photo by itsmelizzle
Last week in the Atrium, digital strategist Dan Viens showed his documentary “On the Wing”, a film about the flock of thousands of Vaux’s Swifts that roosts in the chimney of nearby Chapman Elementary School during their annual southern migration.
Watching the birds float, flit and soar in amazing patterns in September every year is a beloved PDX tradition, and Viens wanted to capture its history, the conservation efforts surrounding it, and the “totally Portland” atmosphere of the bird-watching events.
According to the Audubon Society of Portland, the same flock of thousands of Vaux’s Swifts has been roosting in the chimney of Chapman Elementary School since the 1980s, and is one of the largest known roosting sites. For years, Portland residents have been gathering on the lawn to watch them swirl and dive en masse as they prepare to roost for the evening.
Viens told us that he had long wanted to make a film, but before moving to Portland in 2006, the right story hadn’t presented itself—until he came across the Chapman Swifts.
“I moved here and lived a block from where the Swifts were,” he said. “The first year I was here, I saw it happening every night and every morning. I learned more about them and it seemed like a really unique story, and I assumed it had already been told. I was really thrilled when I found out that it hadn’t, yet.”
Over the next year, he began reaching out to people in Portland that he knew were associated with the birds and the bird-watching events.
“They wanted to know who I was,” Viens said. “My response was like, ‘I just live in the neighborhood.’ You have to have some stake in it, because you’re asking a lot of people to be involved—it has to be something beyond ‘I just want to do it.’”
Tracking down the information became a rewarding albeit lengthy process.
“I started filming every night that season, and most mornings. I started talking to the Audubon people who were involved, and speaking with the people at Chapman,” Viens said. “As I started getting the trust of the people who were authorities on the issue, the thing turned into following a trail of breadcrumbs—they’d be like, ‘You have to talk to this guy who comes in the mornings,’ or, ‘You have to talk to Ruby’.”
Ruby Hall had lived in Portland for 50 years, and was the first person to see the swifts and report them to the Audubon Society. She died two years ago.
“She was a really important person,” Viens said. “I’m so happy that I got to talk to her, because now you can still hear her story. She loved the birds so much and was so excited about them, and if we hadn’t made this documentary, her story would have been lost.”
After the film was finished, Viens premiered it at Cinema 21, where it raised $7,500 for the Audubon Society of Portland.
Since then, On the Wing has been shown in multiple cities across the country, partly to show how conservation in the city can work, partly to show how much Swift migration can mean to a community, and in at least one instance, as part of a campaign to save a chimney in Monroe, Washington.
“I loved Portland, but in the process of making the film, my faith in the town grew,” Viens said. “It was a great experience that totally cemented everything I loved about Portland. It really taught me a lot about doing things that have a passionate community involved with it.”