By Heather Killen
People are being asked to keep their eyes on the skies to help researchers understand more about a rare bird.
When Jim Wolford, of Wolfville, began counting chimney swifts in 1976 he was only guessing at the hundreds of tiny cigar-shaped birds that funneled into the old chimney. These days, he counts the swifts carefully by the 10s.
Wolford, a retired professor, says he’s always enchanted as the flock fills the sky at dusk, moving back and forth like a dark cloud. After a time the flock abruptly disappears, like smoke into the chimney, where the birds roost for the night.
Seeing hundreds of chimney swifts gathering each spring, it’s hard to imagine this species is declining at the rate of about eight per cent a year. Chimney swifts are listed as threatened nationally and endangered in Nova Scotia.
Volunteers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have been monitoring swift numbers for the past few years as part of Maritime Swiftwatch. On four scheduled evenings each spring, volunteer birders count chimney swifts as they funnel into their roosts.
The scheduled dates coincide with peak migration and are used by similar groups in Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario. Conducting counts on the same dates ensures that birds are not being double-counted as they migrate through the Maritimes and neighbouring regions.
Like sparrows, swifts feed on insects in the air and can travel for miles during the daylight hours. Each evening at the beginning of the season, the swifts gather at a roost where they sleep at night.
Middleton, Bear River
Known to be roosting at about 20 sites in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the birds are being closely counted in communities that include Upper Falmouth, Martock, Wolfville, Middleton, and now Bear River.
While the scheduled counts have already taken place this year, researchers are hoping people will still keep an eye on the skies in hopes of discovering where the birds are building their nests during the summer months.
In early June, the flock separates into mating pairs and during July and August, these couples build their nests in chimneys. Generally swifts lay about four, or five eggs per season.
Homeowners often hear the baby birds calling for food and will notice the parents flying in and out of the chimneys. Wolford says that people who have uncapped chimneys are most likely to host a swift family and that these rare birds will not block or damage the chimney and will be gone before heating season.
Holly Lightfoot, conservation program coordinator for Maritime Swiftwatch says that identifying and protecting these nests is a very important step in protecting the species, as one of their main threats is declining habitat.
Artificial nest sites have been successfully introduced in the US, but none of the manmade towers in Canada seem to be working. Lightfoot said they have theories about why the birds haven’t adapted to the artificial nests here, but no conclusive information has been gathered.
Shalan Joudry, a community ecologist in Bear River, said that in the past chimney swifts roosted in an old chimney at the Oakdene Centre, but a few years ago a chimney cap made this roost inaccessible.
For a time, the swifts seemed to disappear from Bear River and birders worried they were gone for good. Last summer they reappeared in an old house not far from their longtime communal roost.
At the peak count of the season, volunteers with Swiftwatch counted 180 birds in this new Bear River roost. Last year the official counts began later in the season, so they can’t compare May’s count.
Peak numbers in other communities are somewhat up over previous years. Jim Wolford counted 172 in Wolfville at the Robie Tufts Nature Centre on May 28, a number that is very good for recent years, he added.
Middleton and Windsor also had strong showings with as many as 561 swifts sighted at the Middleton Regional High School roost, and about 300 in the old farmhouse chimney in Upper Falmouth.
The Middleton roost historically has some of the higher counts in the Annapolis Valley averaging about 250 birds throughout the season. A webcam has been installed at this roost so people can peek at the birds sleeping inside.
People can access the webcam by visiting the Middleton Regional High School website as part of project introduced in 2011 by Maritimes SwiftWatch.
With funding from Shell’s Fuelling Change program, the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the Nova Scotia Habitat Conservation Fund, Bird Studies Canada has launched this school program in three communities to engage students and staff directly in chimney swift conservation.
Using workshops, presentations and live-feed cameras installed in school chimneys, School SwiftWatch teaches children about chimney swift biology and why these birds are threatened.
It also offers students an opportunity to collect information about their schools’ chimney swifts that will be used by bird biologists working to protect this species. An interpretative sign has been installed near the MRHS roost telling people about the birds and featuring student artwork.
Holly Lightfoot says that homeowners can access information on how they can be good landlords for chimney swift nests and other Maritime SwiftWatch programs, by visiting the Bird Studies Canada website.