New Year’s Day hike discovery: Rehoboth’s chimney swift tower
It started as a New Year’s Day hike from our house on School Lane in Lewes. That hike of 8.9 miles meandered through Cape Henlopen State Park’s thousands of acres and ended just a few blocks short of School Lane in Rehoboth Beach. Trails, piney and duney wilderness, an antique tractor, and an environmental lesson in between.
Who knew that our exploration would lead to a chimney swift tower on the banks of the canal with a connection to the ongoing demolition of older homes in the resort?
But isn’t that what discovery is all about?
The chimney swift tower looks like the oversized protective structure around a rain gauge. It perches on the canal bank, on the city side of the Rehoboth Avenue drawbridge. Rehoboth communications director Krys Johnson hooked me up with Cindy Lovett for the story behind the story.
Cindy’s husband, Paul, is part of the Lovett family that owned the Oak Grove cottage complex behind and including the former McQuay’s Market on Rehoboth Avenue, which is now home to the popular Egg restaurant. The property fronts on Canal Street and the tree-lined, narrow linear park where walkers can stop and rest on benches overlooking the canal.
The family subdivided the property in recent years for residential building lots. While they were able to preserve many of the stately oaks for which the cottage complex was named, modest cottages that hosted summer visitors for decades were taken down. That’s where the swift story begins.
“We lived for a number of years overtop the market,” said Cindy. “In the spring and summer we would watch the swifts return from their winter homes, and go in and out of the chimney of one of the cottages on the property. They had taken up summer residence there along with the human guests. I think it was one of the original camp meeting tents, as they were called, that had been added on to. We tried to give the building away to anyone who would move it, but no one came forward so it had to be taken down.”
Cindy said taking away the chimney roost for the birds known as chimney swifts disturbed her. “I promised myself that I would put something back.”
A Christmas present
Paul engaged Uncle Charlie of Egg to use his construction skills to build a chimney swift tower for the birds. Using plans found through the website chimneyswifts.org, Uncle Charlie built the elaborate structure. The Lovetts worked through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to receive a license to install a concrete pad and mount the tower on the canalside land owned by the Corps. Cindy’s husband gave her the tower as a Christmas present three years ago.
“The site was important,” said Cindy. “It has a lot to do with surroundings. We knew people wouldn’t be able to build next to it, we knew there were flyway openings so swifts could get to it, plus we could see it from our home across the street. It was always fun for us to watch them coming in at dusk and going into the chimney.” That was the experience they wanted to re-create.
An informational plaque posted on the chimney swift tower explains that chimney swifts spend all of their waking hours in the air, only resting at night by going into the hollowed-out trunks of dead trees and into chimneys. Inside those protective spaces, they roost by clinging to the rough vertical surfaces with curved, pointed toenails and locking legs.
Doesn’t sound like a recipe for a good night’s sleep but it apparently works for the swifts. The chimney swift tower is designed to replicate that habitat.
It’s been three years since the tower was erected, but so far no success. “No swifts yet,” said Cindy. “Maybe the disruption from construction on the drawbridge and work related to the ocean outfall along Canal Street has worked against them. But we’re hopeful that this spring they will make their way back.”
Now for the environmental lesson.
Cindy said she would love to see an organization like the Boy Scouts or Village Improvement Association put up more towers in Rehoboth’s parks. ‘“With all the houses being torn down in Rehoboth, a lot of the resting places are being lost and with them the swifts. The problem is that the swifts eat bugs all day long – nonstop.” She said losing those troops of bug-eaters is not good for Rehoboth.
The Oak Grove chimney is not the only place in Rehoboth where Cindy has seen swifts on a regular basis. “There are lots of them, at least 150, that fly into the chimney of the Rehoboth Beach Post Office at dusk in the summertime. Lots of people think they are bats, but there’s an easy way to tell the difference. Bats go out at night. Swifts go in. Their numbers peak in the middle of the summer, before they start thinking about heading south again.”
So there you have it. As for the antique tractor, after years of service pulling the beach rake that cleans the Gordons Pond beaches, it’s sitting at the south end of the Gordons Pond parking lot awaiting auction as surplus state property. A new tractor has been purchased to replace the old workhorse. See a photo of the tractor, and the chimney swift tower plaque, with this column at capegazette.com.
When you’re done pressing the buttons to get to those photos, cross your fingers and hope with Cindy that this spring the returning swifts will find her tower and eat lots of bugs in Rehoboth.