Monroe Swift Watch brings burgeoning birdwatching hobby to North Sound

Bob Sindelar and his wife Sheila are hooked on bird watching. They arrived in Marysville from Florida four years ago and are using birds as an excuse to get out and see their new world.

  • Thursday, August 28, 2008 7:18pm
  • Life

Sheila Sindelar perches in a tree in the effort to spot a some kind of bird in the distance.

Bob Sindelar and his wife Sheila are hooked on bird watching.

They arrived in Marysville from Florida four years ago and are using birds as an excuse to get out and see their new world.

Ironically, they discovered the thrill of watching birds in New York City.

“After we moved to Marysville, we went to New York where we first met and got married. We were visiting an old friend who took us bird watching in Central Park,” Bob Sindelar told The Arlington Times recently.

Upon return to their new Pacific Northwest home, they bought the binoculars and the scope and started to scoping out the possibilities, including contacting the Pilchuck Audubon Society.

With a background in marketing, Bob was immediately recruited to do publicity for PAS.

“This region is so beautiful, and birding gives us a reason to explore every dead end road,” he said, noting the irony of having lived in Florida, a place that many birders consider to be like the Mecca of birds.

“We just had not discovered birding yet,” he said. Sindelar deals in antiques and now does his marketing online.

“The good thing about birding is that it can be enjoyed by anyone, anytime, anywhere,” Sindelar said. According to Sindelar, birdwatching is the fastest growing hobby in America.

“Birding, as it’s termed by regulars, is hot,” Sindelar said.

He cites statistics that other wildlife sports like fishing and hunting, are declining by about four to ten percent a year.

“American birders are now some 50 million strong and growing,” Sindelar said.

In Washington alone there are eight bird festivals each year with more being added regularly, he said.

Even Arlington has launched its own bird event, with the new Arlington Eagle Festival, which was launched in February of this year, and with plans to grow even bigger this coming Feb. 9, 2009.

British Columbia, too, is adding more bird festivals, Sindelar said.

It’s no wonder birdwatching is especially popular in Washington and the Pacific Northwest, with 480 species of birds identified and another 350 considered regular visitors.

Swift Night Out

Sindelar is excited about another new bird event that will enlighten people about one specific type of bird. The Monroe Swift Watch, from Sept. 6 – 21, begins with Swift Night Out, Sept. 6. There will be a speaker and information booths, activities for kids, snacks and drinks, and docents to answer questions — all topped off by the stunning aerial performance of hundreds, if not thousands, of Swifts.

The Swift Watch continues with docents available from

6 – 8 p.m. through Sept. 21 at Frank Wagner Elementary School, 638 W. Main St., Monroe.

Vaux’s Swifts are attracted to the old brick chimney at the school.

Named after an Englishman, Vaux’s, is pronounced “Vawks” rather than “Voh.” It is the smallest of the four species of swifts in North America.

Just four inches long and, with a short bill and squared-off tail, it looks rather like a flying cigar, Sindelar said.

“We thought they were bats,” said one of the young teen skateboarders, staring up at the flock of small black birds swirling around in the air above the Monroe school.

Indeed, they look a bit like bats, or maybe swallows, as they dart back and forth in the dimming light.

The skateboarders were watching one of nature’s strangest sights: Hundreds of Vaux’s Swifts, about to become thousands, preparing to swirl down for the night into an old brick chimney.

The sight is seen for about a month or more, during spring and fall migrations.

The swifts spend almost all of daylight hours in the air, foraging with their wide-open bills acting like traps as they fly through swarms of insects, consuming as many as 20,000 bugs a day to satisfy their voracious appetite.

When not feeding, the few remaining airborne hours are spent collecting nesting materials, courting and even copulating, all in flight.

As the sun begins to settle, their thoughts turn to nesting. Their favorite roosting areas are in large, old, hollow trees. But, with the ever diminishing forests and the encroachment of human populations, the swifts have been forced to find other nesting areas.

Old stone or brick chimneys turn out to be just about perfect.

Swifts are not perching birds. Their small, curved claw structure is designed to cling to vertical surfaces rather than to perch on branches. The interior walls of old chimneys provide the ideal clinging surface.

As the sunlight begins to fade, more and more swifts appear, and they swirl in tighter and tighter circles, grabbing that last mouthful of insects until, as if in response to a common signal, they begin dropping, tail first, scores at a time, into the chimney.

Inside the chimney they cling to the walls, overlapping like shingles on a roof, huddling together and lowering their metabolism to conserve heat.

Sindelar said the Monroe Swift Watch is scheduled during the fall migration of Vaux’s Swifts from southeastern Alaska and northwestern Canada. He said there are 29 known migration roosting sites in Washington, and the chimney at Monroe’s Wagner Elementary School is the largest. It is the second largest in North America, with more than 20,000 swifts counted one night during the spring migration.

The fall migration, he said, is always larger since they just spent most of the summer raising three to seven young. The swifts typically spend a few weeks roosting in Monroe before moving on to their winter homes in Central America and Venezuela.

The Monroe Swift Watch is cosponsored by Pilchuck Audubon Society, Seattle Audubon Society, Eastside Audubon Society, Monroe School District #103, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, PAWS Wildlife Center, Wild Birds Unlimited-Monroe, and many community members.

Washington Audubon boasts 26 chapters in the state, and our local 1500-member Pilchuck Audubon is one of the most active, both in birding and conservation efforts, Sindelar said.

“Birders are a good group of people,” he said.

“The purpose of the Swift Watch is to raise awareness and to convince to community to do some much needed refurbishing of the chimney that the swifts use.”

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