Tuesday 10 July 2012

Pacific Swifts in the Russian Far East

Contributed by Dick

AfS regulars may forgive my indulgence in this slightly off-topic post. I have just returned from a spectacular tour of the Russian far east on the ship Spirit of Enderby, starting at Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy and ending in Anadyr in Chukotka. I was surprised and disappointed to find no swifts, of any kind, in Petropavlovsk.

Part of a flock of over 30 Pacific Swifts above the clifftop
One of the purposes of the trip was to search for breeding Spoon-billed Sandpipers, in which we did not succeed. We reached 61°N and embarked on the 2nd of 3 searches.

On coming ashore, we found good numbers of Pacific Swifts circling the cliffs, together with House Martins collecting mud, but there was no time to study them as we had a long walk across the tundra searching for "spoonies" to complete.

However, on returning to the cliffs, a search for Pacific Swifts entering crevices in the cliffs was soon interrupted when a lady, Jude Power, from California, said to me, "Dick - what is this?" Jude was used to searching holes in cliff faces in search of owls and found 3 white birds in a hole - and if they are white, they must be Barn Owls - but try as she would, she could not make them into Barn Owls. I raised my glasses and what I saw, also confused me,  my first reaction was 3 white feral pigeons. In a place so remote? 

3 full grown white Gyr Falcon chicks - a stunning sight
Photo © Chris Collins
Then no! they look like falcons, white falcons? and the enormity of what we were looking at dawned on us. 3 full grown white Gyr Falcon chicks plus an adult flying around.  

Our search for Pacific Swift breeding sites was abandoned - too many distractions, including Red-flanked Bluetails, Bluethroats and Rubythroats singing nearby, breeding Slaty-backed Gulls on the cliff-face, breeding Sandhill Cranes, a huge Brown Bear patrolling the cliff below the Gyr Falcons and more.

Pacific Swift Apus pacificus has longer, slimmer wings than
Common Swift, a more deeply forked tail and softer
screaming calls. This bird appears to have food in its throat
We never did observe a swift entering a nest crevice, but with at least 30 flying around above the cliff top, with their soft screams, there must have been a significant colony here, the most northerly known location on this coast for breeding Pacific Swifts. It was also the most southerly known location for breeding House Martins.  

The picture left shows a Pacific Swift with a full throat pouch indicating this bird had chicks to feed nearby.

The hour or so that we spent in this place was one of the most magical of experiences that I have had in a long birding career.

No comments:

Post a Comment