Pacific Swallow

Subject: Pacific Swallow
From: Lloyd Nielsen <>
Date: Tue, 07 Feb 2006 21:44:37 +1000
It was Del Richards and I who made the original Pacific Swallow submission to BARC. Several short-tailed swallows which differed from the local Welcome Swallows were netted along with Welcome at the local rubbish dump at Newell Beach, north of Mossman, N Qld.

BARCs decision (which was made more than two years after the submission was lodged) was that the birds were/ /"female Welcome Swallows". We have never accepted that several good reasons. Our submission included 12 photographs covering a bird in the hand along with an adult Welcome which made a great comparison, and photographs of both species together on power lines. David Stewart obtained sound of the Pacifics at the time and produced sonagrams which gave a /very /different pattern from the call of Welcome (which apparently does not vary to any extent throughout its range).

Since those days we have learned much more about these swallows and agree they can be difficult to separate in the field. However, when one sees them sitting side by side with Welcome, there are some subtle differences, apart from the very obvious tail length/shape. The only problem is that one has to separate them from immature Welcomes which often also have short tails.

We believe the basic, most important character to separation of the two species (mostly in the hand) is colour of the base of the mantle feathers. (This can also be seen at times (and is obvious) in perched birds when wind is blowing and the mantle feathers are lifted). Base colour of mantle feathers is very extensively white in Pacific but extensively grey in Welcomes at all stages (though varying with age but still overall grey). Our birds which had extensive white bases to the mantle feathers corresponded exactly in that aspect with a specimen of Pacific (/H. tahitica frontalis/) we obtained on loan from the PNG Museum before we completed the submission.

When BARC could not agree after a lengthy period, the submission was sent to Dr Richard Schodde at CSIRO, Canberra for expert opinion. This important feature (colour of base of mantle feathers) was apparently treated lightly by both BARC and Schodde. We believe that both BARC and Schodde erred in not placing more emphasis on base colour of the mantle feathers and not following it through. However, other characters, mainly dealing with tail shape and structure were used to make the final determination that they were Welcome Swallows. It appeared that the main thrust was to compare them directly with the race /frontalis/. Because of a slightly different tail structure with distinct markings, we considered the birds to be most likely an undescribed race. Later, Schodde & Mason (in The Directory of Australian Birds - Passerines) described a new race of Pacific (/albescens/), apparently splitting it from the widespread /frontalis /and naming the northern Torres Strait Islands (Saibai, Boigu and Duaun islands) as the core "Australian" range. These were described from specimens much farther to the east in PNG, one from Brown River (Port Moresby area) and another from Amazon Bay even farther to the east. In describing this race, the white base to the mantle feathers was given prominence. However, none of us who have visited those Torres Strait islands can find swallows there - I have been to Saibai and Boigu a number of times and have yet to record a swallow.

Since the BARC decision, I have been examining swallow specimens in various museum collections around Australia as the opportunity arises and have only two collections left to examine. Contrary to the statement in BARC's final report that tail measurements and patterns "were within the range of variation of female Welcome", all the evidence to date strongly supports our opinion but almost nothing supports the BARC decision. Indeed, I have seen nothing to date which is within the range of variation of female Welcome Swallows. In fact nothing comes close to it!

In its final report, BARC after adopting the decision that they were (immature) female Welcome Swallows, stated that/ / "It should be stressed that not all questions about these Mossman birds have been answered. One could rightly ask why have such short-tailed Welcome Swallows not been reported by birdwatchers elsewhere in North-East Queensland or Australia? Why is it that most people that visit these birds have been impressed by the patterning of the undertail-coverts? Does this vary with age? This case highlights the gaps in our knowledge about age-related variation in tail-pattern and length of Welcome Swallows, and the migrations of sub-adult birds".

Simply, all questions were "not answered" because they were not Welcome Swallows! The base colour of the mantle feathers ruled Welcome out.

Our side of the story has never been told publicly but if anyone would like to see a copy of an account, part of which was forwarded to the Hanzab editors, in regard to Pacific Swallow in this area and relating to our original submission, together with further current thoughts, please email me and I will forward it (4 page Word Document). That too is worth reading as a balance to the BARC report.

My recommendation to anyone visiting N Qld is to go and see these birds - Newell Beach near Mossman is probably the best site. These swallows occur on the NE Qld coast only within the same small area in which the migratory Barn and Red-rumped Swallows occur. They do not occur far south of Newell Beach e.g. Port Douglas or Cairns. We have no doubt that sooner or later, Pacific Swallow will be on the Australian list.

Lloyd Nielsen
Mt Molloy
Nth Qld
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