Muscicapa Mystery: What are the Perdik flycatchers?

Following on from Ayuwat’s fascinating photos linked in his comments on the last post, I’ve received some pictures of a bird in Selangor which poses more questions than it answers.

Vol 2 of Wells’ Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula (2007), in referring to the status of M. (d).williamsoni (Brown-streaked Flycatcher), states:

“Evidence of breeding by williamsoni south to Bedong, Kedah …, is supported photographically, and Perlis and Kedah, at least, are climatically similar to breeding areas north of the border. Still further south, a date 4 May in Seberang Prai …[Pulau Pinang] is suggestive, but discovery in April 1999 of a pair of flycatchers showing characteristics of williamsoni at a typical nest above an open road-verge on the forested sub-montane slope of the Gombak Valley, Selangor Main Range …is ground-breaking. Presence in the south of a separate, perhaps un-named breeder cannot be ruled out (given a further find in nearby Ulu Langat district in August 2005 …).”

From time to time, and increasingly regularly in recent years, these flycatchers continue to be reported from the Ulu Langat area, and in particular, Sg Perdik, which is around 140m asl on the lower slopes of the continuously forested slopes of the southern end of the Titiwangsa Range, the highest peak nearby being Gunung Nuang (1,493m).

Suhaimi My recently sent me a series of superb photos of a bird photographed at Perdik on 22 April 2013. He’s kindly allowed me to reproduce them here.

20130421-RSP_1748 20130421-RSP_1738 20130421-RSP_1736What is evident is that this is a Muscicapa flycatcher in rather abraded plumage. The underparts appear to be diffusely streaked brown from the throat to rear flanks at least. So – Brown-streaked? Against this diagnosis, the plainnness of the ‘face’ pattern (ie the lack of contrastingly pale eye-ring and lores) is striking, as is the contrast between the rather grey head and the warm brown upperparts, but can these be explained by feather wear?

bill profilebill frontalFeather abrasion on both the Kedah bird (left) and the Perdik bird (right) seems comparable, but the plumage pattern is strikingly different. The Perdik bird appears to have a slightly slimmer bill when viewed in profile (in all photos).

side by side Ulu Perdik flycatcher cf Brown-streakedHowever, the most  obvious differences are in the wing and tail length. Even allowing for a slight foreshortening effect caused by the angle of the tail, the Perdik bird is much longer-tailed and shorter-winged than the Kedah bird. The primary projection is roughly equal to the exposed tertial length on the Kedah bird (right in the lower pic, left on the upper), whereas on the Perdik bird, it is nearer half.

So – what is the long-tailed Muscicapa of Ulu Langat? Could it be M.d.umbrosa, which is described as having a lack of perceptible eye-ring (Rheindt & Eaton 2012) but has hitherto only been recorded in Borneo? Or, as Wells suggested back in 2007, do we have an as yet unnamed taxon within easy driving distance of KL?

The only way we’re going to find out is to get more info on these birds, so – do watch out for ‘brown flycatchers’ next time you’re heading for the Ulu Langat area. Take lots of pictures, and let me know if you find one!

References:

Rheindt, F.E. and Eaton, J.A. 2012. Notes on the life history and taxonomy of Muscicapa dauurica umbrosa, an overlooked Borneo canopy bird. Forktail 28 (2012):144-146

Wells, D.R. 2007. The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula 2. London: Christopher Helm.

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11 thoughts on “Muscicapa Mystery: What are the Perdik flycatchers?

  1. Hi Dave,

    To me, this looks like an undescribed species of Muscicapa.

    We tend to assume that all birds have already been described, or that species only await discovery on remote peaks and distant islands. However, there are surprises right under our noses, but overlook them because we only see what we are looking for. Looking at this bird through a lens clouded by “surely this must be an aberrant x” it is easy to shoe-horn it into something familiar. Even something as distinctive as the Bare-faced Bulbul was shoe-horned in this way for by multiple observers over many years! Like your Swinhoe’s Plover, once you start to believe that what you are seeing is not what you were expecting to see, those plumage and structural differences will appear much more obvious!

    Cheers,

    Simon

    • Hi Simon,

      Good to hear from you! When I left the UK there were only 3 large gull species (other than the white-wingers) and one Chiffchaff. I think that proves your point about surprises under our noses perfectly! Nevertheless, there’s a long way to go before we understand all the variations of ‘brown’ flycatcher that exist in this part of the world!

  2. Interesting diagnosis of the Brown-Streaked Flycatcher. It looks a little different than the one i saw back in June 2011. Will certaintly keep an eye for future brown flycatchers in Perdik.

  3. Hi Dave, Is this the best way to measure which bird is longer winged(if you don’t have them in hand)?
    I think, usually we judge by the extension of the primaries tip onto the tail, which in this case looks like almost the same, both also just extent slightly beyond the uppertail coverts.
    And the much shorter tail on the Kedah’s bird, could it be due to molt, since the 2 longer central tail feathers will shed first, thus showing the shorter inner feathers( will other photos show the williamsoni to be this short tailed, which in this case, look really like those of young birds).
    Thanks.

    • Judging primary length in relation to the tail is one way of doing it Choong Liung. However, this is less reliable than measuring primary projection in relation to some other visible aspect of the wing, since the two (wing and tail) can obviously move in relation to one another, while tertial length and primary projection beyond the longest tertial involve fewer variables. Furthermore, looking at primary projection in relation to the length of the tertials tells you more about the wing formula than measuring wingtip to tail.

      Not sure I follow your logic about the tail, but I can say that the Kedah Brown-streaked was not in moult.

  4. Location:

    Hulu Perdik
    3°12’15″N 101°50’19″E

    http://wikimapia.org/#lang=en&lat=3.204169&lon=101.838874&z=17&m=b&show=/10666847/&search=Perdik

    Passing the Nur Lembah Pangsun Eco Resort, at the end of the tarred road, if you go straight you’ll go to the Hutan Lipur Hulu Perdik area where people camp and picnic.

    But you’re not going straight – look on the right, there’s a tarred road towards Dusun Bestari (which entrance is up the hill) – where there is a small house and that middle-aged guy with a pony-tailed hairstyle resides there looking after the fish ponds – a couple of big bikes too.

    There are a couple of fish ponds on this side of the river bank, and a lot bigger fish pond with a noisy goose on the other side. The small bridge connecting the road has collapsed long time ago. Crossing the river, look on the right side – right next to the collapsed bridge/ river – a couple of meters – there’s a small tree which flowers are often visited by Purple-naped Sunbirds (an adult an a juvenile during my visit but failed to shoot good shots) and next to it there’s a big tree.

    So the tree visited by Purple-naped Sunbirds was the first spot that this unknown bird/ flycatcher perched – around 20 to 30 secs allowing me to shoot a few good shots from around 4 meters distance – very near. Then if flew to the open area and landed on the fallen branch and I managed to shoot a couple of shots before it flew away.

    I hope it helps. Sorry Mr Dave Bakewell I am not able to come out with the location sketch.

    Suhaimi My

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