HOLLAND LAKE — The black swift looks a little bigger than a robin, but black. It only comes off its nest at dusk and dawn. And it builds its nest behind waterfalls.
Oh, it also flies like a greased bullet. Spot one, and your bird list gets you through the velvet rope to aerie level status.
“It’s like the holy grail of birding,” said Alissa Anderson, a U.S. Forest Service biologist heading the flock of hopeful lookers up the trail to Holland Falls on a July evening. “There’s always tons of people up here, but you’d never know there was a swift nest unless you were specifically looking for them.”
“We’re watching for a little black spot to go pee-Shaaaow,” added Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks intern Shelby Smith. Black swifts like waterfalls that tumble over sheer cliffs, where they can have a clear shot at open sky and protection from any climbing weasel or snake that might raid their eggs. While a couple of red-breasted robins hopped around the mossy rocks looking for bugs (and sending false alarms through the birding crowd), the swifts were expected to come and go like UPS drivers — all business in and out.
The black swift search was part of a larger effort to learn whatever can be logged about this elusive bird. So rarely do they get spotted, huge holes remain in its biological record. We don’t know if its populations are growing, shrinking or holding steady. Officially, the black swift lies on the “species of greatest inventory need” list, which must be completed before anyone can conclude if it needs to be on a “species of concern” list.
Just figuring out how to spot a swift took a couple of hours of homework. Montana Audubon conservation program manager Amy Seaman ran the group through two pages of fine print regarding how to size up a waterfall for potential nesting habitat, how to fill out the one-page form of a swift sighting and the protocol for watching for the birds (work in pairs, with one person staring at the sky for 10 uninterrupted minutes while the other tries to undo the subsequent neck kinks and eyelid spasms).
“We’re trying to get people on the same page for identifying the six characteristic nesting locations,” Seaman explained. “You can’t just hand people a packet and say, ‘Go out and do it.’ ”
That includes whether the waterfall is a plunge, horsetail, fan, cascade, segmented or tiered type (Holland wavers between plunge and horsetail). The site must have a “commanding view” of the sky and enough water flow to create curtains of spray. Those curtains better cover rock cavities full of moss where the birds can feel secure and find nest-building material.
But a bunch of other considerations remain untested. Holland Falls gets direct evening sunlight: Does that encourage or discourage nesting as the heat dries out the cliff wall? Does moonlight exposure affect flying activity?
“What we really need is some good military-grade night-vision goggles,” Seaman joked. “How do we see the bugs? Do they even forage at night?”
Although they're considered native to Montana, black swifts have less than 30 known nesting sites in the state. Holland Falls and Haystack Falls in Glacier National Park have become fairly well-examined. The first recorded sighting of a black swift in Montana came in 1961 on Mission Falls near St. Ignatius. The next confirmation didn’t arrive until 2000. In 2012, Anderson completed a survey that found just six nests. This summer's survey campaign has boosted the known sites to at least 22, with 14 of those in Glacier National Park.
Waterfall description completed and snacks devoured, the dozen swift watchers staked out observation spots in the tumbled rocks. More experienced members had brought foam pads to soften the boulder edges. Jill Davies of Victor starred at the waterfall so long, the surrounding rocks seemed to flow uphill when she looked away. 8:30 p.m. rolled up.
“Wait-wait-wait!” Anderson yelled, lying on her back and kicking her legs in the air. “Did anyone see that? It was so big.”
A black blur had flown straight at the waterfall and disappeared. The group compared notes. Yes, several others saw the blur. It vanished just below the upper third of the waterfall, below a horizontal log that had fallen across the cliff.
Then the blur shot back out and down the chasm.
FWP biologist Chris Hammond forsook high-powered telephoto lenses for his cellphone video camera. Nevertheless, he was the first person to document a black swift at Holland Falls.
“It’s still super-fast,” Hammond said as he played back the video in slow-motion. As the water torrent crept down like sludge, a bird the size of a small crow bolted from the left edge of the falls and angled toward the sky as fast as any falcon.
The watchers compared notes on the nesting site. Find a finger of copper-colored rock pointing 30 degrees upward. Follow it to its base to an oval-shaped, green mossy rock. In that cavity, a black swift sat motionless on a nest, fading in the evening gloom.
The black swift has some related species: the chimney swift and the Vaux’s swift that’s fairly common in western Montana. A southern-hemisphere variant has been videoed flying straight through falling water to its nest sites in Argentina. But the black swift has a feature none of its cousins can match.
“We have an extra challenge,” Seaman reminded the group as the sun set shortly after 9 p.m. “We’re walking out in grizzly bear country.”