Thursday 14 July 2016

***COMMON SWIFT*** at Cape Race, Newfoundland

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.

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! 

ADDENDUM - 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.


  1. What a great experience to have been among the first to see a confirmed species to our country, Canada! Congratulations! Well, done Cliff for knowing and seeing enough over the years to know that you had something special here. :).

  2. There is actually one other record from Canada. A bird found injured at the base of a building in Montréal in late May 2007, treated at the rehabilitation center Le Nichoir and released June 21, 2007. First identified as a Chimney Swift, his true identity was determined 7 years later. See article from Samuel Denault in the QuébecOiseaux magazine (in French):

  3. Wow! An amazing find by Cliff. Congrats on being able to catch up with and help confirm this awesome, though slightly overdue rarity for Canada!

  4. Thanks Jean-Sebastien for that news on the Quebec Common Swift. I did not know about that.

    B Mactavish

  5. Great to hear of birds more familiar to us in the UK making it over to the other side of the Atlantic. This side, Britain has had 20 records of Chimney swift and Ireland have had 17 records with the majority coming from 1999 and 2005 on the back of huge weather systems.

  6. Jean,

    By coincidence I was sent pix of the Montreal apus back in 2007 and from the images suspected the bird was an apus swift but it was hard to rule out Pallid Swift from the images. I spoke with the rehabbers and got weights (ruled out Chimney Swift) but also I believe was tild it was a HY which in late Msy would seem too early for a vagrant apus swift of any species. Unfortunately all my correspondence with the rehabbers (Greg Rand was involved as I recall) is in a outlook file on an old computer. I had sent the images around to several people since it was a bird that merited interest if it was an apus. Myself and Louis Bevier even talked about nostril shape to rule out American Black Swift.

    But anyway, nothing came of it and despite spending a lot of time on this it still didn't quite fit Common Swift either given the plumage and date.
    I did however check my files and I have 5 other photos of this bird ehile it was in rehab... none showing the tail though. If anyone would like yo see them I can forward them on.


    Julian Hough
    New Haven, CT


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