BY MARK PORTER
for Montclair Local
In past Septembers, the sight has been remarkable.
Hundreds of chimney swifts flitted around Buzz Aldrin School’s towering chimney. The birds darted in angular motions, rapidly flapping their wings, and then dive-bombing into the masonry smokestack.
An avid birdwatcher, Evan Cutler of Montclair has repeatedly recorded scenes of chimney swifts skittering in the sky and then rapidly cascading one after another into the chimney.
“They started flying around in a circle, around and around and around,” said Cutler. “Then, one by one, they dropped in.”
During migration they forage in flocks over forests and open areas, and roost in chimneys at night, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, affiliated with Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Buzz Aldrin’s chimney used to be that autumn roost for local chimney swifts.
The birds gather together preparing for their annual migration to South America. Ornithologists perceive that, as the nights become cooler, chimney swifts cluster together to conserve warmth. The flock then migrates en masse before their food source, flying insects, diminish in the autumn. The birds would move into Buzz Aldrin’s chimney stack for about 14 days. “Impossible to tell if it is the same birds from day to day, but for about two weeks there would be a substantial roost there every night,” Cutler said.
Last year, however, Cutler did not see any chimney swifts entering the school’s stack.
This month, too, there are no birds zipping around and into the smokestack.
Residing near Buzz Aldrin School, Cutler said that typically one family of chimney swifts resides in the stack. “You’d see five or six of them in the spring and early summer. Then, in September you’d see clouds of birds at dusk.”
Cutler said he’s not concerned. “I was up at the [Montclair] Hawk Watch and we saw hundreds of chimney swifts.”
Which is a good thing, as Cutler notes chimney swifts feast on flying insects, lessening the throngs of mosquitoes that prey on Montclair residents.
However, Allaboutbirds.org and other ornithological sites say chimney swifts have been in a long-term, rangewide decline since 1966. The result is a cumulative decline of 72 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.
Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 7.8 million, with 99 percent breeding in the U.S., and 1 percent in Canada. That may sound like big numbers, but “the 2014 State of the Birds Report listed the species as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. It rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score,” according to Allaboutbirds.org.
“They spend the winter in the upper Amazon basin of Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Brazil, where they are found in open terrain and on roosts in chimneys, churches, and caves,” according to the Cornell Lab.
Described by the late ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson as “cigars with wings,” and often misperceived by observers as bats, the guide produced by allaboutbirds.org provides this description: “Chimney swifts are very small birds with slender bodies and very long, narrow, curved wings. They have round heads, short necks, and short, tapered tails. The wide bill is so short that it is hard to see.”
Cutler’s been a bird watcher since childhood. A member of the Montclair Bird Club, he led a club-sponsored birding walk this past Saturday, Sept. 14, through Hilltop Reservation, an Essex County-owned park in Verona, Cedar Grove, North Caldwell and Caldwell that had once been the site of the Essex County Sanitarium for tuberculosis patients until it was razed. The county sold much of the property to a developer, but about 200 acres are preserved. The natural habitat is returning to areas once covered by the medical facility.
Leading the trek through Hilltop Reservation, Cutler and bird club colleague Bill Beren observed numerous birds, including chimney swifts.
While the birds can still be seen in New Jersey, chimney swifts are a species threatened by a loss of habitat, according to the Cornell Lab and other ornithological organizations. The birds’ chief habitats are in mortar and brick chimneys and old hollow trees. In recent decades, traditional chimneys are being replaced with ones that don’t provide the textures necessary for chimney swifts and their nests to cling to their surfaces. And municipalities remove dead or hollowed-out trees.
Buzz Aldrin School Principal Jill Sack said in an email that she wasn’t aware of any chimney work done at the school that would cause the chimney-seeking birds to fly elsewhere.
When September days fade to dusk, Cutler regularly walks over to the Bellevue Branch Library, St. Cassian Church or Buzz Aldrin School and peruses the sky for chimney swifts flitting in the sky and then rocketing into a smokestack.
“What I loved about these chimney swifts was how dependable they were,” observed Cutler. “We could always count on them coming back every September. As sad as it was to see summer end, their arrival was something we could always look forward to — something that would take the edge off the shorter days and the start of the school year.
I still stop by almost every evening, hoping they’ll arrive. And I guess there’s always next year.”