Published Aug. 26, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Colorado black swift wintering grounds are found in Brazil. Future research may lead to new Wyoming records.”
2014 Update: For the latest on Black Swift research, go to the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, www.rmbo.org, and enter “Black Swift” in the search box.
By Barb Gorges
Imagine that in 2009 there was still one bird species whose wintering location was still unknown. And imagine that for that same bird species, few of its nesting colonies had even been found until the late 1990s.
Let me introduce the black swift, the North American subspecies (not that the southern subspecies is better known).
At 7.5 inches long, the black swift is longer than our local chimney swift by 2 inches and its wingspan is an 18-inch curve. Swifts are perpetual bug-eating flying machines that might be mistaken for swallows but look more like flying cigars with wings.
The first black swift was documented in 1857 on Puget Sound in Washington State, and the first nests in 1901 in California sea caves where ocean spray kept them moist. By 1919, intrepid egg collectors found their nests behind mountain waterfalls.
In the 1950s, Owen A. Knorr made the black swift his master’s thesis at Colorado University in Boulder, making a concerted effort to look for nests in Colorado by learning mountain climbing skills and developing a system for predicting which waterfalls would be nest locations. He found 25 colonies, each with a handful of mossy nests stuck to tiny rocky ledges, each one holding one nestling.
In 1997, Kim Potter was one of two biologists beginning a new swift search. A year later, Rich Levad got hooked on looking for them and joined her in organizing surveys through the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, infecting others with swift enthusiasm along the way.
I met Levad and Potter in 2005 when Wyoming Audubon members helped them find flammulated owls in Wyoming’s Sierra Madre range. Already one year into a diagnosis of Lou Gehring’s disease, Levad was soldiering on impressively.
When he had to cut back on field work, Levad started writing “The Coolest Bird, A Natural History of the Black Swift and Those Who Have Pursued It,” still making edits the day before his death in 2008. You can find the 152-page, free edition provided by the American Birding Association online at www.aba.org/thecoolestbird.pdf.
It’s a great read about an exciting bird and many memorable characters—check out the scathing exchange between Knorr and a dignitary in Arizona who believed a bird species only existed if he could hold the collected specimen, the dead body, in other words.
I spoke recently with one of Levad’s protégés, Jason Beason, director of special projects at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and lead author of an article about a black swift breakthrough published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology this past March, about finally discovering the black swift’s wintering grounds.
Every August, black swift adults leave each morning to collect food and later, at twilight, they slip back to feed the young. This is when researchers hope to see them.
Levad learned that training field observers increased their abilities to find swifts, upping known Colorado colonies from 27, including Knorr’s found in the 1950s, to 86, but it wasn’t until mist netting was tried in a couple of narrow canyons that it became apparent how many swifts were eluding detection.
Banding the captured swifts and recapturing many of them the following years showed how loyal they are to nest sites.
Beason, Potter, and another of the paper’s authors, Carolyn Gunn, wanted to strap recorders on the birds to find out where they go in winter, but most equipment is designed to attach to a bird’s leg and swifts hardly have a leg. They never walk. If they land at all, they cling to vertical surfaces. It’s thought that for some swift species, non-breeders stay aloft for a year or two.
Enter the British Antarctic Survey, which had developed a micro geolocator that works off day length to determine location and archives the data every 10 minutes for a year. One was strapped on the back of each of four black swifts about to leave Colorado September 2009.
Beason and his team were able to recapture three of the four swifts in the fall of 2010 and download and process the data. If you want the technical description and don’t subscribe to the Wilson Journal, email Beason, firstname.lastname@example.org, for the digital manuscript.
Beyond doubt, at least these black swifts, from two colonies in Colorado, winter in the Amazon basin of western Brazil. Next summer, Beason plans to outfit a few swifts from Idaho to see if they winter there, too.
There are also a few other documented black swift colonies in the West, including Montana and Utah, and of course, the gazillion in Colorado, but none in Wyoming, probably “just because nobody’s gotten out and looked up there,” Jason told me.
So I asked him how we could help, thinking of that flammulated owl survey, but also realizing that few of those same people are capable of climbing up to waterfalls off the beaten track, much less hiking out in the dark after the swifts come home.
Beason said to let him know of any small grants he could apply for. It wouldn’t take much, maybe $1000, to add a stop next summer on his way to Idaho, to check out where Knorr thought he once saw a black swift flying at Grand Teton National Park. Grants, schmantz. I have a better idea: crowd sourcing, or the Tinkerbelle solution. If all of us made a small contribution, we might add a breeding bird species to the Wyoming records.
To support next summer’s survey, please send contributions by the end of January 2013 to: The Richard Levad Memorial Fund (earmarked for Wyoming Black Swift Research), Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, P. O. Box 1232, Brighton, CO 80601-1232.
If you contribute online at www.rmbo.org, click on the “Chip in” button on the home page and then, in the first step’s drop-down menu, choose the “Other” option. Or call Rachel, 303-659-4348, ext. 17, during business hours.