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.
1. 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.