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The Coolest Bird - A Natural History of the Black Swift and those who have pursued it

By Richard Levad (ABA)


Rich Levad’s description of efforts to understand and conserve Black Swifts, The Coolest Bird, was published in 2010 as an e-Book by the American Birding Association, and is available on the ABA website at: .  You can read the book online or download it as a pdf file; although it is 152 pages long, it took less than 20 seconds to download to my computer.

I haven’t taken the plunge into reading many e-Books, and I had mixed reactions to my experience with The Coolest Bird.

On the positive side, the book is free, and it was easy to access both on my laptop and my iPhone.  The pdf format allows for easy, low cost insertion of photos alongside the text, and many interesting pictures that tied in well with the book’s narrative are included.  It was also easy to adjust the type size to fit the needs of my increasing near-sightedness, and I discovered that there is a “Read Aloud” feature that allowed the computer to read the book to me.  Viewing the book on my computer gave me easy access to Google Maps and a search engine so it was convenient to look up exact locations or find additional information on websites such as Audubon Watch.

On the negative side, reading a book on a computer is simply not as intimate as holding a book and turning the pages.  The pdf format, at least on my computer, had some glitches that sent me back or forward multiple pages when I tried to use the up/down arrows to scroll through the text.  And lugging around my laptop is not nearly as convenient as carrying a book, though I have to admit, as the days got colder, I came to enjoy the warmth of my laptop while I was reading.  (An additional complaint is that the publisher did not edit the text as thoroughly as a traditional book, and there are a few too many annoying grammatical, punctuation and similar errors.)

The Coolest Bird was a worthwhile read for me.  I’ve tried to find Black Swifts a number of times with no success, and after reading the book I have a better appreciation for why.  The swifts are elusive since they are very mobile and have little consistency in behavior pattern. They fly very high, often viewed as only a speck in the distance, and except in excellent light it’s hard to distinguish them from White-throated or Vaux’s swifts.  And they are not particularly abundant…Audubon Watch estimates only 150,000 in North America, a figure which Levad argues may be much too high.

The best places to see Black Swifts are near their nest sites, which are often in locations that require hiking a few miles, scrambling through rock fields, or even wading through cold water streams.  And since Black Swifts only are at their nest sites from dusk till dawn, those hikes are often made in failing light or in the dark.  And even when observing at a known nesting site, there’s no guarantee that the birds will actually be seen arriving or departing.  Levad describes going to one location and seeing only 1 of the over 25 birds that passed by him on the way to their roosts.

There are some sites that are more readily accessible, and the book identifies a number of places to go to find the birds.  Understanding their behavior will make it much easier to actually observe them.

This is not a bird finding guide, however, but rather a documentation of our evolving understanding of Black Swifts, their distribution, abundance, and breeding characteristics.  Originally a hunter, Levad’s passion for the swifts came later in life.  As his wife, Karen relates in the Introduction,

 “He soon set hunting with a gun aside and armed himself instead with a pair of binoculars, a Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds, pen, and pad, and in an old Toyota pick-up, scoured the mountains and deserts of Colorado.” 

Following his retirement from teaching school, Levad’s curiosity and dedication led him to a position with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, where he became involved with monitoring and conservation efforts for “sensitive species”, including Black Swifts in Colorado.

Black Swifts were first identified in 1857 in the Puget Sound area of Washington State.  The first nest was discovered in 1901 by an egg collector on the sea cliffs near Santa Cruz, CA.  This find was rather ironic since the swifts almost always nest near waterfalls inland; the first inland nest site was observed in 1919 near Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

Only a few scattered nesting records existed in the first half of the twentieth century before Al Knorr began a systematic, methodical investigation of Black Swift nest sites in the late 1940’s.  This survey, which became the basis for his PhD thesis, uncovered over 25 nest sites in Colorado.  Knorr’s observations led to a set of site characteristics necessary for the swifts to nest: water, a high relief position (a falls or cliff), inaccessibility to terrestrial predators, a shaded niche, and an unobstructed approach from the air (i.e. no nearby trees).  His analysis showed that the nests were most often made of moss with ferns, mud, and seaweed as occasional substitutes. 

When Rich Levad was given responsibility for monitoring “sensitive species” in Colorado, he placed considerable emphasis on developing a program to assess the status of Black Swifts, starting in 2000.  Understanding more about breeding behavior was critical since it was known that Black Swifts produced only one egg during breeding. (The Band-tailed Pigeon is the only other North American land bird with only a one egg clutch.)  Unless the swifts had a very high breeding success rate, it would be difficult for the birds to maintain their already relatively small numbers.

Working with a committed group of volunteers salted with a few paid part-time birding “bums”, Levad and his team developed an 30 point evaluation scale for assessing the likelihood of a site being attractive to Black Swifts.  Using topographical maps, Knorr’s extensive notes, and the observations of a number of dedicated “citizen scientists” to identify sites to explore, Levad’s project was able to document over 100 nesting sites in Colorado.  The birds showed remarkable nest site fidelity…all but one of the sites Knorr had identified in the late 1940’s was still occupied almost 50 years later!  The team also established a protocol for continued monitoring of the birds’ abundance, breeding success, and, through banding programs, behavior.

The project is a good example of how a group of dedicated individuals, with passion and dedication to a bird species, can develop the type of meaningful information that’s required to assess the heath of a species and monitor changes in its abundance.  The Black Swift is a species in decline, perhaps as much as 6% per year.  Its breeding success of an estimated 75% is adequate to maintain the species despite the birds producing only one egg per year. There are relatively few threats to its nesting habitats, and so more must be learned about the impact of forest management and other activities on their food sources (over 85% of their intake comes in the form of flying ants), as well as potential habitat destruction in their wintering grounds, about which little is yet known.

Rich Levad was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating disease, known more commonly as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  When he lost the ability to walk or hold binoculars, etc. he refocused his passion to writing The Coolest Bird for those ”thoughtful adventurers” who would value a historical review of the activity of birding and Black Swifts.  Karen Levad indicated that Rich considered whether he ought to use the writing as an opportunity to process his experience with illness. He deliberately chose not to, and rather used the book to document his body of knowledge.  Despite focusing on the facts his passion for the birds comes through in his writing.

He died in 2008, one day after finishing the last section of the book.

~ Peter Quagliana

From Bird Lit - November 2010