Have you ever heard of the Black Swift, the largest and most mysterious swift in North America? Did you know that Johnston Canyon is one of the best places in Banff National Park to see these endangered birds and their unique nesting sites? If you are curious about these fascinating creatures and want to learn more about how to protect them, you’ve come to the right place!
We are the Adventure Team at Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows, a family-owned and operated business since 1926. We are passionate about nature and wildlife, and we love sharing our knowledge and enthusiasm with our guests. That’s why we’ve created this guide to help you discover the amazing Black Swifts of Johnston Canyon, and how you can enjoy them responsibly.
What are Black Swifts?
Black Swifts are small birds characterized by long, pointed wings, dark plumage and very particular preferences as to where they raise their chicks. They like to nest on wet, cold rock faces, near or beside waterfalls, where they can find protection from predators and weather. They are also very secretive and elusive, spending most of their time flying high in the sky, hunting for insects. They can fly up to 160 km/h and cover up to 1000 km in a day!
Black Swifts are migratory birds that spend their winters in South America and their summers in North America. They arrive in Banff National Park around late May or early June, and leave around late August or early September. They lay only one egg per year, which takes about a month to hatch. The chick stays in the nest for another six weeks, until it is ready to fly south with its parents.
Why are Black Swifts endangered?
Black Swifts are facing many threats that have caused their population to decline by more than 50% since 1973. Some of these threats include:
- Habitat loss and degradation: Black Swifts depend on specific nesting sites that are becoming scarce or damaged due to human activities, such as development, logging, mining, hydroelectric projects and recreation.
- Climate change: Black Swifts are sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation, which can affect their food availability, nesting success and migration patterns.
- Predation: Black Swifts are vulnerable to predators, such as ravens, crows, magpies, hawks, owls and mammals, that can raid their nests or attack them in flight.
- Human disturbance: Black Swifts can be disturbed by human presence, noise or flash photography near their nests, which can cause them to abandon their eggs or chicks, or reduce their feeding time.
How can we protect Black Swifts?
Black Swifts are protected by law under the Species at Risk Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Canada National Parks Act. Parks Canada has been monitoring and conserving these birds since 2015, and has taken several actions to protect their habitat and reduce human disturbance. Some of these actions include:
- Issuing a Restricted Activity Order from May 1 to November 15 to prevent off-trail access in Johnston Canyon.
- Increasing signs and markers reminding visitors to stay on trail, and fencing to show visitors where they can go.
- Increasing monitoring in the closed areas.
- Increasing staff on site at Johnston Canyon and online information to educate visitors.
How can we enjoy Black Swifts responsibly?
As visitors of Banff National Park, we have a responsibility to respect nature and wildlife, and follow the rules and regulations that are in place to protect them. Here are some tips on how we can enjoy Black Swifts responsibly:
- Stay on trail: The trails in Johnston Canyon are designed to minimize the impact on the environment and wildlife. By staying on the trail, we can avoid damaging the vegetation, soil and water quality that Black Swifts depend on. We can also avoid disturbing their nests or exposing them to predators.
- Keep your distance: The recommended viewing distance for Black Swifts is at least 100 meters (or 10 bus lengths). By keeping our distance, we can avoid stressing them or interfering with their natural behavior. We can also enjoy watching them fly gracefully in the sky or perch on the rocks.
- No flash photography: Flash photography can harm or frighten Black Swifts, especially near their nests. By turning off our flash, we can prevent injuring their eyes or causing them to flee their nests. We can also capture better photos of them in natural light.
- Respect closures: There are some areas in Johnston Canyon that are closed to visitors for the protection of Black Swifts. These include the “secret cave” near the lower falls, where one of the nests is located, and the area beyond the upper falls, where another nest is located. By respecting these closures, we can give Black Swifts the space and security they need to nest successfully.
How can we make the most of our visit to Johnston Canyon?
Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular and beautiful attractions in Banff National Park, and there is much more to see and do than just Black Swifts. Here are some suggestions on how to make the most of your visit to Johnston Canyon:
- Plan ahead: Johnston Canyon can get very busy, especially in the summer. To avoid crowds and enjoy a more peaceful experience, we recommend that you visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon. You can also check the weather forecast and the trail conditions before you go, and be prepared for any situation.
- Dress appropriately: The trails in Johnston Canyon are mostly paved and easy to walk, but they can be slippery or icy in some sections. We recommend that you wear sturdy shoes or boots, and bring a rain jacket or a warm coat in case of rain or snow. You can also rent snow cleats or fat bikes in winter for a different way to explore the canyon.
- Bring water and snacks: There are no water fountains or vending machines in Johnston Canyon, so you will need to bring your own water and snacks for your hike. You can also bring a picnic lunch and enjoy it at one of the picnic areas along the way. Please remember to pack out all your garbage and recycling, and use the bins provided or at our lodge.
- Explore the waterfalls: Johnston Canyon is famous for its spectacular waterfalls, which you can see from a series of catwalks, bridges and caves along the trail. You can walk to the lower falls (1 km) or the upper falls (2.7 km) from our lodge, or continue further to the Ink Pots (5.8 km), a group of turquoise pools fed by underground springs. The waterfalls are especially impressive in spring, when the snow melts, or in winter, when they freeze into ice sculptures.
- Stay with us: If you want to extend your visit to Johnston Canyon, why not stay with us at Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows? We offer 42 heritage bungalow/cabin accommodations in a variety of sizes and amenities. Within the lodge, you can enjoy a delicious meal at the Blackswift Bistro, which serves fresh and local cuisine with a modern twist. You can also treat yourself to some ice cream and espresso at the Market Cafe, where you can also find souvenirs, snacks and supplies. We are conveniently located at the trail-head of historic Johnston Canyon, and we are happy to help you plan your cycling, hiking or wildlife watching adventure.
We hope you enjoyed this guide to the amazing Black Swifts of Johnston Canyon, and we look forward to seeing you soon at Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows!