China to Sumatra via Singapore: The Journey of the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher

To many casual birdwatchers, the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher (Rhinomyias brunneata) is just another of the many hundreds of ‘brown jobs’ that dwell in the region. The more serious birders and conservationists however, know it to be globally threatened, and appreciate its rarity in the region.

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher
(A Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher from Bidadari, Singapore. Photographed in September 2012)

In Singapore, veterans of the Singapore Bird Race remember it as a ‘species in bold’, in the race checklist, a classification reserved for many of our rarest birds, and thus in need of special documentation in the race. First discovered in northern Singapore back in the early 1980s, the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher was a bird one seldom saw, and there were only a handful of records every year. In recent years, much has been learnt about the ecology of this little songbird. Birdwatchers visiting the famous Bidadari Cemetery found small numbers of these birds every October since 2006, and in 2013, a total of eight birds were sighted in the little patch of woodland of no more than 15 hectares in size. Parallel surveys I conducted in the Central Catchment Forest found as many as six birds in one morning in mid-October, or an average of 1 bird for every kilometre walked. Birdwatchers around the world now acknowledge that Singapore is probably the best place to see the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher in the world during the fall migration period between October-November, much more so that at it’s breeding habitat in China.

So, why the apparent rarity? One reason is that the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher has a habit of skulking in dense patches of undergrowth in woodlands and forests, perching motionless on a low twig while watching the ground for the unfortunate bug. Many birdwatchers are thus likely to have walked past the flycatcher without realising that it is there, just metres away in the bushes. Secondly, the drab-brownish colour tones of the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher mean that to the uninitiated, it can be quite a challenge to tell it apart from other flycatchers, many of which are also brownish and show subtle differences which are difficult to pick out when seen poorly. Thirdly, not many people know the calls the Brown-chested Jungle-Flycatcher makes. Only in recent years do we now know it produces a harsh series of ‘ticks’, a call made when it is alarmed, or when another Jungle Flycatcher comes too close into its territory. (Link to my recording on Xeno-canto Link1, Link2). This call is so similar to that made by Blue Flycatchers of the genus Cyornis, that it is not surprising why some taxonomists now consider it part of that group.

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher
(A Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher from Bidadari, Singapore. Photographed on a low twig.)

In Singapore, the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher occurs as a passage migrant, which means that birds seen here are on their way to their wintering destination elsewhere. Breeding in the mountainous broadleaved forests of southern and central China (e.g. Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Fujian, Guizhou), Brown-chested Jungle Flycatchers head south from August onwards, briefly passing through northern Vietnam. By mid-September, they would have reached Central Thailand, as confirmed by regular sightings around Bangkok . Sightings from Singapore are mainly from the last few days of September to early November and there are very few records of birds staying through winter. Birds have also been collected from the One Fathom Bank Lighthouse in the Straits of Malacca in November before the 1920s, while hundreds were mist-netted on migration in Frasers Hill in the 1960s.

For many years, no one knew for sure where they spend their winters. A major clue came when a team in Java mist-netted a Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher in the Gunung Halimun National Park southwest of Jakarta. Subsequently, photographers based in Sumatra obtained images of ‘unknown flycatchers’ which were subsequently re-identified as the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatchers. Part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that the bird was not listed for Sumatra in the main bird field guide (i.e. Mackinnon et al’s Birds of Sumatra, Borneo, Java and Bali) covering the region. We now know that the bird has been found in the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Lampung, and the Harapan Rainforest in Jambi province. In short, we now know that the humble Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher makes a journey of 3,500km each way in Autumn and Spring, a massive distance for such a small little bird.

Photo Gallery

Reference:
MacKinnon, J., & Phillipps, K. (1993). A field guide to the birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali: the Greater Sunda Islands. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

This post is written by our contributor Yong Ding Li with additional input from Albert Low. Photographs by Francis Yap.

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