On their fall migration route, chimney swifts circle the chimney at Buzz Aldrin Middle School before entering one by one, Sept. 19. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By KATE ALBRIGHT & JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Evan Cutler from the Montclair Bird Club was nervous they might not show up. The previous day’s cold snap might have pushed the migrating birds south.

Within an hour, the number of birders waiting outside Buzz Aldrin School on Sunday, Sept. 19, to see them rose from a couple dozen to 90. 

They gathered for a once-a-year early fall spectacle — when the chimney swifts make their way to Buzz Aldrin School to rest in the chimney during their migration to South America.

After about 20 minutes Cutler announced: “I hear them,” as high-pitched chirps were heard in the distance. 

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“All right, we have a few!” he shouted to the crowd. 

Organizer Evan Cutler, who said the previous night’s cold front could have sent the birds on their way south, is relieved when he spots the first few arrivals, Sept. 19. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

At one time the swifts nested in hollow trees, but as fewer hollow trees were to be found the swifts adapted to using chimneys to nest — or rest. 

Cutler said it is “hit or miss” if the chimney swifts show up at Buzz Aldrin. If they do, the birds stay only for a short while. 

“Two days ago I counted 200 entering the chimney. And the most I’ve ever counted was a little shy of 500,” Cutler said.

On Sunday at dusk, about 135 of the birds made their way to the chimney for a little respite. For the residents-turned-birders for the night, it was quite the sight.

There are very few studies on chimney swifts, but Cutler believes that “through word of mouth” the birds found out the chimney at Buzz Aldrin is a “great stop en route.” 

They’re communal birds, and they like to migrate together. Cutler thinks the knowledge of the route is passed on through genetic imprinting.

“So I’m sure a lot of these birds are descendants of this chimney. And a lot of birds just learned through — who knows how. I mean, there’s so much about birds people don’t know about,” he said.

Cutler first noticed the chimney swifts at Buzz Aldrin when he moved to Montclair about 18 years ago. “I live around the corner, and I’ve always been a birder. So one day I was just walking by here and I saw a giant circle of chimney swifts flying over the chimney. And then all of a sudden one goes in and then the rest follow. Boom, boom, boom.”

Onlookers smile as they watch the chimney swifts enter the chimney of Buzz Aldrin Middle School one by one, Sept. 19. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Seeing if the chimney swifts decide to stop in Montclair has become an obsession of Cutler’s. He tries to walk by every evening from the end of August through the third week of September. 

He doesn’t know if the birds stay for just one night or for longer. Some may stay for a couple of weeks, and some may just come and go, he said.

He said there are so many mysteries to the swifts — one being he has never seen them leave for the year.  

“They fly all day long,” Cutler said. “Their legs are really weak. They don’t really even know how to perch on a tree, but they do know how to cling to the mortar. So they just find a spot somewhere there for the night, and they just fly around until they find the right spot. They will go the entire day without landing. They fly with their mouths open, eating insects. [At the chimney] they get caught up [with each other], they exchange some stories, they call it a night and go in.”

Once inside, they cling to the mortar inside the chimney.

Mosquitoes are a big part of their diet; in the course of a year they eat three pounds of mosquitoes, he said.

People often mistake them for bats, Cutler said: “They look a lot like bats and they fly like bats.”

Michelle Johnson-Lewis attended with her binoculars. She lives up the street from Buzz Aldrin. She and her son are just taking up birding, getting interested in it during the pandemic, she said.

“[Tonight] was a wonderful experience, and I really enjoyed the gentleman [Cutler] providing us with information about the birds and exactly what was happening,” Johnson-Lewis said.

The official counters of the evening were brothers Max Randall, age 11, and Sam Randall, age 8. They counted 133 birds. 

The brothers got into birding thanks to their birder grandmother, who sent them a feeder during the pandemic. They now have five bird feeders and a fountain. 

“It was really cool. I’ve never seen anything like birds going into a chimney,” Max said.