Journal 435


photo - I don't know how far above the swifts were flying, but it had to be less than a hundred meters otherwise the photo would be worse than it is. From the noise you can tell it is a major crop, but it is quite adequate for a record shot. I've yet to see a flying Black Swift any closer than the one in the photo. Apparently, there are times during bad weather that the swifts will forage at low levels, but I have never seen that and doubt if they would be photographable.

On the morning of Aug. 29 I was on Little Mountain which is large limestone mound on the southern edge of Parksville. There were also several other photographers present, and we were all hoping for a visit from one of the Northern Pygmy Owls which had been seen there previously. The air was fresh and clear and the view was wonderful with the Mt. Arrowsmith massive in the background, but the owls must have been otherwise preoccupied. After an hour we were getting restless when I just happened to look up a spotted six black Swifts swirling gracefully above us. I pointed my camera skyward and got a few record shots before their flight pattern drifted east. A couple of the photographers asked me what they were. None of them had ever heard of the Black Swift.

Despite the fact that 80% on the North American Black Swift population spends its summers in BC, it is still largely unknown to local residents and even the scientific community. In fact, in 2015 researcher, Paul Levesque, reported that there were only three active nesting sites known in BC and that's 158 years after the bird was first discovered. That’s not surprising because the Black Swift is secretive and mysterious. It spends most of its time hiding in plain sight cruising and foraging high in the heavens, and is rarely seen close up. Furthermore, its nesting sites are so secretive and dangerous in dark canyons and behind waterfalls that only skilled rock climbers would be able to do the research. Another problem is the interest and will of government agencies that only seem to be concerned when the species is on the brink of extinction. As far as I know there are no current initiatives by government or other institutions to study the Black Swift in BC.

The Black Swift was first collected (shot) and identified as a new species in 1857 just south of the border at Semiahmoo Bay, and it wasn’t until 1901 that the first nest was discovered in a sea cave near Santa Cruz, CA. Eighteen years later the first inland nesting site was discovered in Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park. By 1949 only six inland nesting sites had been discovered and documented in all of North America, and with only that information WW II vet and Colorado College biology undergrad Al Knorr began his love affair and intrepid pursuit of the Black Swift. His first experience was with Lang Baily on the Colorado Museum Black Swift project. With only a few bucks for gas they risked life and limb exploring treacherous steep canyon walls until they finally discovered the first Colorado nesting site at Cataract Gulch on July 24.

In 1950 Knorr returned to Ouray where he had seen swifts flying the year before, but he was now better equipped with technical climbing skills and equipment after taking lessons from a friend. It didn’t take him long to discover his 3rd nesting site in Box Canyon just south of town. Not only did he discover a new nesting site, he also had the foresight to obtain bands from the USFWS and was successful in banding several birds. Knorr’s work continued on through his Master’s and PhD years, and after a decade of dedicated research he had discovered 27 Black Swift nesting sites. Knorr’s work was monumental. Besides discovering the first sites in Colorado he also established a set of five criteria typical of all nesting sites: high relief, close to water, safe from terrestrial predators, no exposure to sun, and clear flight path. This set of blueprints paved the way for many Black Swift researchers in subsequent years.

Thanks in part to Knorr’s pioneering efforts more and more Black Swift nesting sites were discovered not just in Colorado but in all the surrounding states and northward into BC. Unfortunately, despite the prominence of the Black Swift in BC there has been no concerted effort to study the bird and discover nest sites, and the early discoveries were basically left up to chance. The first nests in BC were discovered in 1958 by a teenage boy north of Clinton. Out of curiosity the boy poked a couple of nests with a pole and dislodged two nestlings. One of the nestlings was obtained by Frank Beebe in Victoria who successfully raised the swift until it mature enough to be released. Unfortunately, the other bird in Vancouver did not survive. The second BC nest site was discovered near Enderby in 1964 and the third in 2001 by a caving group at Redemption Cave in northern BC. The fourth discovery was in 2003 when birder and naturalist, Danny Tyson, discovered a nest at Cascade Falls. BC researcher, Paul Levesque, added a fifth site at Brandywine falls in 2004. There were also reports of nest sites in the Quesnel region, but no confirmation was available.

Knorr’s Box Canyon discovery was significant because of the amazing citizen science efforts of Sue Hirshman. From 1996 to 2006 she monitored the Box Canyon Swifts for 1,082 days keeping detailed notes on all the nesting activity and breeding successes and failures during that time. Her meticulous notes confirmed Knorr’s suspicion of site and nest fidelity and provided many significant details regarding Black Swift phenology that were previously unknown.

In 2014 I was following the blog of Dorian Anderson as he was legging out his non-petroleum birding odyssey by cycling around the lower 48 states. (Dorian eventually counted 613 species which stands as the green year record.) I was particularly intrigued by his account of the Black Swifts in Box Canyon at Ouray, CO. I made a mental note to someday visit Ouray. That someday occurred on June 15, 2017 when I was able to observe a nesting Black Swift just a few feet from the metal catwalk that led to the waterfall in Box Canyon. It was the same nest site discovered by Knorr in 1950 and still in use by the swifts and a testament for site fidelity. Just as described in the literature the swift was sitting on a moss nest mounted on a small ledge in a crevice on the vertical canyon wall. That was the only nest that I could find, but I was fortunate to even find one because it was still early in the breeding season. It was pure joy and fascination to see the mysterious bird in its secretive nesting location and a moment I will never forget. (I didn’t realize it then, but thinking back I believe it was Sue Hirshman who was manning the booth at the ticket and information office. Although Sue didn’t win the Nobel Prize for her years of dedication and study she is recognized by the birding community as one of the legends of citizen science.)

While the plain, dull-coloured Black Swift will never become a popular bird with the masses it has inspired the dedication and loyalty of a small group or birding enthusiasts. Birder, scholar, and teacher, Rich Levad, was one of those who fell in love with the enigmatic bird in the mid-80's after he retired from teaching. His dedication and enthusiasm inspired a new round of interest in studying existing sites and searching for new ones. When his field work was suddenly terminated by ALS he spent his final days compiling all the known information of Black Swifts in a publication titled "The Coolest Bird." The book is a must read for all birders, and most of my information was based on the pdf which is available online.

Although the catwalk into Box Canyon was installed as a tourist attraction to view the falls it had the side benefit of providing a platform for viewing the Black Swifts. It was the vantage point used by Sue Hirshman to compile 10 years of detailed observations on the breeding phenology of the swifts.

The nest high on the dark, vertical wall of the canyon is an ideal location for a Black Swift nest which is typically a moss cup lodged in a narrow crevice. The nest was within 10 meters of the waterfall and secluded from sunlight. Black Swifts generally lay one egg.

Ouray is a charming, picturesque alpine town surrounded by towering peaks and sometimes referred to as Little Switzerland. It was developed as a mining centre in the 1800's and was named after after charismatic Ute Chief Ouray. Many of the original buildings have been restored, and the town is now a popular recreation area for outdoor activities.




Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)



















Port Hardy - MUSEUM


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