Black Swift

Birding is a form of maddness.

It can make us wake at ungodly hours, spend ten hours in an ocean going fishing boat, or drive hours to search for a rarity! All for adding birds to a list or seeing a species for the first time.

This evening I was driven to hike a mile through fields and farmhouse to stand at the edge of the ocean, my face to the wind (a small sacrifice I know). I was standing above the sea caves at Sand Hill Bluff, about five miles from the city limits of Santa Cruz.

The caves are used as a nesting and roosting site for a Santa Cruz County target bird: the black swift (Cypseloides niger).

The black swift is our largest swift and is not often seen because it forages for insects high up in the air column, sometimes as high as 10,000 feet. They live much of their life on the wing, including copulating on the wing. But they return to terra firma to roost and nest. They have a limited distribution in North America, hugging the western side of the continent. Sadly, the black swift population has diminished by 90% since 1970.

I arrived on the bluff at 6:30. The black swifts seemed to be returning to roost just before sunset, which was going to be at 8:10, so I had a little time to wait.

I reflected on the fact that there is so much that is unknown about the black swift. It’s nest was left undiscovered until 1901 when a swift nest was found on the cliffs near Santa Cruz.

After reflecting I set up my sketching stool and sketched the cliffs looking west (featured sketch). Western gulls and Brandt’s cormorants where roosting on the rocks and off shore a steady line of sooty shearwaters where heading west. I estimated that there might be 2,000 shearwaters in this flock. Closer in, there where four sea otter foraging in the kelp beds.

At about seven I was joined by another madman, err, I mean birder. He had come from Sacramento to see the appearance of the black swift. It is always great to have a second set of eyes. In the past the swifts appear for a short time before flying into the sea caves to roost.

At about 7:30 I noticed an uptick in bird movement. The movement of westward sooty shearwaters had diminished and disappeared. The always vocal Caspian terns were heading east to their roost sites and long lines of “checkmark” formations of brown pelicans were flying low over the water heading west. I was waiting with anticipation as I scanned the skies for the arrival of the black swifts. Nothing yet.

At 7:55 PM, the Sacramento birder alerted me of the presence of a lone swift that disappear into a sea cave. I missed it. This was followed quickly by two other swifts that flew just east of the bluff and stayed in sight for about four minutes. County lifer 210!

2 thoughts on “Black Swift

  1. My swift project leader (& also black swift aficionado) Larry Schwitters wonders when the observation happened, & asks where the 90% figure comes from (it’s more than he’s heard, but his info is focused
    on a particular area). Regards, ==mwh


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