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Identifying small white-rumped swifts - BirdForum Opus

Introduction

This page gives identification advice for identifying small white-rumped swifts. All the species here are extremely similar and some are only recently elevated species. Many exhibit long-distance vagrancy which further complicates identification.

Characters to concentrate on

  • region: widespread vagrancy limits the utility of this
  • head: how dark or pale the head is. Can be affected by pale scaling on the crown.
  • throat: size of the pale throat patch and how clearly demarcated it is from the rest of the head. Ranges from a very large patch with strong demarcation (Little Swift) to a barred throat which appears occluded (Cook's Swift).
  • underwing: the underwing can exhibit subtle banding effects from pale covert feather fringes. Ranges from absent to the strong median covert band of Horus Swift.
  • underparts: main division is between plain underparts and those with clear scaling (Pacific Swift group)
  • rump: the size of the white rump patch. Ranges from the very large, very visible white patch in Little Swift to non-existent in some morphs or subspecies of Horus.
  • tail fork: depth of the tail fork, from the near-square tail end of Little Swift to the streamers of White-rumped Swift.
  • other characters: other important characters.
Key differences between adult white-rumped swifts
species region head throat underwing underparts rump tail fork other characters
Horus Swift standard subspecies Africa palest; may show pale supercilium diffuse with little demarcation from head paler tips may form a very broad median and more diffuse greater covert band plain wide, easily seen from below medium; pointed feathers
Horus Swift dark subspecies/morph Africa pale; may show paler supercilium reduced paler patch with no demarcation from rest of head plain dark plain brown, no white band medium; pointed feathers
House Swift SE Asia dark large patch with strong demarcation plain dark or with very restricted paler median and greater covert tips plain wide, often visible from below slight (more than Little); slightly pointed feathers vent, undertail dark
Little Swift Spain, Middle East, Africa, Indian sub-continent may be pale-faced very large patch with strong demarcation plain dark or with very restricted paler median and greater covert tips plain wide, easily seen from below none (square), or with central indentation; rounded feathers vent, undertail coverts often paler, greyer
Pacific Swift SE Asia, Australia clearly scaled so appears lighter large diffuse pale patch with ragged border paler tips may form two ragged bands on median and greater coverts scaled wide, minimal shaft streaks means appears white; often visible from below deep; quite pointed feathers
Salim Ali's Swift Tibet, China less scaley so appears darker restricted due to barring at base and sides; clearer border paler tips may form two equal bands on median and greater coverts scaled wide but slightly less than Pacific, more shaft streaks means less white; often visible from below deep; quite pointed feathers
Blyth's Swift Himalaya, India clearly scaled so appears lighter variable; in some extends far down to breast; diffuse border paler tips producing even median and less even greater covert band scaled narrower; minimal shaft streaks means appears white; hardly visible from below deep; quite pointed feathers
Cook's Swift Thailand, Burma, China dark crown usually strongly barred so dark with no clear border paler covert tips may be present producing a median band scaled restricted; heavy shaft streaks; not visible from below deep; quite pointed feathers faint greenish gloss on back diagnostic
White-rumped Swift Iberia, Africa may be pale headed but with dark line demarcating the throat large patch with strong demarcation paler tips may form a broad median and thinner greater covert band dark sometimes with faint scales narrow, not visible from below deep; sharply pointed feathers

Based on and summarised from reference [1] with additional analysis from Macauley images.

Key Comparisons

References

  1. Justin J F J Jansen & Gerald Driessens (2023) Horus Swift: identification, plumage variation and distribution. Dutch Birding 45: 73-116
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