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Wyoming 2012: The Hunt for Black Swift (part 1)

Editor’s Note: The ABA Blog welcomes board member and Illinois birder Matt Fraker as a contributor to the blog. 

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We know they are here…somewhere…

But this is a vast land of nooks, crannies, and inaccessibility —  a place habitually hiding its own treasures. A place that teases and teases with no promise of satisfied results, if any. And she seemingly does not mind one bit. Hard to not fall in love with that just a bit, right? Consider me mindlessly smitten.

“Knowing” they are here doesn’t count or matter. We need to find them.

And “we” are all here now. Scattered. Seeking proof; hoping to end the tease…

One thing I have learned about this little bird is — at least in this place —  we probably won’t find it without a little adventure on the way…

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Monday, July 29th: The I-80 Commute

I set a new bar today. Team Fraker-Denali-Tucher had some crazy driving Karma. I made Laramie, Wyoming, with only a single stop. I did a 476 mile run to start. Then another run of 481 miles to get me to the Hampton Inn in Laramie. All under 14 hours. Without being extremely illegal, I won’t ever best this.

So for the last two years, I have explored into a wicked no-man’s land of brutal, bear-heavy back-country n a fantasy-ridden desire to find Wyoming’s first breeding Black Swifts (if not the first of ANY Black Swifts in a state that has no accepted sightings). In terms of locating the Black Swifts, I really had no idea of what I was doing. Mostly I was just proving to myself that I could get into and out of these places alive. I have spent almost two years doing double CrossFit workouts hitting both a 5 AM and a 6 AM class usually four to five days a week. Some of these two hour sessions were so ridiculous that I began to write them down just to see what they looked like on paper. But the difference it has made in the back- ountry has been dramatic. I can’t train for Bears, or lightning blasts; but I can make damn sure that I will not be my own reason that I don’t get back out.

I don’t recall exactly when I was contacted by a fellow veterinarian named Carolyn Gunn. I do know that in hindsight I was truly embarrassed that I failed to recognize her name. Carolyn, along with Kim Potter and Jason Beason, are the current Black Swift “A” Team gurus out of Colorado (it was their ransmittered irds that were discovered in South America possibly elucidating one of the last great mysteries of ABA area birds — where in the hell do Black Swifts go to Winter??). For some time they had set their eyes on Wyoming as a place that needed a much more thorough looking over, and Carolyn had seen my IBF postings on my exploratory attempts. Long story short, Jason Beason put together a three person survey team to do hard surveys of alpine waterfalls in most of Wyoming’s mountain ranges for 2013. Those three people were Eric Horvath and Jules Evans, two folks with considerable Black Swift nest site discovery experience along the Pacific coast, and me, thanks to my experience in Wyoming’s back-country, especially Wilderness Falls.

After much planning and discussion, it was decided that Eric would cover the Wyoming Range and the Big Horn Range; Jules would cover the southwest corner of Yellowstone (a place rich in waterfalls); and I would cover some of the Wind River Range and the Tetons. We also managed to enlist a couple other folks. Michael Wickens from the University of Wyoming was also going to hit the Big Horn Range; and Sherri and I funded another technician out of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (more or less in charge of the whole project through Jason). Jason enlisted him and as of now all I know is that he was in the Gros Ventre Range.

Over the last year, maps and lists of waterfalls were exchanged and official survey sheets were distributed. When I educated myself on surveying for Black Swifts I learned a rather unsettling fact. On the west coast and in Colorado you don’t have to worry about Grizzly Bears. As I read the survey method, it was like reading a “how to meet a Grizzly Bear” infomercial.

We are supposed to get to our waterfalls of interest around 6 to 7 PM. Then we watch up the waterfall against the light of the sky for Black Swifts returning to roost, usually until 9:30 or 10 PM. Then hike out using your headlamp.

So, basically, go to a place that’s noisy enough that you and a Bear won’t hear each other. Do this at the time of day when Bears are most active and at a feature that Bears probably like. Then sit quietly looking up. Then hike out in the dark. Oh hell, bring foods that require lots of honey and berry jam also.

Eric Horvath had the two ranges that were likely Grizz free — the Wyoming and the Big Horn. But Jules was heading into Maul City Central in southwest Yellowstone. Katie Duffy in Yellowstone, who helped us with our permitting, basically told me Jules would not be allowed where he was going without one to two additional folks. This is when the term “Bearanoia” gets used a lot. And I was already very familiar with the bear scene where I was going. Like anything else back here, being smart is maybe 95% of the process. The other 5% is completely out of your hands.

And as of this moment, here is where we stand.

Eric did not find any Swifts in the Wyoming or Big Horn Ranges. Wickens also failed to find any on the Big Horn’s eastern slopes. Jules had a companion ready to join and assist him but this person injured his leg just before they left and Jules had to bail as he could not find a replacement and was clearly not going into Yellowstone solo. Eric and his wife Phoebe are going to try to do his Yellowstone surveys. Jason’s field tech that we sponsored is out there someplace. And tomorrow I begin my surveys. Five major targets and two minor targets, with one week of family vacation thrown in there someplace.

I previously mentioned Wyoming does not even have an accepted sighting of this species; hopefully we changed that in June when we had the two sightings two days in a row down at the Utah border by the inta Range. That should have been the greatest lifer I have ever had, but it was marred by a camera screw-up, potentially putting the entire two day sighting at risk. So, at the risk of disturbing understatement…

I really want someone to find these birds…

Some driving Karma from this day: