SATURdAy, MARCh 31, 2012 11A
Solved in one fowl swoop Dolores resident helps unravel bird mystery By Shannon Livick Dolores Star Editor When Dolores veterinarian and fish pathologist Carolyn Gunn first saw a black swift, she was hooked. “They are really cool birds,” she said. And these black birds that only nest behind high-altitude waterfalls or in caves are also mysterious. But thanks to Gunn and a team of avid black swift researchers, we know a bit more about these little black birds. Most recently Gunn helped solve the long-standing mystery of where black swifts fly during the winter. Brazil. It’s an answer that wasn’t known until last year and worldwide after the recent publication of a scientific article Gunn and her team helped produce. The solved mystery is getting recognition worldwide. “We’ve had a huge and positive response,” she said. So far, an ornithologist from Europe has contacted the group, the Smithsonian magazine, Audobon Magazine, bird experts in Brazil and countless others. Gunn helped design a harnass that allowed the birds to carry a geolocator. “They are a very unusual bird,” Gunn said. They are a small bird, about 45 grams. They live more than 10 years, songbirds live about three years, and they lay one egg per year, Gunn explains. They nest largely behind waterfalls, in caves and other cool, dark places. It all started about 12 years ago when Gunn got a call from a friend. Her friend had just attended a lecture about black swifts and when they were finished asked if anyone could volunteer to help find the reclusive birds. “I was a very casual birder at that time,” Gunn said. Gunn was told by her friend that the black swift nested behind remote waterfalls and volunteers had
COURTESy phOTO/TOdd pATRiCk phOTOgRAphy
AN ADULT black swift. Swifts are very specialized. They fly all day to collect insects for their young, and nest only in dark caves or behind waterfalls. to hike to them to find and record the birds. “She thought of me because I like to hike,” Gunn smiled. The rest, as they say, is history. “I just totally got hooked,” Gunn says with a smile. Thanks to Rich Levad, Gunn said, she was hooked on the mysterious bird. Levad has since passed away after a fight with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Gunn said she and her team carry on in his memory. The team of three consisted of Gunn, Jason Beason of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and Kim Potter. At the time, Gunn said, you couldn’t even find a picture of a black swift on the Internet. Now, thanks to Gunn, the team and others, you can find much more. The birds in Colorado like to nest above 7,000 feet. The closest colony to Dolores is just below Navajo Lake. One of the largest colonies is at Box Canyon Falls in Ouray. “Not all these waterfalls have tails to them,” Gunn said.”We’ve all hiked hundreds of miles.” And once you get to the falls, the birds are black, they nest in moss nests and are very hard to see. In August of 2009, Gunn spent a sleepless night devising a harness for the bird. Typical harnesses didn’t fit the swift. Mainly because swifts don’t have legs like other birds. Since they nest on cliff sides and in caves their legs are more like hooks. They don’t perch or
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walk on the ground like most birds. “The first harness just slid right off,” Gunn said. So the challenge was to design something that would stay on the small bird and not cause any damage. “I really worried about this,” Gunn said. “As a vet I am sworn to do no damage to animals.” The harness that Gunn devised was made of Teflon ribbon. The bird wore the geolocator like a backpack and the harness crossed in the front. In 2009, Gunn and her team put harnesses on four birds. The following year, three of the four birds were captured. “When we captured the first bird with a geolocator on it, we were ecstatic because we had no idea if it would work,” Gunn said. It took months and months of combing through the data before the mystery was solved. The birds flew over 4,000 miles to a remote, lowland rainforest in Brazil. People in Brazil had no idea the birds were there. “They didn’t even have swifts on registry in Brazil,” Gunn said. But of course, as one question is answered, there are always more to follow. Gunn and her team suspect that the birds may have never been seen in Brazil because they keep in the air the whole time. “It’s called aerial roosting,”
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A BLACK SWIFT cave near the Colorado Flat Tops Wilderness Area.
CAROLYN GUNN is seen COURTESy phOTO/TOdd pATRiCk phOTOgRAphy here holding a purple martin. Gunn, of Dolores, recently CAROLYN GUNN, of Dolores, designed a harnass for the helped solve a long-lived mys- black swift to help solve the mystery of where they fly in the tery about the black swift, a winter. bird that nests behind highaltitude waterfalls. she said. But the only way to tell if that is true is to wait for technology. Currently, live GPS devices that would give movement of birds are too heavy. But the team is ready. “We have a request in with the space station to be ready,” she said. This summer, Gunn and the team, will travel to other known locations of swifts: California, Alaska and Oregon, to see if those black swifts too travel to Brazil. She and the team also plan to take DNA of the birds to determine if colonies mingle or stick together. Gunn does all this on her free time because these birds, they really are cool.
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