Must-see Aerial Insectivores in the Greater Antilles: Part 4/5

White-collared Swifts in flight, Jamaica; top photo is a good depiction of the species viewed head-on from a mountain top. (with the observer positioned at the same elevation that the swifts are flying) as they come together to flock in the evening. (photos by Justin Proctor)

This post is part of a series; visit Part 3 here.

In Part 3 I introduced you to the smallest swift you’ll find in the Greater Antilles, so it seems appropriate to bring the largest swift of the region into the equation. An all-around phenomenal bird, the White-collared Swift (aerial insectivore 4) doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and I think I know why. Wetmore and Swales summarize the problem perfectly:

…through its great speed in flight so annihilates distance that flocks may appear temporarily almost anywhere.” (1931)

I can attest to that. They are damn fast. Most birdwatchers, in fact, struggle to describe their behaviors from anything more than observations lasting a handful of seconds. The reason is that White-collared Swifts are true residents of what we call the “seventh habitat”- the skies above us – and their movements through that habitat are extremely difficult to track by conventional methods. Normally, in that case, we would default to observing them at and around their nests. Yet these swifts nest on vertical cliffs alongside or behind waterfalls, usually located in the most remote, rugged terrain available. It is no wonder then why following them to a nesting site and subsequently studying them there are often daunting tasks.

But despite our resulting paucity of scientific knowledge on this species in the Caribbean, I can still try to promise you great views of White-collared Swifts. Go inland, climb to the top of a low-vegetated hill or mountain (ideal if you are offered 360 degrees of view), sit down and begin scanning the horizons. Target the hours around dusk and dawn, when White-collared Swifts are known to flock up, as opposed to midday when they tend to disperse into smaller foraging pairs. I’ve had extremely good luck following this protocol, finding myself within stone-throw distance of large foraging flocks. The white collar around the neck and scythe-shaped wing profile are solid indicators that you’re seeing the correct bird. [If at any time Black Swifts decide to enter the equation (the only other commonly occurring swift species in the Greater Antilles), I’ll have to encourage you to attend Aerial Insectivores 401, a (pricey) advanced class that requires a higher level of discipline, courage and utter confusion.

[This post and the rest in the series are part of an online article I wrote for BirdsCaribbean, which I will link to in my next post here]

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