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It’s the kind of event that could make the average Portlander (if they weren’t flexible from all that yoga) dislocate a shoulder from patting themselves on the back for how cool their city is.  Even in my state of I-don’t-really-belong-in-my-home-town cynicism, I have to admit that this is pretty special.  An incredible natural display in the sky above, and on the ground below a warm, fuzzy, urban scene that would make the world’s most committed hermit believe in community.  September is the best month to be in Oregon.  And watching the swifts at Chapman Elementary School is one of the best things to do in Portland.

Spectacle in the Sky

Gazing upwards, at first I see nothing.  But as the light fades the swifts start to appear – small, chattering, fast moving flecks in the sky.  More and more arrive, swooping and spiraling around as they prepare to roost for the night.  They are migratory birds, passing through Portland on their way to Central America or Venezuela.  They typically roost by hanging on the inside walls of dead, hollowed-out trees, but there are fewer and fewer of those around, so they go for the next best thing – a chimney.

As the evening stretches on, more and more birds arrive.  They swarm around making a giant figure eight in the sky.  Sometimes they are not alone.  A hawk or falcon will show up to take advantage of the passing buffet- high drama in the sky.  Then suddenly, as if someone had given a signal, the birds will dive down into the chimney.

 K. Kendall's photo of swifts entering the chimney of a Portland elementary school.

The grand finale. Photo by K. Kendall.

A Portland Scene

Though not nearly as dramatic, the scene on the ground is pretty cool too.  Families come with picnics. Kids bring pieces of cardboard to use as sleds sliding down the grassy slope outside the school- a “kid mosh pit” I heard a woman say.  Everyone “oohs” and “ahs” and applauds the birds.  An independent film maker was so taken with the scene that he made a movie about it.

Eli Duke's photo of a young Portland businessman.

Young Portland entrepreneur. Photo by Eli Duke.

The story of the Portland swifts follows a happy narrative of human cooperation. There is an inherit problem with using a chimney as a roosting site.  People also use chimneys for heat.  Some years the swifts don’t leave until mid-October when things are getting chilly.  With the blessing of the students (they voted on it) the school decided not to turn the furnace on until the birds left, but how do you teach arithmetic to a shivering child? In 2000, the school and the Portland Audubon Society worked together raising funds to convert the heating system and stabilize the chimney.  Now the kids can be warm even when the birds are in town.

K. Kendall's photo of the crowd at Chapman Elementary.

Portlanders gather for the sky show. Photo by K. Kendall.

How to See the Swifts

Where: Chapman Elementary School is located at 1445 NW 26th.

When: An hour or so before sunset on any September evening.

What to Bring:  You don’t have to bring anything, but you may be more comfortable if you have a blanket or chair to sit on.  And why not pack a picnic?

Price: Free!

How Many Birds Will I See?  Thousands.  Literally.  Counts (some lucky soul from the Audubon attempts to count every night) range from 2,000 to 15,000.  Numbers usually peak in the middle of the month.  Check the Portland Audubon Society Swiftwatch page for more information.

Welcome to the City of Roses. Portland is so quirky, progressive and politically correct it has earned the distinction of being satirized in a sketch comedy series (Portlandia – Independent Film Channel). Bring your sense of fun and your all weather shoes.

Where to Eat?

At a brew pub, of course! You’re in the Pacific Northwest so sud-sipping is required. Portland prides itself on local micro-brews and beer lovers will not be disappointed.

Beerwise, I’m very fond of Deschutes Brewery (210 NW 11th Ave).  Their Black Butte Porter and Mirror Pond Amber are both excellent choices.

If you’re a dog lover go to Lucky Lab (915 SE Hawthorne Blvd).  You can enjoy good pub fare while being in the company of man’s best friend, as many people bring their canines to the pub.

McMenamin’s Beers (photo byChristopher)

For atmosphere, no one does it better than McMenamin’s. Pioneers in micro-brewing, the McMenamin brothers had such success that they expanded into theaters, hotels, and dances halls- all serving their famous beers.  Many of their properties are historic buildings which they have restored, adding luscious gardens and delightful artwork.  You can drink in the name of historic preservation.  Their pubs are ubiquitous.  Here are a few of the best known Portland locations:

Bagdad Theater and Pub – 3702 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.
Kennedy School – 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave
Crystal Ballroom and Hotel – 303 S.W. 12th Ave.

For more information on Portland’s Beer scene checkout Beer Advocate.

Don’t like beer? (Really?) Try one of the many food carts.  A few years ago the city revamped their regulations making it much easier to own and operate a food cart.  The phenomenon blossomed and the streets of Portland now offer a plethora of ethnic delights for relatively little money.

Where to Stay?

The AAE Portland Downtown hotel  is perfect for the budget traveler with excellent rates and a convenient location.

Staying at a  bed and breakfast  might put you out a few more dollars, but offers a chance to enjoy some of Portland’s scenic neighborhoods.

McMenamin’s has three hotels in Portland, all located in historic buildings and allowing you easy access to that most important of amenities- beer.

What to Do?

Washington Park dominates the hills on the west side of Portland. In addition to a great view of the city, it’s attractions include the International Rose Test Garden, Japanese Garden, Oregon Zoo, Hoyt Arboretum, Portland Children’s museum and the world Forestry Center.  There are picnic areas, tennis courts, even an archery field.  The amphitheater near the rose garden hosts concerts and other performances in the summer and the zoo also hosts weekly concerts.

Endless options in Powell’s City of Books by Malcolm Tredinnick

That’s all well and good, you say, but it’s raining.  Naturally.  All that greenery has a price.  To while away a soggy afternoon, head to Powell’s City of Books (1005 W Burnside). Powell’s is a Portland institution and the largest new and used book store in the world.  It has multiple stories (no pun intended) and occupies an entire city block.  You can easily spend hours here, and if you stick to used books you may be able to escape without spending too much money (no sales tax in Oregon!).  When you enter the store, head for the information desk and ask for the maps.  They’ll give you one of the store as well as a walking map of downtown Portland.  Then let yourself get lost amidst the shelves…

City Explorers Tip:

Trimet, the local public transport system, offers some useful free applications for your smart-phone or i-thing:

“PDX Bus” has a trip planner, maps and arrival times for all Portland public transit.

“Walk There!” is a free app which guides you through ten walks in and around the Portland metro area – a great way to get familiar with the city.

If you want to experience something truly quirky- time your visit for Trek in the Park, an annual event in which a local theater group performs episode from the original Star Trek series.

Or if you happen to be in Portland in mid-September, head to Chapman Elementary School at twilight to see the incredible spectacle of thousands of birds entering a chimney within a matter of minutes.

A Day Off the Beaten Path:

Portland’s Forest Park covers over five thousand acres, making it the largest park within city limits in the United States. It connects with various other parks and together they offer a 40-mile hiking loop.  The most famous trail, the Wildwood Trail meanders through more than 30 miles of lush woodland.  Get a map, pack a lunch and dress in layers.

At times you will be rewarded with beautiful vistas of the city.  Most of the time, you won’t remember that you’re in a city at all.  The trail can be accessed from multiple points.  I like to start at Pittock Mansion (a historic home/museum which is also worth a visit), or from Cathedral Park to enjoy a view of Portland’s loveliest bridge.

Wildwood Trail by Robert Nunnally

Either way, the only disappointing thing about the trail is that you probably won’t have time to do all of it.
So there you have it- beer, books, nature. Wildlife and wild life.  Enjoy your stay and follow the advise of a popular local bumper sticker: Keep Portland Weird!