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 this:
Vaux's Swift

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

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at