Doug Cerise lounged against his Jeep Wrangler, eating kettle corn and watching the sky.
“There’s beer in the cooler,” he said.
Cerise’s wife, Liegh, watched from under the arched roll bars of the Jeep, one of about a dozen vehicles parked along North Second Street in Northville on Monday night.
People gathered from all over the area, waiting for a cloud of chimney swifts to return from the rainforests of Peru to the village’s Hubbell chimney. It’s become a village tradition, with both birds and bird-watchers arriving at the chimney on May 6 like clockwork for 100 years.
“This is our first time,” Doug Cerise said. “We just moved to the area.”
It wasn’t an ideal year for the couple to join the tradition. The Hubbell chimney, which towered 50 feet over its grassy vacant lot until last year, has since been reduced to a 5-foot-by-5-foot concrete slab by a guy in a backhoe.
Monday night the slab was adorned by a single skull-sized stone stained with bird guano — but not from swifts.
As the sun crept toward the horizon, a small crowd of about 40 gathered to see what would happen now that the chimney is gone.
Ryland Loos came from Altamont with his camera. He was on a fly-fishing trip in the area and stopped by.
“They might attack us all when they see it’s gone,” he laughed in what’s left of his childhood Missouri accent. “It could be like ‘The Birds,’ like Hitchcock.”
He imparted useful tidbits about fly-fishing and occasionally about chimney swifts to passers-by as the crowd waited for sunset and the birds to return.
“In Missouri we used to call them cigars with wings,” he said, holding up a finger to demonstrate, “because their bodies are like cigars.”
It was a hopeful little crowd. A fellow straddling his big Harley Davidson squinted into the sun. A Boston University English professor tying the swift return to some aspect of the human condition in a literary essay thumbed through a notepad. Gliding among all of them was Linda Mosher on her electric mobility scooter, handing out informational pamphlets.
“I started coming here for the swift return in ’63,” she said. “I had three kids then. We’d all come down.”
A few hundred swifts made the chimney their home every summer for nearly a century, even after the old Hubbell glove factory burned to the ground. Mosher recounted 50 years of village festivals based around the birds’ return.
“The village would block off the street,” she said. “It would be full of kids on bikes, Boy Scouts selling fried dough, hundreds of people. We’d have quite a party. It’s what held the village together.”
But the chimney got old and the owner, worrying about liability should the whole thing collapse on a birdwatcher, demolished it this past winter.
Mosher and a few village residents raised pledges to build a smaller plywood replacement chimney on a section of land just a few yards from the old one, but the project got held up in red tape and insurance paperwork.
“My heart’s in my throat,” she said, waiting to see what the swifts would do when they saw their chimney was gone.
She told the chimney’s story until the sun dropped well below the trees and village roof lines, until just after 8, when she said they would surely arrive.
At about 8:20, a group of seven swifts silhouetted by what light remained in the sky zipped past. The Boston English professor, a wiry man named Bill Loizeaux, leaped forward, his arm raised.
“There,” he said. “You can hear them before you can see them.”
The group flew past once, looking sure enough like flying cigars. They circled around a few times, and as the light dissipated, they were gone.
“It was kind of silly if that was it,” Loos said.
It was unclear what people expected. There was no place for the birds to land and no chimney large enough to house the swirling mass of swifts Mosher described funneling all at once into the Hubbell chimney of her youth.
“It seems they have well and truly relocated,” she said.
The villagers still plan to build the new chimney, but no one knows if the birds will ever come back to Northville after this year.
In the darkness, people slipped away. Car doors slammed.
“I think I’ll stay here a few more minutes,” Mosher said.
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