An Indonesian Archipelago Wishlist: Birds to Look Out For

The recent sighting of the Javan Plover Charadrius javanicus at a reclaimed site northeast of Singapore island was exciting yet unsurprising. Exciting because it was a first for Singapore and continental Southeast Asia that caught everyone off guard (then again, none of us are really prepared for megas!) and unsurprising because this is a species whose range has been slowly expanding over the years (Iqbal et al., 2011; Eaton et al., 2021). The appearance, and likely breeding of this species is highly relevant to recent changes in regional avifauna, especially when taking into account the first breeding records for the Pied Stilt Himantopus leucocephalus and Black-winged Stilt H. himantopus that were documented at the same site in 2019 and again this year, respectively.

Apart from the Javan Plover, several other species traditionally known to be from the Indonesian Archipelago (that comprises Sumatra, Borneo, Java and other Indonesian islands west of the Wallace Line) could potentially be found in Singapore and the neighbouring regions. Here are the distinguishing features of the Javan Plover and seven other species readers can keep an eye out for!

Javan Plover Charadrius javanicus

This species closely resembles the Kentish Plover, a locally uncommon migrant. Features including warm buff ear-coverts and relatively heavier bill and longer legs point to the Javan Plover. For those keen to learn more, detailed distinguishing features are described in Iqbal et al. (2013). Other regular plovers in Singapore can be distinguished by a combination of several other features. Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers have incomplete white-bands on their neck, Malaysian Plover have more “sandy-looking” upperparts, and White-faced Plover has a plain looking face as its name suggests.

Wandering Whistling Duck Dendrocygna arcuata

Although this species used to be an uncommon introduced species (Wang & Hails, 2007), the last local sighting was in 2016 (eBird) and the feral population has likely crashed for good. Being highly dispersive, wild birds could possibly wander here in due time. In fact, there is a record from Perak, Malaysia, that may conceivably be of wild provenance (but note that the current status of this species in Peninsula Malaysia is also introduced). It can be distinguished from the locally uncommon Lesser Whistling Duck by its lack of yellow eye ring and distinct white flanks.

Sunda Teal Anas gibberifrons

A species that seems to be undergoing a rapid range expansion across Borneo, Sulawesi and Sumatra (Eaton et al., 2016; 2021; Iqbal, 2016; MNSBCC Records Committee, 2016). With records in Sumatra not too far from Singapore, this funny looking duck might make its way here in the near future. It is much darker and browner than the local Whistling Ducks, with a distinct bulge on the male’s forehead. It prefers brackish water although other wetland habitats are also possible sites to look out for this species. Although various breeds of domestic ducks have been released in Singapore, these typically look more Mallard-like, with variable amount of colouration on their heads and wingpanels. Having said that, most if not all wild ducks in Singapore are typically worth celebration, so if in doubt of identification, it’s best to share the sighting for confirmation.

Black-backed Swamphen Porphyrio indicus

Swamphen taxonomy is rather incongruent, with much left to be discovered (Garcia-R & Trewick, 2015; Callaghan et al., 2020; Eaton et al., 2021; Gill et al., 2021). Records from Singapore are thought to be the Grey-headed Swamphen viridis (Wang & Hails, 2007; Callaghan et al., 2020), but possible integrades have been recorded before locally (Wells, 1990). The distribution of the Black-backed Swamphen is also contentious especially on Sumatra, with the two forms likely mixing (Wells, 1999; Taylor, 2020; Eaton et al., 2021). The Grey-headed Swamphen is another species struggling to survive in Singapore – a common theme for local waterbirds – and was last seen in 2018 (eBird). But if you do happen to see one, be sure to check its back colour. Black-backed Swamphen can be distinguished by having darker upperparts and face.

Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus novaehollandiae

The Australasian Grebe is capable of undertaking overwater dispersals (Llimona et al., 2020). Recent new records from Sulawesi and southern Sumatra (Eaton et al., 2016; Eaton et al., 2021) suggest a possible range expansion underway. Its habitat requirements are similar to the locally rare Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis from which it can be distinguished by its darker neck and ear coverts. Given that the Little Grebe is already struggling to survive in Singapore at the moment, the chances of the Australasian Grebe breeding here like the plovers did are probably low, but they’re certainly worth looking out for.

Little Black Cormorant Phalacrocorax sulcirostris

Another species that seems to be experiencing a spread across the Sumatran coast (Eaton et al., 2021). Waterbodies – both coastal and inland – are potential locations to find this species. Locally, escaped individuals of the Great Cormorant and Little Cormorant have been documented (Wang & Hails, 2007). There were apparently two local records of the Little Black Cormorant as well in August and September 1993 (Oriental Bird Club, 1994; Lim, 2009). Assessing the provenance of cormorants can be a challenge in Singapore so do try to obtain high quality images of them (especially the legs) if you find one.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta nigripes

Knowledge on the distribution of this taxon in our region is far from ideal. Present from Indonesia through eastern Australia, it seems to be spreading across Sumatra (Iqbal, 2012; del Hoyo et al., 2020; Eaton et al., 2021). Their local status varies from “uncommon”, “sparing” to “probable” (Wang & Hails, 2007; Robson, 2014; Puan et al., 2020) and there is still much for us to document. Possible integrades have been seen in Singapore too. Various bare part colouration distinguishes this taxon apart from the locally common migrant Little Egret garzetta (Bakewell, 2019), perhaps most distinct among them being their toe colour – black in nigripes, yellow in garzetta in breeding plumage (images 14 & 15). However, caution should be taken during identification as juveniles and non-breeding garzetta can have duller feet and mud can affect feet colour (Robson, 2014).

 

Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus

This species breeds in Australia and is a highly likely contender for showing up on Singapore given that it is an Austral migrant to Borneo and Indonesia, similar to the Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoo Chrysococcyx basalis. Multiple people have claimed an encounter with this species in Singapore and it is also listed to be present in Robson (2014). However, none of the records have been adequately substantiated and a record from Thailand in February 2019 (Round et al., 2020) is the only formal record in our region thus far. The Sacred Kingfisher can be distinguished from the Collared Kingfisher T. chloris by its turquoise upperparts (as opposed to blue), smaller overall size and bill, and buff wash on its lores and flanks. Care is required in distinguishing this species from immature Collared Kingfishers as they can show some buff wash as well, but typically with scalloped plumage on their breast.

Acknowledgements

Huge thanks to Dave Bakewell, James Eaton and Khaleb Yordan for identification discussions on the Javan Plover identification online, as well as others we had offline. I would also like to express my gratitude to Frankie Cheong for documenting and sharing pictures of Singapore’s first Javan Plover, to the Singapore Birds Project team (Dillen, Francis, Movin, Raghav, Sandra) for comments on this article and to the following for sharing their excellent photos: Dillen Ng, Geraldine Lee, Goh Cheng Teng, Khaleb Yordan and Lim Hong Yao.

Literature Cited

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