approaches a flock, 2017 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

For the peregrine it was a game of skittles. For the swifts it was life or death. Peregrines can grab swifts in the air. Maybe he did.

Peregrine with chimney swift prey at St. Ignatius, 2020 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

This swift game of skittles is new behavior for the Pitt peregrines but it may be that Ecco is trying out new things during his first autumn at Pitt.

I hope he gets over these sunset games. I’d like to see a lot more swifts at the chimney.

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, Kate St. John, Michelle Kienholz)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *