By Judy Alles, Publicity Chair, Pilchuck Audubon Society

What do 11 orphaned Vaux’s Swift babies want more than anything else in the world? A gentle touch, plenty to eat, a bathroom lined with towels and blankets where they can practice flying and, eventually, release into the wild so they can join other Vaux’s swifts. And thanks to the excellent care and feeding of Tamara Schemp of Covington, Washington, 11 orphaned swifts were released into a large flock of swifts flying over the Wagner Center chimney in Monroe, Washington on July 25, 2014. One other swift, not yet able to fly well, stayed with four recent rescues in their cozy crate.

Twelve baby swifts were rescued in June after falling to the bottom of chimneys in the Auburn, Kent and Puyallup areas. It is believed that, because of unusually hot weather this summer, their nests fell apart and the little ones tumbled down. They were rescued and taken to the South Sound Critter Care facility in Kent, Washington, and one of their outstanding volunteers, Tamara Schemp, raised them until they could fly well enough to re-join a flock.

You might wonder how anyone can raise a baby swift to independence. It really is a daunting task. As a surrogate parent for the baby swifts, Tamara fed them beheaded meal worms every 15 minutes all day long and nearly all night long. Imagine what your life would be like if you had to stop whatever you were doing every 15 minutes to feed 12 hungry babies who were squawking loudly. After taking 10 minutes to feed them, you have about 15 minutes to grab a sandwich, make a phone call, get the paper, sit down for a few moments, watch half of a short program on TV, walk the dog, or take half of a shower (you get to take the other half after you feed your hungry little guests again). Your life is literally put on hold as you attempt to emulate the loving care that two swift parents would give to their babies. And all because your big, loving heart cannot ignore the plight of these darling little birds. Talk about an angel on earth! Here is one named Tamara.

Tamara has been a volunteer for over 4 years and has rehabilitated many different kinds of birds. She said that Vaux’s swifts are the sweetest, gentlest birds she has ever handled. That really touches the hearts of the Monroe Swift Watch volunteers who have been counting Vaux’s swifts at the Wagner Center chimney in Monroe for seven years now. For 10 weeks each spring and fall, seven volunteers spend 3 hours per day counting the swifts that enter the chimney. That adds up to about 420 hours per person over the seven years we have been studying the swifts in Monroe. After all that time one gets quite attached to these little birds.

Two of our counters present at the release, Cathy Clark and Judy Alles, have been with the Swift Watch program since its inception. Neither had ever been so close to a living Vaux’s swift. Usually the swifts are about 50 feet overhead. But that evening each person held a baby swift in her hand. It was a dream come true. Cathy described their feelings perfectly: “Holding our breath even while mouthing ‘You can do it’ encouragements, Judy and I watched Tamara lift the first fledgling up from its cluster of nestmates.  A scattered flock of Vaux’s swifts was chittering about the Frank Wagner chimney as our tiny pioneer appeared to be assessing the situation. After a few moments, the bird dropped off her hand, nearly grazing the ground in a low arc of flight out and across the street (!) to rise up and disappear into the heights, without a backward glance or so much as a ‘thank you very much.’

This was an act of faith for Tamara, a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer from Covington…She didn’t know what to expect, but she had done her homework, and trusted that this place offered the best opportunity for successfully integrating her charges into a flock. One bird after another, sometimes 2 or 3 at a time, she lifted them up to their maiden flight, each following the trajectory of the lead bird. She passed one each to Judy and me, the little claws gripping our hands like soft Velcro. We were already so in love with these birds. (How else does one explain the many hours we’ve collectively spent counting their prolific thousands entering the chimney?) I don’t think it was by coincidence that exactly 11 birds so frequently were swooping just above our heads. This was the thanks. The final act was seeing to it that all the birds made it into the chimney — how do they manage that first attempt? — and we pictured their little group gathering up together in there.”

Judy concurred with Cathy and added, “It was pure joy — holding a wee swift in the palm of your hand. I was in love before but now I am head over heels! A truly unforgettable experience! Be still my heart!”

Kudos to Tamara Schemp for saving so many sweet little beings. Thanks for a job well done, Tamara!

Please visit the Monroe chimney (639 W. Main, Monroe) any evening during the next month close to sunset to see the Vaux’s swifts gathering and entering the chimney to roost for the night. Or come to Monroe Swift Night Out on Saturday, September 13, from 5:00 p.m. until Dusk to learn more about the swifts and to witness this wonderful natural event.

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