White-throated needletail

Hirundapus caudacutus (Latham, 1802)

Order: Apodiformes

Family: Apodidae

New Zealand status: Native

Conservation status: Vagrant

Other names: spine-tailed swift, needle-tailed swift, northern needletail, whitethroated needletail, white throated needletail, spinetailed swift, spine tailed swift

Geographical variation: Two races, with the nominate race straying to New Zealand

White-throated needletail. Adult in flight. Tiritiri Matangi Island, November 2016. Image © Martin Sanders by Martin Sanders

White-throated needletail. Adult in flight. Tiritiri Matangi Island, November 2016. Image © Martin Sanders by Martin Sanders

Needletails are fast-flying birds that spend most of the year on the wing, only landing during the breeding season and when roosting. Their legs are so short and their wings so long that they are unable to take off if they are placed on the ground. They have large mouths that are used to feed on ‘aerial plankton’.

Identification

A dark-plumaged, cigar-shaped bird with a distinctive white throat, a white horseshoe mark under the tail, and a pale greyish patch in the centre of the back. The sharp ‘needle’ projections on the tail feathers can usually only be seen when the bird is in the hand.

Voice: An insect-like chattering.

Similar species: All potential confusion species are smaller than the white-throated needletail. Welcome swallow has a deeply forked tail, glossy blue-black upper parts, red face and pale greyish underparts. Fork-tailed swift is all dark except for a pale throat and a white band across the rump and has a deeply forked tail. Fairy and tree martins have more rounded wings, white rump, pale underparts and almost square tail.

Distribution and habitat

White-throated needletails have been recorded from both main islands as well as the Snares Islands and Chatham Island. Most records are of single birds, but there are occasional ‘invasions’ when flocks of up to ‘hundreds’ may occur (McCaskill 1943). In New Zealand they are most often reported over islands and headlands.

Population

No estimate. The nominate race caudacutus breeds in Siberia and northern China and Japan and spends the non-breeding season in New Guinea and the eastern half of Australia.

Threats and conservation   

None known, however it is likely that populations of prey species have been and are being affected by pesticide use and air pollution, which remain serious problems in much of East Asia, as well as global climate change. A comparison of data from the two bird Atlas projects in Australia (1977-1981 and 1998-2002) indicates a decline in distribution and reporting rates.

Breeding

2 to 7 eggs are laid in a scrape or natural depression in a tree hollow.

Behaviour and ecology

Most white-throated needletails occur in Australia between October and April, which is when most New Zealand records have occurred. Needletails are gregarious and spend most of the time flying, however they will roost perched on trees. They are reported to be the fastest flying bird, travelling at 170 kph – one source even suggesting that they can attain 349 kph in straight flight!

Food

Insectivorous, probably taking a wide range of species carried aloft as ‘aerial plankton’. Foraging birds may reach heights in excess of 1000 m and often forage on the edge of low pressure systems.

Weblinks  

http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=682

http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=1750

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-throated_Needletail

References

Able, K.P. 2004. Birds on the move: flight and migration. Pp. 5.1-5.100 in Podulka, S.; Rohrbaugh, R.W.; Bonney, R. (Eds.). Handbook of bird biology. Second edn. Cornell Lab of Ornithology & Princeton University Press, Ithaca.

Chantler, P. 1999. Family Apodidae (swifts). Pp. 388-417 in del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. (Eds.). 1999. Handbook of birds of the world. Vol. 5. Barn-owls to hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Chantler, P.; Driessens, G. 1995. Swifts - a guide to the swifts and treeswifts of the world. Pica Press, Sussex.

Heather, B.; Robertson, H. 1996. The field guide to the birds of New Zealand. Viking, Auckland.

Higgins, P.J. (Ed.). 1999. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol 4. Parrots to Dollarbird. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

McCaskill, L.W. 1943. The invasion of New Zealand by spine-tailed swifts in the summer of 1942-43. N.Z. Bird Notes 1: 38-40. Downloadable at: http://notornis.osnz.org.nz/system/files/Notornis_1_4.pdf

Nocera, J.J.; Blais, J.M.; Beresford, D.V.; Finity, L.K.; Grooms, C.; Kimpe, L.E.; Kysrer, K.; Michelutti, N.; Reudink, M.; Smol, J.P. 2012. Historical pesticide applications coincided with an altered diet of aerially foraging insectivorous chimney swifts. Proceeding of the Royal Society B 279: 3114-3120.

Recommended citation

Melville, D.S. 2013 [updated 2017]. White-throated needletail. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

White-throated needletail

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Egg laying dates
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White-throated needletail

Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun