At 1 pm 12 July 2016 Ken Knowles and I entered
Portugal Cove South after driving through a No Service zone for cell phones and
the phone dangled. We stopped the car to read the text messages. There was hubbub about a some swift photo
that Cliff Doran had taken at Cape Race.
Ken was able to bring up the picture taken by Cliff the Cape Lighthouse
keeper on his cell phone and HOLY ###T. While there was concern on the internet
chat lines about the tail being cut off in the photo, the long tapered body and
very long narrow sabre-like wings was enough for KK and I to abort our planned
trip to St. Vincents beach and head to Cape Race. It looked real good for
Common Swift. I called Cliff on the
phone. He’d seen the bird an hour ago. It was high over head when he managed to
snap one photo before it disappeared in to the low cloud ceiling.
We raced over the dirt road with eyes to the skies for the swift and stopping to scan places the
cliffs at The Drook and Long Beach where we imagined a swift might linger in
the lee of the cold north wind to hunt insects.
Got to the Cape and met up with Cliff. He had just seen the bird again ten
minutes before we got there! Hopeless hopes
turned into great expectations. It was forty minutes later before I picked up a dark
falcon-like bird coming down the road half a kilometer away to the west. It was THE SWIFT. It flew toward us mostly
low over the ground, zig-zagging from the land to over the cliff edge. It was huge. It had long thin back swept back
wings. It was dark. I consciously made
the decision to look at the bird first before trying for photos. Meanwhile
Cliff was clicking away madly with his camera in the general direction as I called out the play by play location as the
bird passed by a sign, a background radio tower, and clumps of tree etc. For about 90 seconds maybe 120, we followed
the bird as it worked its way closer. Both
Ken and I knew it was what a Common Swift should look like. Ken had just seen many during an British
holidays in June and I had studied many on various visits to Europe.
The bird was dark. Not black but dark chocolate brown. At
times the dark under wing coverts appeared darker than rest of under wing. The
exceptionally long swept back wings, the very large size for a swift (like a
small falcon), the deep and sharply notched tail was right on for out
impression of a Common Swift. I knew
Pallid Swift was a similar looking species but was paler overall and had a
large pale area on throat.
Thankfully Cliff did get some photos. By the time Ken and I got ready for taking pictures
the swift had disappeared over the cliff.
By coincidence and through astute birding abilities, Andrew Davis who was
on duty working in a whale watching booth by the Cape Race lighthouse saw the
bird after we had lost it and got a few photos that would have also clinched
the identification. The bird was not seen again despite being on watch till
darkness and people watching most of the next day.
Cliff’s photos confirm the identity of this bird. All are 100% crops. For the most part no
adjusting to exposure or sharpening was used.
The small white throat and smaller white forehead area are right for
Common Swift. The darkness of the bird plus the throat and forehead patch is
not right for Pallid Swift. I don’t know
of any other swifts that are similar to Common Swift. The North American Black Swift lacks the pale
throat patch and forehead and has a much less deeply forked tail.
STATUS IN NORTH AMERICA
The RARE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA (Howell et al. 2014) state
there are three previous records of Common Swift for North America that are
substantiated with photos. This is
includes two for Bering Sea, Alaska and one for St. Pierre et Miquelon. In
addition to this there are four other eastern North America record (1 PA, 2 MA,
1 other in SPM) that were probably correct identifications but lacked
documentation. All of the (3) confirmed and (4) not-quite confirmed records are
from late spring and early summer. There
were no previous claims of Common Swift in Canada.
Common Swift is an amazingly regular vagrant to Iceland with
336 accepted records up to the year 2006. There are also 20+ records for the
Azores. The large number of wayward Common Swifts to the mid-Atlantic islands
suggest Common Swift in eastern Canada is likely to happen again!
- It has come to light there was already a COMMON SWIFT record for Canada from Montreal, Quebec. A bird found in weaken state in late May 2007. It was brought to rehab where it recovered and was released on 21 June 2007. It was thought to be a Chimney Swift at the time but was re-identified from photos etc. seven years later as a COMMON SWIFT - FIRST FOR CANADA. Thanks to Jean-Sebastien Guenette for bringing this information to my attention. The article by Samuel Denault can be found here. It is in French.
This is the photo that Cliff posted to FaceBook that caused a stir among Newfoundland birder.
The following photos of the Common Swift were all taken by Cliff Doran while Ken Knowles and I stood next to him at 2:40 pm 12 July 2016 at Cape Race, Newfoundland. They are presented in chronological order and all are 100% crops.
The Common Swift flying over Cape Race barrens.
Cliff Doran on patrol. Lighthouse keeper and sharpshooter. Weapon of choice a 400mm f4 lens + 1.4x teleconverter attached to a Canon 7D.