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Taking swift action: Government, volunteers move quickly to protect endangered birds in Bridgetown

Roger Sturterant and Sharon Hawboldt are among the Bridgetown area bird enthusiasts working with the province to protect hundreds of Chimney Swifts roosting in the chimney of the old Bridgetown high school. - Paul Pickrem
Roger Sturterant and Sharon Hawboldt are among the Bridgetown area bird enthusiasts working with the province to protect hundreds of Chimney Swifts roosting in the chimney of the old Bridgetown high school. - Paul Pickrem - Contributed

The demolition of part of a Valley landmark is being delayed as the province and local birders seek to protect the habitat of an endangered bird.

Demolition of the chimney of the former high school in Bridgetown is being delayed  because endangered birds are roosting in it. - Paul Pickrem
Demolition of the chimney of the former high school in Bridgetown is being delayed because endangered birds are roosting in it. - Paul Pickrem

Chimney swifts have returned to several well-known nesting and roosting sites across the Valley, as they have done for decades. However, this summer, the birds have also been observed roosting in the chimney of the old Bridgetown high school, which is being demolished by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal. That prompted the province to ensure the chimney remains intact while the demolition of the rest of the large school continues.

Allison Manthorne is the Maritime swift watch coordinator for Bird Studies Canada. She says volunteers from a citizen science project informed her by email in early June that swifts were observed roosting in the large chimney at the demolition site.

After the new information was investigated by bird experts, Bird Studies Canada contacted the province and the Canadian Wildlife Service because swifts are a protected species.

Chimney Swifts are a protected species. - George Peck Photo
Chimney Swifts are a protected species. - George Peck Photo

‘Spectacular to watch’

She said the dark, sooty brown birds are about the size of a swallow, with a distinctive bow and arrow-shaped silhouette and very rapid wing beat, as well as a high twittering call.

These birds are also distinctive in that they are not able to perch or walk because of their body shape. They are designed to cling vertically to a tree, chimney or other vertical surface.

"You never see them at rest," Allison said.  "Most of us will see them flying above, while they are foraging for insects in the air."

She said the swifts, which are in serious decline across Canada, are of significant ecological value because they help manage the number of flies, mosquitoes and other flying insects.

Chimney swifts are a popular attraction for bird watchers when they return, sometimes in large numbers, to a roost site at dusk, circling almost in a funnel. And, just as it is getting dark, they will plummet down into that chimney and spend the night to rest.

"They are spectacular to watch," she said. " And, it’s a really unique opportunity for us to be able to walk out into our backyards, right in the middle of town and be able to see this rare and threatened bird flying into a roost site. So, I think the value of this bird is pretty evident. "

However, some homeowners have inquired if the birds are going to make a mess in their chimney or damage it in any way.

"The answer to that is a clear no," she said.

"They are very quiet. They are tidy, and they are only here from May to September."

Property owners are encouraged to avoid sweeping their chimney or doing any chimney maintenance between May and September.

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Chimney swifts find cozy roost in Truro chimney

Saying goodbye: Sixty-six years of Bridgetown Regional High School memories

It’s coming down: Old Bridgetown high school being demolished

Swifts are shown before entering a chimney to roost.  - Roger Hangarter photo
Swifts are shown before entering a chimney to roost. - Roger Hangarter photo

New roosting spot

Mark Elderkin is the species at risk biologist for the Department of Land and Forests. He said swifts were not known to use the chimney at the school as a roosting site in years past. However, cooler spring temperatures may have caused them to seek out large, massive structures, like the chimney at the school, because they hold the heat.

He said in an interview the demolition of the rest of the school building will not disturb the swifts, as long as the chimney itself remains intact until early September, when the birds are likely to have left the area.

If volunteers and bird experts observe the birds still roosting at that time, he said, other options may be considered.

A Chimney Swift in flight. - Michael Brown photo
A Chimney Swift in flight. - Michael Brown photo

Local birder Sharon Hawboldt was one of the volunteers who helped inform the Swift Watch about the roosting going on at the Bridgetown school. She remembers observing chimney swifts roosting when she taught school in Bear River and also has had swifts roosting in the chimney of her home.

She heartily recommends participating in the effort to protect bird habitat whenever possible.

"It just makes you more aware of what's going on and the impact we have as people in this world," she said.

"The protocol is very easy to follow. They make it very simple for anybody to do it."

Recently, cars have lined the street beside the school at dusk, as interested bird watchers gather to see the swifts settle into the chimney for the night. Hawboldt said she counted over 350 swifts at a time enter the chimney herself.

"It's quite a thrill to try to be able to count them and to be as accurate as possible. It's just a wonderful experience."

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