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Dozens gather downtown to watch Vaux’s swifts swoop in for the night

Vaux’s swifts
Jada Domanski, left, and National Park Service Ranger Kya-Marina Le keep an eye out from Spring Street Park as a flock of Vaux’s swifts begin to fly overhead.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Even in the urban jungle, wildlife is all around. But you might have to train your eyes to see it. You might have to pause in your tracks.

This is the message National Park Service rangers hoped to convey one recent evening by their uniformed presence in the middle of downtown L.A.

If their Stetsons and khakis, their telescope and binoculars, looked incongruous amid sidewalk and skyscraper, they weren’t, they said. Just stop for a moment. Gaze up at the darkening sky.

Come sunset, the Vaux’s swifts would be swooping in for the night, during one of their annual stays in the city, as they made their way south for winter.

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Trust them, the rangers told those out walking their dogs or heading home from work on Friday night. The swifts would be a sight to see, worth a few moments even of a busy city dweller’s time.

Ranger Kya-Marina Le, serving as the Vanna White of the Vaux’s, grinned and held up a handmade poster-board display: “What is a swift?” (“Vaux’s sounds like Foxes but with a “V.”)

Poor little fast-flying birds that always roost en masse. A hollowed-out tree makes a perfect resting place. But fewer and fewer such trees exist on their migratory route. So long ago, they began making do with chimneys.

Not any chimney will do. The birds can’t perch. They cling. A modern, smoothly lined chamber leaves them nothing to grip. Recent times have not been kind.

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Brick is good, and for years the swifts could count on the crags of the chimney atop the Chester Williams Building at 5th and Broadway. But then developers, reinventing the 1926 office block, capped the opening as they built luxury apartments.

In the Spring Street Park, where the rangers had set up camp, they could see a slice of the swifts’ latest stopping place, in a chimney on the western end of the rooftop of the Spring Arts Tower at 5th and Spring.

Theirs wasn’t, granted, the very closest view. That was the spot chosen by the Audubon Center at Debs Park hosting a gathering called “Birds Over Broadway” on the roof of Joe’s Auto Park, a block west and several stories higher.

But being at street level gave the rangers the chance to spread word of the swifts to those who might otherwise never learn of them.

News had gone out, via email and Facebook, to birders all over the area. Plenty showed up at the Spring Street Park, from the Westside, from the South Bay, from the San Fernando Valley. There were teachers, there were children. There was a Long Beach artist working on a community project called Bird UP! involving building and decorating birdhouses as a way to connect urban people to nature.

Connie Day, 72, of Santa Monica and Marge Campbell, 88, who lives near UCLA, said this was for them a rare trip downtown. “Who knew there was a park in downtown L.A.?” Campbell said as she looked around her, before they found a bench on which to enjoy their picnic of chicken tarragon wraps, grapes and chocolate-covered almonds.

Fernando Castro, 62, a government worker downtown, said he’d grown up in a house full of songbirds as a child in Colombia. His father would bring them bananas and mangoes and try to coax them into song every morning. The sight of birds, he said, sent his thoughts flying back over the years to sunsets in the tropics.

The swifts, he said, especially moved him, “being able to adapt to an obstacle that we have placed on them, being able to cope and to embrace it and just move on.”

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“They’re able to give us consolation, to ground us, to give us a context. They remind us of the preciousness of the moment.”

At first, only a few of the small gray-brown birds at a time flitted high in the sky above the park. A Cooper’s hawk swooped in and grabbed one. Ravens perched on a lamppost in wait. People, Ranger Anthony Bevilacqua explained, weren’t the only beings who made the swifts’ journey perilous.

In the little park that opened a little over a year ago on the site of a former parking lot, the birds weren’t the only entertainment. A couple kissed and kissed on a bench. People sprawled, surrounded by shopping bags. The smell of pot clung to the warm air.

Joseph Marlbrough, who said he’d been on a bench doing homework for an electrical class, took awhile to come see why the rangers were there. Soon after he did, a woman wearing a sunshine-yellow dress and teal cowboy boots swept into the park on a vintage bicycle, with a green and yellow parrot in its basket. “What are we seeing here?” Marlo Page asked as she came to a stop in front of the gathering. Marlbrough rushed over to Le, took the poster board and proceeded to give Page and Rainbow the parrot the lowdown.

Suddenly, as he did so, across the sky, the Vaux’s swifts began to swoop and swish. Together they fluttered, like a sheet blowing in the wind to dry. Then they suddenly swirled and corkscrewed as one, into the chimney and out of sight.

It wasn’t the thousands that have come all at once in years past. Not even the 1,500 or so seen in the same spot just a few nights earlier. In all, in the evening’s viewing, there were maybe 500, Bevilacqua said, and perhaps only 120 or so in that final vortex.

But still, what a thrill in the big city, as strangers stood shoulder to shoulder, necks craned, watching them eddy and sway.

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