Weather News

Edible-nest swiftlet — famous for bird's nest soup — potentially sighted during cyclone in Australian first

Ben Collins, Thursday February 13, 2020 - 13:13 EDT
ABC image
A photograph of what could be an edible-nest swiftlet recorded in Australia for the first time. - ABC

A researcher says he has photographed two types of Asian swiftlets for the first time in Australia after they blew in on the winds of Tropical Cyclone Damien.



University of Queensland bird researcher Nigel Jackett said he snapped the edible-nest swiftlet and the Himalayan swiftlet over Broome as the cyclone was strengthening off Western Australia's Kimberley coast.

"Because they're such big, intense systems, they create a lot of instability in the area and they draw down winds from Indonesia," Mr Jackett said.

"Birds get caught out on those winds and end up on the Australian mainland."

Mr Jackett was one of a small group of birdwatchers who saw and photographed the two species normally found in Asia after scanning Broome's Entrance Point, a location known for attracting unusual birds when cyclones are in the area.

"There were four of the Himalayan swiftlets, so we were seeing those, and then in among them we notice this smaller, black one and we all got very excited," he said.

Tough to identify

While Mr Jackett is confident about his identification of the two new species for Australia, it might be a challenge to convince bird authorities who keep official lists of where species have been found.

There are up to eight very similar species in Asia that can be hard to separate with absolute certainty.

"It will take lots of high-quality images, and lots of consultation with swiftlet experts around the world," Mr Jackett said.

"I think we can get there … [the photos] show the structure of the bird really well."



So far the identification of the new species has not been disputed.

"The bird world is always very excited [about new records], and I think the ones from the east coast [of Australia] are very jealous of what we get here in Broome," Mr Jackett said.

"But nobody has argued with those identifications, and I think we're getting close."

The national public affairs manager for Birdlife Australia, Sean Dooley, said the photos were compelling, but adding the species to the official list of those seen in Australia will be difficult.

"The experts that sit on the rarities committee panel set the bar pretty high, especially for a first record for Australia," Mr Dooley said.

"I think Nigel is in with a very good chance, but it's going to be very difficult to convince the judges."

Very unusual birds

While cyclones can devastate wildlife, including some birds, swifts and swiftlets are known to take advantage or even be attracted to storms and cyclones.



"Potentially they actually take advantage of these northerly winds to make it a very easy flight across from Indonesia to Australia, and then they can feed here on the abundance of insects we have at this time of the year," Mr Jackett said.

Many species of birds undertake impressive migrations between Australia and Asia, but swiftlets take marathon flights to extreme levels.

"They're birds that always fly unless they're at the nest," Mr Dooley said.

"There are some studies of swifts and swiftlets around the world that show that some birds don't come to land for months on end."



Spending months in flight has demanded highly evolved features including an almost complete loss of legs and the ability to shut down half of their brain at a time.

"They actually have micro-sleeps when they're on the wing, which is just fractions of seconds, or seconds, where half their brain shuts down for a sleep," Mr Dooley said.

"The half that controls the physical movement of flying keeps them going."

When they do land they prefer to droop or hang from their tiny legs on cliffs or in caves.

They have also evolved an unusual way to build a nest that negates the need to forage for twigs or other material.

"The birds actually make the nests out of their own saliva," Mr Dooley said.

"People would have heard of bird's nest soup, and there's actually an industry where people harvest the nests that the birds make."

Bird's nest farms

In some parts of Asia, the birds are effectively farmed by constructing buildings within which swiftlets are encouraged to build their nests.



The nests are then harvest as the signature ingredient in bird's nest soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia.

In some of these nesting buildings, different species are being grouped together — potentially producing another challenge to confirmation that the edible-nest swiftlet has now been recorded in Australia.

"They're being known now as farm swiflets, and there's a suspicion that some of the different species are now interbreeding," Mr Dooley said.

"So the bar is incredibly high for Nigel on this one.

"But I really hope he gets them because the photos look pretty good."


- ABC

© ABC 2020

More breaking news

Sydney Morning Herald
ABC News
National Nine News
News Limited

Display Your Local Weather

Weather News

Hot and cold expected in Melbourne this week

09:42 EDT

A brief temperature spike to the low-30s, followed by a radical drop to the high-teens by the next day is expected in Melbourne to start off Autumn.

The Insurance Law Service helps disaster victims take on insurers. Now it faces a big fight of its own

06:13 EDT

When Else Seligmann and Andrew Gardyne packed up their home to move to the country, they hoped for a simpler life.

Murray-Darling Basin Plan 'in action' after first major break in drought since deal was struck in 2012

17:23 EDT

The first major flood after eight years of drought is flowing down the Balonne River in southern Queensland this week in what could be the first real test of the northern projects of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, struck in 2012.