The current Singapore Checklist published in 2013 has 385 species based on species classified under Category A: i.e. species recorded in an apparent wild state in Singapore in the last 50 years. If you go through this list you will find that many of our resident species have actually not been seen for quite some time. We fear that many of these ‘missing’ species may have died out in their last stronghold due to habitat loss and other factors associated with small populations (e.g. disease). The good news is that some of the species that we thought we have lost like the Buff-rumped Woodpecker and Barred Eagle Owl were spectacularly rediscovered in recent years, although this does not guarantee that their populations will persist in the long time. In this article, we highlight a number of species in Singapore’s checklist that have not been seen in the last decade and more.
Many of these ‘lost’ birds can still be found at the Panti Forest Reserve just across the Causeway in Johor, Malaysia. We are lucky to be able to showcase these eight species brilliantly documented by Con Foley at Panti Forest, and hope that they will be seen here again some day.
A large, rare woodpecker that is distinctive both in appearance and call, the White-bellied Woodpecker is also the second largest woodpecker in the Old World, after the Great Slaty Woodpecker. Like the possibly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker of North America, this is no doubt the Holy Grail of birdwatching in Singapore! The last confirmed record was from the Canopy Walkway at the Central Catchment Nature Reserve where one was heard on 24 July 2005, almost ten years ago. The last stronghold of the White-bellied Woodpecker was the Central Catchment Forest where most of the sightings were reported. One exceptional record was on 30 September 2001 when three males and one female were seen on a Terentang tree at the CCNR (Alfred Chia, Kenneth Kee & Alan OwYong). This is the largest single count for this woodpecker to date. Subsequent sightings involved a single male around the Sime Road area and MacRitchie Forest. Outside the Central Catchment, one bird was seen at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in the mid-1990s, and a stray individual was reported at the Mount Pleasant and Gymkhana areas in the early 2000s. There have also been unconfirmed records of single birds in remnant patches of woodlands in Tuas and Marina South. Large woodpeckers need large areas of relatively undisturbed forests to forage almost wherever they are found. We may have lost this woodpecker as a result of forest fragmentation and unless this is reversed the chances of this woodpecker returning to our forest is nil.
There was this note from Jon Chan of an unconfirmed sighting in 2013. He wrote: “Found out one of my buddies, Gabriel Kang, fellow Sunburnbrother and spotter, found a White Bellied Woodpecker at Rifle Range Rd on 6 Feb ’13 at 11.15am’. He heard the call first, suspected something amiss, stopped the car, and It flew past him on the road. Described it as crow-size but with a woodpecker’s behaviour. “
2. Little Green Pigeon. Treton olax
The Little Green Pigeon is the rarest of four green pigeons known from Singapore. Surprisingly this species was considered to be common in the 1960s by birdwatchers from the Royal Air Force Ornithological Society (Tweedy 1970, RAFOS 1968). Most of the recent records were from 1986 to 1990 when either singles or two birds were seen at Pulau Tekong and Upper Seletar, Upper Peirce, and Nee Soon in the Central Catchment Forests (SINAV). But sightings dwindled to only two records in the mid-2000s, a male on 17 October 2004 (SINAV 4.5) and a female reported two days later at the Jelutong Tower during the Bird Race that year. So far, we have no sightings of this species for more than a decade. Hopefully a stray from Johor will make it to our forests in the coming years since green pigeons are known to disperse widely for fruiting trees. Birdwatchers are encouraged to keep a lookout for this species at fruiting figs in and around the Central Catchment.
3. Lesser Cuckooshrike. Coracina fimbriata
This very rare resident has only been recorded in Pulau Ubin and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Unfortunately, the forests there is unlikely to sustain its survival in Singapore. Recent records from Bukit Timah was a male seen on October 1986 (BGNB Spet/Oct 1986) with the last record of a female at the same location on 4th January 1998 (K.S. Lim, SINAV 12.1). (Lim Kim Seng reported another female flying over Jelutong Towers on 14 October 2013). A report of a purported Lesser Cuckooshrike accompanied by a photograph in 2014, turned out to be the Black-winged Cuckooshrike (a species not in our checklist). The 2013 sighting gave hope of a comeback but we may have to accept that this species is now most likely extinct in Singapore.
4. Moustached Babbler. Malacopteron magnirostre
Our rarest babbler ‘came back to life’ when ornithologist Chris J. Hails from the Parks and Recreation Department (the predecessor of today’s National Parks Board) found a remnant population at the Seletar Catchment in 1983. A census in 1986 found six birds in two locations within the Central Catchment forests. Lim Kim Chuah also reported seeing a pair of Moustached Babblers with two youngs, proving that the birds successfully bred. Breeding was recorded in 1984 and 1986. However their numbers appear to have declined thereafter, with only one bird sighted in 1987 and this became our second last record (SINAV 1.6). The last record was in June 1994, when one bird was sighted at the MacRitchie Catchment (K.S. Lim 1988). Subsequent surveys did not produce any sightings and we think that this babbler may already have gone extinct.
5. Plain Sunbird. Anthreptes simplex.
The Plain Sunbird lives up to its name with its drab olive-green plumage, which makes it very similar to female sunbirds of other species if poorly seen. We have only one acceptable record of a male seen at Senoko on 25 January 1986 by Lim Kim Seng (BGB 2. Lim, K.S. 1989e). The last sighting of the Plain Sunbird was an unconfirmed record from Rifle Range Road in 2006 by Yong Ding Li and Ong Kiem Sian. Plain Sunbirds may have been overlooked in the past and dismissed as a female of other sunbirds but birdwatchers looking for this species should note that the males with their bluish patch above its bill are very distinctive.
6. Thick-billed Spiderhunter. Arachnothera crassirostris.
We had given up on this rare Spiderhunter and thought that it has gone extinct until one was seen again along Island Club Road in November 1989 (SINAV 3.11; Lim K.S. 1989j), almost 70 years after the last sighting. There were three more records after this, a) 23 October 2005 at Jelutong Towers during the Bird Race (SINAV 19.4), b) 2 birds at Nee Soon on 11 March 2006 by Albert Low and, c) an individual at Sime Road on October 2007. There was another report by at Sime Forest by James Heng after the 2007 record but this was not confirmed. Due to these recent records, there is hope that a small population may still persist undetected in the Central Catchment Forest.
7. Scarlet Minivet. Pericrocotus flammeus
Most of our records for this minivet were from the Bukit Timah Nature Reserves. The first record was in 1986 and the last in September 2001 by Yong Ding Li and Ong Kiem Sian at the Rock path. Out of a total of some 30 records, the largest number seen involved four birds. Alan OwYong recorded a pair on 3 December 1994 during a survey along Jungle Fall trail. There were only two records outside Bukit Timah, with a few unconfirmed sightings along the Sime Road area. In the 2000 Bird Race, a female was seen at MacRitchie forest by many groups, shortly after a White-bellied Woodpecker showed up! Being a vocal canopy feeder that occasionally join mixed flocks with bluebirds, Blue-winged Leafbirds and Chestnut-bellied Malkoha (Yong D.L. in litt.) based on observations at Bukit Timah, Scarlet Minivets should be easily seen if they are still around.
8 Black-thighed Falconet. Microhierax fringillarius
The last stronghold of the Black-thighed Falconet was in Ulu Sembawang where four sightings were reported between 1979 and 1986, all by Lim Kim Seng. They disappeared when the forest there was disturbed and eventually developed. The last record was an adult at Sime Road Forest on 7 October 1990. There were four more records from 1992 to 2005 from Sime Road, Loyang and Bukit Batok Nature Park by various observers but unfortunately most of these records could not be confirmed. The best place for this raptor to show up may actually be in Pulau Ubin or Tekong, since falconets are still reasonably common in parts of Malaysia, occurring even in logged forests.
All records were taken from The Avifauna of Singapore. Lim Kim Seng 2009, Vanishing Birds of Singapore Lim Kim Seng 1992 and Yong Ding Li’s article in Nature Watch Vol 7 No 1. 1999. Many thanks to Con Foley for the use of these hard-to-get photographs from his extensive Panti Forest Collection and Yong Ding Li for editing the draft and adding in several unpublished records.