Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
September, 2009
Regional Report

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Alice Reiff and Sarah Taylor with son Jonathan took advantage of a sunny Saturday September morning to plant perennials and shrubs to beautify Philadelphia's Inn Yard Park.

Roosting High ... and Low

These next few weeks, while most of us are eating supper, a knowing group of nature phenomenon fans will be looking skyward. Make that smokestack level. With binoculars in hand. They'll watch in awe as hundreds and hundreds of chimney swifts circle, swirl, swarm, then fly into large smokestacks at sunset.

The music and magic start slowly at 6:50 or 7pm, with high-pitched chirping and 10 or 12 black specs in the sky. Swifts sing and swoop high above rooftops and 'round and 'round the block before swirling around the chimney. In about 20 minutes, some 900 to 2,000 swifts appear -- then disappear headfirst down the stack.

In Philadelphia, chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) have three favorite locations -- sturdy, red brick schools in Chestnut Hill, Manayunk, and Roxborough. Sometimes the swifts occupy all three chimneys. This year though, they surprised admirers, birders, and naturalists by choosing one -- the Dobson School stack on Umbria Street, Roxborough.

During the night, the swift parents with their young will roost upright, clinging to the chimney wall two or three deep, explained Debbie Carr, Fairmount Park Director of Environmental Education. Come early morning, they'll fly up and out for another day of insect eating. "They fly all day. They do everything on the wing -- feeding on insects, bathing, even drinking," said Carr.

The large school smokestack is a staging area and roosting site, she added. "They come together and get ready for migration -- I think the swirling is a beacon." Inside the chimney, the 5-inch swifts are safe from the elements. Their hooked claws and short, spine-tipped tail feathers anchor them vertically on the chimney wall.

At some instinctually determined moment, they'll have sufficient numbers from Canada and points north to fly south to the next chimney. They're on the 6,000-mile journey pursuing insect prey en route to Ecuador, Peru, Chile for the winter.

Historically, swifts roosted and nested in hollow trees in old growth forests, Carr said. They've adapted to use industrial society's chimneys, silos, barns, abandoned buildings. As homeowners cap their chimneys, swifts have fewer places to lay their eggs in spring and rest on their autumn migration.

In conservation effort, the North American Chimney Swift Nest Site Research Project (NSRP) is designing and testing alternate nesting structures, "chimney swift towers," people can build.

Community On The Ground
Human parents, their young, and several dedicated East Falls neighbors enhanced their own roosting and staging area recently. Alice Rieff, Sarah Taylor, and other Friends of Inn Yard Park put foot to shovel, planting low-maintenance perennials and shrubs to highlight the park's entrance and signs.

"I want my kid to have a safe, beautiful place to play," said Taylor, a seven-year resident. "I'm going to be here a long time. I want to have a space where families can be together and kids can run around. And more green space to conserve water and reduce runoff."

The multi-generational project used the last $600 of a Philadelphia-approved $2,500 Activities Fund Grant written with children, safety, and community improvement in mind.

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