Masked Finfoot sighted in Singapore

on 14th January 2010

A Masked Finfoot (Heliopais personata) was sighted in Singapore’s Upper Seletar Resevior in early January 2010. The bird is an extremely rare, non-breeding visitor and obviously everyone was excited. Unlike local twitchers who were only interested in just a look in order to make a tick on their checklist, photographers made repeat visits. The latter were interested in getting images of the bird doing more than just swimming in the water.

And a few photographers did succeed in observing the finfoot’s behaviour. KC Tsang noticed the bird foraging among the plants around the edge of the water, possibly looking for insects. When it swam close by a huge monitor lizard (above), there was no fear. Did the bird sense that the lizard was harmless or was it not familiar with such lizards from where it came from? The bird even swam slowly after the lizard, following slowly behind. Johnny Wee was amused that the bird and the lizard simply looked at each other, “not knowing what to do.” Mark Chua on the other hand documented the bird with a water snail in its bill (below) while David Tan photographed the bird with a small fish.

The Masked Finfoot was sighted as early as 1995 but in the absence of detailed information the sightings have never been officially recognised. Photographic evidence was finally obtained in 2002 at Upper Seletar. Now, eight years later, another sightings is being reported. This time around, there are more than enough photographic evidence, considering that there were many photographers at the scene.

This species is globally VULNERABLE as the population is estimated at less than 10,000 birds. Its habitats include reservoirs, streams, slow-flowing rivers, mangroves and coastal areas. The fast disappearance of such habitats has obviously seen to the decline of the population.

The Masked Finfoot is thinly distributed mainly from Bangladesh and NE India (Assam) through Myanmar and Thailand to Cambodia and Vietnam. Its status in Thailand, usually considered as resident, might well be uncommon passage migrant and winter visitor. In Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra, its status is still uncertain. However, recent evidence suggests that there is a possibility of breeding in both these areas. The fact is that records are few and far between and more observations need to be documented.

All evidence points to the species being essentially sedentary. There is no evidence of regular migration. The occasional appearance of the bird outside its normal range obviously points to the fact there is limited movements.

Information of behaviour is just as lacking. It is generally known that the bird feeds on aquatic insects, crustaceans, molluscs, small fish, frogs and water weeds. Again, details are lacking. Breeding behaviour is poorly known. The shyness of the bird and its secretive habits make observations extremely difficult

Top image by KC Tsang; bottom image by Mark Chua.

Bertram, B. C. R., 1996. Family Heliornithidae (Finfoots). In del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal (eds.), Handbook of the birds of the world. Vol. 3. Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Editions, Barcelona. Pp. 210-217.
2. Wang, L.K. & C. J. Hails, 2007. An annotated checklist of birds of Si ngapore. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, Supplement 15: 1-179.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

8 Responses

  1. It does seemed to have a migration pattern here in Peninsular Malaysia of roughly December to June/July when it appeared in FRIM, Kepong. The Taiping Lake recorded on passage is likely of Dec/Jan period as well. Both does not consist of male plumage, and bcoz of the problems arised when FRIM bird is sexed, it seems that there is a possibility that it was actually a juvenile male. If this is true, it fits the idea that juveniles are generally much bolder than full adults and therefore no adult males are seemingly seen in these suburban occurrences?? I dont have full record of Masked Finfoot in this region but probably so….. Nice record for Singapore.

  2. Based on what I have learnt from one of the observers (Calvin Chang), this FF did exhibit some predictable behavior over a span of two days (9 & 10 Jan) before excessive human traffic (n float) caused this behavior to gone South. The FF was described to swim towards a certain direction, stay there for certain duration before moving on to a more recluse spot located about 50m away near reservoir bank. It was described that this FF would preen on a nearby log in the water for 10 mins before moving on to another location.

    On wednesday (13 Jan), I did briefly surveyed the environment where this FF was last observed to preen in comfort and noted that there were excessive acoustical pollution originating from overhead copters over extended periods. Based on some limited experience with shore birds, the magnitude of such acoustical pollution could easily flush a flock of shorebirds even during peak feeding period. In hindsight the hypothesis brought forth by Tou Jing Yi that juv are much bolder may indeed be fulfilled.

    just my 2 cents

  3. What is going on between the Masked Finfoot and the monitor lizard? There was a monitor lizard lurking around the Masked Finfoot of FRIM in 2004 too. I was always worried about the intentions of the monitor lizard then. But I think Masked Finfoots are not naive about monitor lizards and know how to deal with them. There’s more about the Masked Finfoot of FRIM here.

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