Birds & Science

We use the best available science to ensure the survival of Montana's birds and other wildlife.

Nesting Black Swifts in Montana

brootswiftnestSince the 2015 field season, we’ve been organizing volunteer research teams to find nesting Black Swifts. Only a handful have ever been found in western Montana, and we hope to document where they occur. They nest behind waterfalls and are most likely viewed at dusk or dawn – searching for remote nests is not for the faint of heart.

Click to read firsthand accounts of Black Swift Surveys

But you can help! If you are out anywhere in western Montana near a plunging waterfall keep your eyes out for the elusive Black Swift flying in or out from the falls.

Swifts may arrive very quickly and quietly (or their vocalizations cannot be heard above the noise of the falls), and they will fly directly to their nests without circling the falls.

Here are what are thought to be specific “requirements” for swifts in the Rockies. Some variation exists so don’t necessarily discount a waterfall if it’s not a perfect match, but we’re interested in looking at falls where:

  1. water, varying from a trickle to a torrent but usually moderate flow with space behind (or in some cases next to) the falls such that water isn’t plunging into actual nests;
  2. high relief, offering a commanding position above surrounding terrain;
  3. inaccessibility to terrestrial predators;
  4. darkness, such that “the sun never shines on the nest of a Black Swift”;
  5. unobstructed flyways, which are a corollary to high relief.

If you happen on a waterfall like this, or, better yet, know of one and would like to make a point of viewing, give yourself ample time. During the days swifts seldom return to the nest, though the older the nestlings, the more they feed. The best time to look is right at dusk, but this can make the return hike challenging (unless you can camp nearby).

Also – if you are looking for an actual nest, they are usually small and mossy and on what looks like impossibly small ledge, especially for a bird with an 18 inch wingspan. We often find more than one pair at falls.

If you would like to learn more about assisting this summer, contact Amy Seaman: [email protected] Some funding is available to cover travel costs.

There’s so much to learn about this coolest of birds. In fact thanks to our colleagues in Colorado, we are just learning where this species migrates. Check out this fascinating report of the first ever wintering information from the Denver Post.

More at Montana Field Guide

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