Embellished with elongated white “whiskers” and brows, equipped with long tails and sabre-like wings, and draped in a stylist-approved attire of complementary colours of glossy-dark blue, bronzy-brown, and warm-chestnut, this exquisite species looks like it was created by the deft hand of a painter with sleek brush strokes and pinstriping.
The Whiskered Treeswift can be found in areas of South-East Asia including Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, the Philippines, Borneo, and Singapore, inhabiting a variety of environments, from mangroves and woodlands, to dense, tropical forests. Sallying from exposed perches in the canopy and along clearings, they acrobatically snatch tasty insects in midair, mouths agape.
© Mike Kent
© Mike Kent
Treeswifts are related to true swifts (such as the Chimney Swift), and the hummingbirds — all aerial wizards capable of rapid head movements and with physical traits like thick shoulder bones, long, powerful breastbones and strong neck muscles. Together, these birds make up the order of birds called Apodiformes, meaning “footless.” They all in fact have feet and legs but these are short and small, and of limited use. Most Apodiformes are incapable of walking on the ground like other birds. With feet that have all four toes pointing forward, true swifts aren’t capable of perching. Treeswifts however, have two toes facing forward and two facing backward and are able to perch.
Whiskered Treeswifts have an interesting way of rearing their young. Using saliva, twigs, and down feathers, they construct tiny eggcup-like nests suited for a single egg. The nests and eggs are so small and fragile that parents have to sit on the tree branch directly behind the nest and puff out their chest so their feathers can still cover the egg but without their actually sitting on it. Parents similarly engulf their hatchlings before they fledge.
© Mike Kent
It is thanks to the toe arrangement I mentioned above that I was able to photograph this group of Whiskered Treeswifts as they perched on a bridge in Borneo, as they shifted their heads back and forth rapidly, scanning for the bird of prey circling above and keeping a careful eye on me too!
We’ll be watching for Whiskered Treeswifts and much else in Borneo upon our return.