Calgary

At-risk bird species increases its numbers in Johnston Canyon

The black swift — an endangered bird species — is flourishing in Johnston Canyon this year, and it could be partly because fewer tourists are taking selfies where it usually nests.

Black swift population dropped by more than 50% between 1973 and 2012

The black swift's nesting area in Canada is found only in southern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta. (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada)

An endangered bird species is flourishing in Johnston Canyon this year, and it could be partly because fewer tourists are taking selfies where it usually nests.

Canada's population of black swifts — smallish birds that are characterized by dark plumage, streamlined bodies and long, curved and pointed wings — has been declining for decades.

In fact, their numbers declined by more than 50 per cent between 1973 and 2012. They are now listed under the Species at Risk Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Canada National Parks Act.

In 2018, an official order was implemented in Johnston Canyon to keep hikers from wandering off the trails, which was partly to protect the black swift.

Black swifts, which are mostly found in coastal regions but also nest in canyon habitat in the mountains, lay one egg at a time, typically in May. It takes nearly a month for the egg to hatch, then unlike most other birds, the young don't fledge — or, grow feathers needed for flying — for another two months.

Just over a year since the restricted activity order was put in place, Daniella Rubeling, the visitor experience manager for Banff field unit, told the Calgary Eyeopener that the population of black swifts in Johnston Canyon has increased from one nesting pair to three.

"That's more nesting activity than we've actually had in the last 16 years," Rubeling said.

"And one of the really exciting parts, I think, for our wildlife teams, is that the birds nested a full two weeks earlier this year, despite the late spring that we had — which really allows them more time to raise those strong, healthy young prior to migrating in the fall."

Many hikers seeking out the 'secret cave,' seen in this 2013 file photo, do so to take pictures underneath the hidden waterfall. In 2018, an official order was implemented in Johnston Canyon to keep hikers from wandering off the trails to this area. (CBC)

Rubeling said the wildlife teams do not know exactly why the black swifts nested earlier this year.

But both the restricted activity order and the pandemic could be contributing to how well the black swift is doing in a hugely popular section of Banff National Park.

While 77 charges were laid in the park last year for violating the restriction, Rubeling said there might be fewer people frequenting the park this year to break the rules.

"We're seeing less people violate the restricted activity order, which probably has to do with less people being in the area itself," Rubeling said.

"I think that is allowing some of those swifts to have a bit more peace and quiet while they're rearing their young, or feeding and all the rest. So, definitely, the measures we've put in place seem to be having some positive results, but it also could be as a result of less people, too."


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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