Woodswallows are a group of 11 medium-sized aerial insectivores, six of which are found in Australia (four of them endemic). Two of the Australian species also occur in south-east Asia and Melanesia. The remaining species range from south-east Asia into southern China, and across to Indian and Sri Lanka. They are often put in the same family as butcherbirds, currawongs and the Australian magpie. Two of the Australian species – white-browed woodswallow and masked woodswallow – are highly nomadic, often occurring together in mixed flocks. Not surprisingly perhaps, these are the species that have occurred as vagrants in New Zealand.
The masked woodswallow is a partly sexually dimorphic species, with the male’s plumage pattern being more accentuated than the female’s. The male has a black face and throat forming a distinct mask, edged with a white crescent at the rear. The crown, upperparts and tail are mid grey, with off-white tips to the tail feathers forming a pale terminal band apparent in flight when seen both from above and below. The underparts, including the under surface of the tail, are pale grey to off-white, faintly tinged pink. The wings and wing coverts are grey, with the primaries being darker. The wing coverts have thin pale edges, creating a faintly scaled look. Iris is dark brown; bill blue-grey with a black tip, as in other woodswallows. Females are similar but the facial mask is grey with only a faint pale crescent at the rear. Upperparts are slightly darker grey, tinged with brown; underparts pale-grey, also tinged brown. Juveniles are pale brown with darker grey-brown back feathers and wing coverts; pale fawn edges to both create a spotted and speckled appearance. The underparts are flecked brown, with faint barring towards the flanks. Juveniles have only an indistinct pale grey-brown facial mask, which becomes slightly more apparent in immature plumage. This is similar to a female’s plumage but still with some pale edges to the wing coverts and nape. Young birds have pale brown bills, dark only at the very tip. Like other woodswallows, masked woodswallows have powder-down feathers, the tips of which disintegrate to form a fine powder that the birds use when grooming.
Voice: the call is a brief chirt, rising slightly at the end; this is interspersed with a quiet chatter of whee whee and buzzing notes.
Similar species: at first glance could be confused with black-faced cuckoo-shrike, Coracina novaehollandiae, another rare vagrant from Australia, but that species is distinctly larger (33 cm), lacks the white crescent at the rear edge of its black facial mask, and has a tapered rather than square tail, which lacks a pale terminal band. The flight of the cuckoo-shrike is also different, being slow and undulating, always from tree to tree, in contrast to the woodswallow’s faster and more angular sallies into the air, the bird often returning to the same perch.
Distribution and habitat
The masked woodswallow is endemic to Australia. It is widespread and common in arid shrubland, woodland and adjacent farmland across south-eastern Australia, extending to some central areas and in Western Australia, but can be locally irregular within this range. It is absent from the extreme north, the Cape York peninsula, the east and south-east coastal regions, and Tasmania, where it is recorded only as a vagrant, as in New Zealand.
New Zealand records
A pair of masked woodswallows was present in Naseby Forest, Central Otago, from January 1972 to August 1973, in the company of four white-browed woodswallows. This pair bred and produced two chicks, but their nest was never found. The young birds disappeared in early June 1973, whereas the adults disappeared in late July and early August 1973 respectively, both after severe cold spells. In October 2006, a recently-dead bird was found on a bush track at Otatara, Invercargill. That specimen is now in the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa.
Behaviour and ecology
The masked woodswallow is a nomadic species. It is usually seen in pairs or small groups, but can form bigger flocks when wandering. When in family or larger groups, the birds are highly sociable, often perching and roosting close together, along with much chittering and allogrooming. They frequently associate with white-browed woodswallows, the other highly nomadic woodswallow species in Australia. Although over 500 masked woodswallows have been banded in Australia, only two have been recovered, both of them soon after and close to where they were originally banded.
Masked woodswallows feed mostly on insects, usually taken on the wing by birds sallying out from a perch to intercept insects flying by, or hawking insects. Adults also drink nectar.
Child, P. 1974. First breeding of woodswallows in New Zealand. Notornis 21: 85-87.
Child, P. 1975. The Central Otago wood-swallows. Notornis 22: 67-68.
Darby, J.T. 1972. The Australian white-browed wood swallow in New Zealand. Notornis 19: 114-117.
Higgins,P.J.; Peter, J.M.; Cowling, S.J. (eds) 2006. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 7, boatbill to starlings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
Frost, P.G.H. 2013 [updated 2022]. Masked woodswallow. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates