What is North America’s Most Mysterious Bird?

Nesting behind waterfalls and in caves, the rarely seen black swift is only beginning to shed its secrets

Black swifts, with their preference for nesting on steep, wet, cold rock faces, are among the most enigmatic birds in North America. (JT Thomas)
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While Beason was scouring the mountains for swifts, Mike Hurtado was climbing and hiking the St. Charles River canyon with his college-student son, Paul, also a bird-watcher. One day, Hurtado told his son that decades earlier, as a teenager himself, he had seen a tiny, dark bird clinging to a wet canyon rock near a waterfall, probably on its first day out of the nest. “It had whiskers around its mouth, and its legs—I couldn’t believe how skinny they were,” he remembers. “It was just the coolest little machine.” His son recognized the description immediately. “Dad, that must have been a black swift,” he said.

The Hurtados repeatedly hiked back to the spot on the St. Charles where the fledgling had perched but saw nothing until, on his third trip, the younger Hurtado scrambled downstream for a different view of the waterfall. Behind the crashing water, he glimpsed three mossy nests. The swifts were still there.

When Hurtado, Beason and Torretta re-enter the swift cave this July night, the highest nest is still occupied. Beason thinks the bird is the male they just captured, but he decides to make sure. He squeezes himself into the back of the cavern, climbing up a rockfall for a better look. His headlamp catches a couple of ruffled feathers—and then a glint of metal.

“That’s it!” Beason cries. “Get it, Ron!”

Torretta swings into action again, capturing the bird before it has time to escape. Beason’s hands are shaking with excitement as he carefully snips off the tiny Teflon harness and frees the bird from the geolocator.

The geolocator, along with three others recovered at two more Colorado sites in 2010, indicate that the state’s black swifts are wintering in remote river canyons of western Brazil some 4,000 miles away. Ornithologists suspected that the birds wintered in South America, but no one knew exactly where: On the black swift page in the 1995 book Swifts: A Guide to the Swifts and Treeswifts of the World, the map of South America is covered with a large black question mark. The geolocators, and the birds that carried them, collected an untold story.

Some ornithologists worry that black swifts will be particularly vulnerable to climate change because the birds like unusually cool, moist areas, reproduce slowly and tend to migrate south rather later than other birds. “I have a real concern that before we have a really good grasp on what we have, we’re going to lose a lot of species like this,” says Dan Casey with the Montana office of the American Bird Conservancy. Understanding the full life cycle of the black swift, he says, will help conservationists protect this delicate species throughout its range. “With this information, we can shrink the world a little bit,” he says.

And if the swift chasers have their way, the discoveries will keep coming. Beason is already daydreaming about climbing waterfalls in Brazil.


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