Ouray's special bird: the black swift

By Sue Hirshman with
Kent Nelson
I always knew that Ouray was a special place, and when I discovered the Black Swift it became even more special. This species is one of the last North American birds described to science, in 1857. Nearly a half-century passed before the first nest was found in 1901. Could they be called the most elusive bird on earth? One of the reasons it took so long to learn about this bird is where they hide their nests and young. In most areas of the west and northwest mountains the nests are in caves, in and around waterfalls where one has to hike, bush-whack, and then rappel down sheer cliffs in canyons. No easy job!
In one exception, “Box Canyon” is known as Colorado’s largest nesting colony and the most accessible viewing opportunity, which has gained world attention as an Important Birding Area.

The Black Swift adult probably picked such an area for several reasons. One would be due to the security from predators. Another theory postulates that two other factors dictate the choice of the nest sites: constant temperatures to ameliorate outside changes and high humidity to aid in attaching the nest to a cliff or shelf of a rock. Their nest starts out with mud and water which hardens, and then grasses and moss are added. The moss may have some nutritional value and it holds water. I have seen the young pick around on the moss, or could it be that the chick just gets bored of being in the nest by himself for so long!
The adult will lay only one egg. In a few circumstances if the egg does not hatch due to being infertile or damaged in some way, the adult may lay a second egg. This would have several factors involved, such as if it is early enough in the season, as incubation takes 24-25 days and then the chick takes 48-52 days to reach full maturity. The food source is also a factor, where the adults seek out widely scattered “blooms” of certain aerial insects traveling many miles to obtain their food for their young. A bolus of food is carried in the adult’s throat and then regurgitated to the chick. I once watched an adult try to feed her chick a butterfly (not the norm). She must have caught the butterfly on the way in to the nest and maybe she was desperate to give food. It was fascinating to watch as the chick had difficulty in swallowing and appeared not to like its meal!
As the chick’s wings start to grow in length they will hang onto their nest and flap their wings as fast as a hummingbird. They will do this quite often and in intervals, looking around to decide which direction they will fly out to start their migration to West Brazil where they spend their winters.
So Ouray can be proud of having the largest colony of Black Swifts in our state with so many people coming to Box Canyon to see and learn about this fascinating bird.

The following birds were sighted in the Ouray and Ridgway area for the month of September 2012. Due to the low water at the Ridgway Reservoir, less waterfowl was seen.
Bird Banding was held Sept. 10-15, 2012.

Canada Goose, Mallard, Common Merganser, Western Grebe, *American White Pelican, **American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, White-faced Ibis, American Avocet, Wild Turkey, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Golden Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, California Gull, *Franklin Gull, Band-tailed Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Black Swift, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Lewis Woodpecker, Northern Flicker,* Williamson’s Sapsucker (bb) Red-naped Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker,(bb)Dusky Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Plumbeous Vireo, *#Cassin’s Vireo, (bb)Warbling Vireo, (bb) Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Western Scrub-Jay, Pinyon Jay, Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven,(bb)Black-capped Chickadee, (bb)Mountain Chickadee, *Bushtit, Brown Creeper, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, (bb)House Wren(, bb*#)Golden-crowned Kinglet, (bb)Ruby-crowned Kinglet, *bb Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire,(bb) Hermit Thrush, American Robin, (bb)Gray Catbird, (bb)Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, (bb)Audubon’s Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, (bb)MacGillivray’s Warbler (bb)Wilson’s Warbler,(bb) Green-tailed Towhee, Spotted Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, (bb)Fox Sparrow, (bb)Lincoln Sparrow, (bb)Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, (bb)White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Cassin’s Finch, House Finch, Pine Siskin, Evening Grosbeak,

Note: (bb) Bird Banding, *Good Find, **New Species for Ouray County, *# Rare find

This will be my last article for “Birds of Ouray County,” as I will be leaving for the winter and hope to return next spring for the arrival of the Black Swifts. I want to thank all of my readers and their input on birds they have seen. Thanks also to Kent Nelson as he reported so many birds and to Mary Ann Dismant who started this article, and her memories live on. Thanks also to Alan Todd and Beecher Threatt for their kindness and putting all the articles in the paper.