Birders' Stories

The discovery of the White-crowned Hornbill in Singapore

By Shubo (Kiri) Zhang

On this azure planet, there are roughly over ten thousand species of birds that inhabit various corners of the seven continents and five oceans. Some soar in the blue sky, some hop in the forest, some feed in the water, and some live with humans. The diverse range of birds constitutes a part of the diversity of the ecosystem, and observing and recording their appearance, calls, and behavior is an essential aspect of the bird-studying, resulting in the bird field guides. The pleasure of birdwatching and collecting Pokédex share a similar sentiment, and I have hence become an avid birdwatching enthusiast.

During the farewell lunch for my birder friend Frank who was about to return home, I happened to learn about the appearance of the Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike in the Chek Jawa Wetlands, Pulau Ubin. This is a small bird widely distributed in various Southeast Asian countries, but it is very rare in Singapore and only appears occasionally during certain months each year. Among the birding friends present, only Jinchi and I had not seen the Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike yet, and we decided to seize this rare opportunity and head to the Chek Jawa Wetlands the next day to search for this elusive little fellow.

As of 16 April 2023, there were only two species of hornbills in the Singapore bird list: the Oriental Pied Hornbill and the Black Hornbill. The Oriental Pied Hornbill is widely distributed throughout the whole Singapore, but only one female Black Hornbill is on Pulau Ubin. Therefore, besides the Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, the Black Hornbill was also one of my target birds on Pulau Ubin.

The next morning, the weather map showed a large dark cloud moving along the southwest to northeast direction, which coincided with our route to the jetty. If this cloud drifted over Pulau Ubin, our plans would be ruined! We boarded the car with anxious hearts, racing alternately with the dark cloud, and the scenery outside the car was constantly changing between rain and sunshine. Luckily, the dark cloud passed by the edge of Pulau Ubin and continued to drift northeast, and we finally arrived at Chek Jawa Wetlands unimpeded.

The heavy rain did not fall on this tranquil island, and everything in the wetland seemed to just be waking up. We walked along the boardwalk by the sea, the gentle sunlight shimmering on the rippling sea, and the soft sea breeze caressing our drowsy faces. Suddenly, I faintly sensed some movement in the trees on the opposite shore – such a big movement, there might be something interesting! The sleepiness left my mind immediately, and I observed between the leaves carefully with my binoculars, seeing a huge bird jumping up and down in the tree. Although I could vaguely see its black body, white tail, and some blue, it was almost certainly a Black Hornbill based on its size – because there are no other such large forest birds on the island. Unfortunately, the cover of branches and leaves was too heavy, and it was impossible to take a complete photo of the bird with the camera. I still couldn’t confirm if it was the Black Hornbill. Therefore, I continued to patiently wait on the boardwalk, hoping to see the moment when it revealed itself.

The first photograph of White-crowned Hornbill inside the tree which is almost unidentifiable.

As the saying goes, “Nothing is impossible for a willing heart.” After more than ten minutes, it finally flew out and landed in a wide-open branch within our line of sight – a complete and clear photo could now be taken! It had a white crest, blue face, and pure white tail feathers, none of which matched the characteristics of the Black Hornbill. At that moment, several other birders happened to pass by, and one of them quickly found a bird guide containing all the Hornbills. After comparing them one by one, we believed it was a female White-crowned Hornbill – the first recorded sighting of this bird in Singapore! I couldn’t contain my joy and immediately shared the news with my friends, who were also very surprised and quickly rushed over.

The White-crowned Hornbill stood on an open branch, which is the first identifiable photograph that allows for a definitive identification of the species.
The White-crowned Hornbill flew out from the trees.

The joy of discovering the White-crowned Hornbill almost made us forget our original goal for today – we had not yet found the Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike! Adrian Silas Tay, the birder who had also discovered the bird here yesterday, came back again because of the White-crowned Hornbill. He quickly found the inconspicuous little bird with his sharp hearing, and we successfully added it to our bird list.

The experience I had on Pulau Ubin has left a profound impact on me. If no one had shared the information about the Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, we would not have come to Pulau Ubin. If I had not been so persistent in my search for the Black Hornbill, I could not have discovered the White-crowned Hornbill. And if we had not shared information timely, we might not have been able to find the Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike in the end. All of these coincidences unfolded like a dream, with each piece fitting together perfectly, yet they happened to me in a very real and tangible way. I deeply felt the warmth of the birding community. Here, bold exploration brings about new discoveries and actively sharing yields greater assistance.

Finally, I would like to thank Loong Fah Cheong and Xiaoxuan (Matilda) Yan, who helped me to identify the White-crowned Hornbill on-site. And I would like to express the sincerest gratitude to who have provided guidance, encouragement, and company in my birdwatching life: Bear Jia, Frank Chen, Jinchi Han, Jen Wei Yip, Jared Tan, Chien Nien Lee.

2 Comments on “The discovery of the White-crowned Hornbill in Singapore”

  • Henry Yuen




  • It’s always satisfying when persistence pays off. Having said that, quite amazing that you found the bird so quickly. I certainly hope they keep the development of the island at a minimum so we (including the wildlife) can continue to enjoy all these wonderful moments in the natural world.


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