Common swift (Apus apus)
© Wikimedia Commons
Common swift (Apus apus)
The anything but common Common Swift spotted over Cape Race

In birding, like in any other sport, they say you have to be good to be lucky but sometimes nothing explains a great event other than pure simple luck.

A rare glimpse of a common swift, winging its way over Cape Race, NEwfoundland and Labrador.

Due to a compounding series of events Ken Knowles and I were driving through Portugal Cove South on the southern Avalon Peninsula at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. There is a dead zone for cellphone reception between Renews and Portugal Cove South. The smartphoned chimed as we arrived back into the land of cellphones.

In the time it took to drive from Renews to Portugal Cove South a storm of emails and texts had been flying back and forth between birders in response to a photograph of a bird that Cliff Doran had taken at the Cape Race lighthouse. We checked out the picture on Cliff's Facebook page.

It was a swift. A somewhat blurry photo with the tail cut off.

Swifts are worldwide group of birds built for flying at breakneck speeds in search of airborne insects. They tend to hunt high above swallows and other fly-catching birds.

There are no swifts native to Newfoundland and Labrador.

A rare glimpse of a common swift, winging its way over Cape Race, NEwfoundland and Labrador.

A rare glimpse of a common swift, winging its way over Cape Race, NEwfoundland and Labrador.
The chimney swift, the only species of swift regular in eastern North America, does show up in the province as a rare stray in spring and fall.

There were features about this swift that triggered alarm and panic among the Avalon birding community. It had very long narrow scythe-like wings and a narrow tapered end to the body.

Unfortunately, the tail was cut off the edge of the photo so we could not see if it came to a sharp point which would have confirmed overwhelming suspicions, preposterous as they were, that this was a European common swift.

Veteran Newfoundland birders had always been in awe of the common swift record from St-Pierre-Miquelon photographed in June 1986. It seemed like such an incredible record that we surmised it must have been carried across the Atlantic on a ship during a wine and cheese run from France.

Like resurrecting a living Viking from the peat, it appeared Cliff Doran had done the impossible and photographed a common swift in Newfoundland.


Without hesitation Ken and I pointed the car toward Cape Race only 20 kilometres away down a dirt road from Portugal Cove South.

With eyes to the skies we were on high alert for the swift which could be anywhere in no time flat.

We stopped at the Drook to check out the cliff faces for the swift.

We stopped at Long Beach in case it would feel at home around the cabins there.

We got to Cape Race finding Cliff on the front steps of the light keepers house.

There was good news.

The swift had flown over once more just 10 minutes before we arrived. And Cliff secured one more picture, this time showing the whole bird and the long pointed tail. There was no doubt. This was a European common swift.

We let the Newfoundland birding group know that the identity of the bird was confirmed. And we started scanning the sky for a sighting of our own.

After 40 eye-straining minutes I saw something.

It looked like a small black falcon coming down the road a good half kilometre away.

If ever there was a time to use up all our last remaining wishes in life this was it and the miracle came true.

It was the common swift! Flying fast and low over the ground then back out over the cliffs.

Because of the cold north winds at the time it was flying low to the ground seeking insects like a stealth bomber with agile sickle wings. I called out the play-byplay of its movements as Cliff started clicking away with his camera. It would momentarily disappear in small valleys along the way.

For Ken and I it was riveting to see the classic field marks of the common swift that we both knew from trips to Europe where it is an abundant bird in most the towns and cities.