There are no swifts in Missoula. Except when there are. When there are is migration, and it is happening now.
As an East Coaster swifts were easy. There are Chimney Swifts, and they nest in chimneys. They are swift-shaped and move swiftly, and are different from all the other birds in both looks and call (although I guess you could mistake them for swallows if you were in a hurry, or drunk,) and that is that. The swift issue may be tabled forever.
Not so out west! Here we have Vaux’s Swifts that nest in snags and Black Swifts that nest on cliff-faces near waterfalls and White-throated Swifts that nest on cliff-sides that are not near waterfalls. They all look a bit different, to be sure, with varying sizes and pale bits and tail shapes. But not different enough to be distinctive in low light against an open sky, which is where and when you see swifts, especially if you are me, with the added bonus that you see them when you are walking the dog and not carrying binoculars as opposed to when you are actively birding. And you see them in the fall migration, when they foresake their distinctive breeding habitats and ranges and migrate promiscuously, sometimes in mixed flocks, all down towards Mexico. They’re nearly as bad as swallows, even when you’re sober.
All this is to say that I don’t know if I saw this:
or something even more unlikely.
But it definitely means that summer is ending.
White-throated Swift photo by Michael Woodruff
Vaux’s Swift photo by Dominic Sherony
Ha, I know what you mean, Carrie. When I was in Trinidad, I found the difference between Band-rumped Swift and Gray-rumped Swift to be entirely subjective.
Swifts are tough. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that Chimney Swift occurs commonly in Missoula–it’s certainly abundant over the eastern half of Montana, and the identification of the two MT Chaetura is tricky enough that I’m sure the ornithological record is full of arbitrary identifications (“Vaux’s on Tuesdays, Chimney on Wednesdays”?).
Our swifts left us around three weeks ago, so I am largely swiftless now. Should I see a swift anytime after the middle of September, I’ll have to check if it is either Pallid or a very late Common Swift. Which is like having to separate Vaux’s from Chimney. Ain’t it grant that this world is so big, yet the challenges birders face are so much alike?
And why aren’t you carrying binoculars while walking the dog?
@Jochen: Weird – there were still a few around over Berlin when I was there. Migrants from further north?
@Corey: ha! Officially yes: migrants from further North. However, the late swifts in Germany’s North-East is something I spent around 5 years doing some “field research” on, and this is a very complicated matter, as I have gathered data that might suggest more than one form/species/whatever breeds in Germany. Nope, I won’t say anymore.