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White-throated Needletail

White-throated Needletail Swift in flight
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Scientific Name: Hirundapus caudacutus

Size: 20 to 22 cm

What does it look like?

This large swift is often mistaken in flight for a small bird of prey, but its long curved wings and white markings should identify it. The plumage is predominantly grey-brown, glossed with green and the wings are long and pointed. The tail is short and square, with the protruding feather shafts giving a spiky appearance. The throat and undertail are white.

The much smaller House Swift, Apus affinis, a rare vagrant to Australia’s Top End, has a white rump and darker grey plumage. The Fork-tailed Swift, A. pacificus, is also smaller (17 to 21 cm). Although this latter species has dusky white rump and throat, it is otherwise uniform dark grey, with a long forked tail.

Where is it found?

White-throated Needletails often occur in large numbers over eastern and northern Australia. They arrive in Australia from their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere in about October each year and leave somewhere between May and August.

What are its habitats & habits?

They are aerial birds and were never thought to land in Australia. In 1974, however, a single White-throated Needletail was observed roosting in a tree, and radio-tracking of birds have since confirmed that this is a regular activity.

The White-throated Needletail feeds on flying insects, such as termites, ants, beetles and flies. The insects are caught by the Needletails in flight in their wide gaping beaks. Birds usually feed in rising thermal currents associated with storm fronts and bushfires. While feeding, the White-throated Needletail protects its eyes with a special membrane and a small ridge of feathers. Drinking is also performed in flight.

White-throated Needletails are non-breeding migrants in Australia. Breeding takes place in northern Asia from May to August. The eggs are laid on a platform sticks placed in a hollow or similar crevice high in a tall conifer. Little else is known of the breeding behaviour of this species except that courtship displays consist of a series of vertical flights and that copulation is believed to take place in flight.

Interesting facts

While White-throated Needletails are not the fastest flyers in the avian world, a myth that is often attributed to the species, they are able to achieve great speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour.

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Front cover of Australia's Birdwatching Megaspots book showing a picture of an Eastern Spinebill

This species features in my book Australia’s Birdwatching Megaspots

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