4 Apr 2019

News flash: Rufous-headed Robin spotted for first time since 2016

This secretive Endangered songbird has been spotted for the first time in three years, in the cloud forests of Malaysia – a completely new habitat for this species. Could this be its formerly unknown wintering grounds?

The Rufous-headed Robin is one of the most narrowly-distributed birds in Asia © Summer Wong
The Rufous-headed Robin is one of the most narrowly-distributed birds in Asia © Summer Wong
By Jessica Law

When local birdwatcher Long Roslee Ngah photographed a small, pretty brown bird in the cloud forests of the Genting Highlands in February, he didn’t realise the importance of what he had discovered. It wasn’t until other birdwatchers and researchers spotted the photo in a WhatsApp chat group that they realised it was in fact a Rufous-headed Robin Larvivora ruficeps (Endangered) – an incredibly rare and secretive migratory bird that has only been sporadically sighted in the past few years. To this day, very little is known about this species – but thanks to this sighting, we now know a little more.

The Rufous-headed Robin is one of the most narrowly-distributed migratory landbirds in Asia, with its breeding grounds restricted to a tiny area of central China in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces. Fortunately, all three of the locations where it had been recorded in recent years are protected areas – Jiuzhaigou, Wanglang and Baihe Nature Reserves, all classed as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas. Here, it rubs shoulders with iconic Asian species such as the Giant Panda, Golden Snub-nosed Monkey and Takin (“Gnu Goat”). However, not much is known about where it heads to spend its winter.

Until now. Observations by local birdwatchers and photographers over many weeks have confirmed that Malaysia’s high-elevation cloud forests are indeed part of the Rufous-headed Robin’s long sought-after wintering grounds. The only previous clues came in 1963, when one male bird was mist-netted and banded in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands by researchers who then assumed it was an extreme vagrant, and another brief sighting in the Genting Highlands in 2014.

This photo of a female created a furore when spotted on WhatsApp © Long Roslee Ngah

“Migratory landbirds are extremely poorly-known in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, and more research is needed to understand their migration routes and ecology, especially in Southeast Asia,” says Dr Ding Li Yong, Flyways Officer for the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. “More importantly, this discovery only goes to demonstrate the importance of conserving our rainforests.”

The discovery of one of Asia’s least-known birds in these highlands, not far from Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, confirms the ecological significance of Malaysia’s cloud forests. These unique habitats also support at least three other restricted-range bird species, as well as the Siamang (a type of gibbon) and the Sumatran Serow, a peculiar goat-antelope.

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They need all the protection they can get. “With extensive forest clearance for agriculture, especially at Cameron Highlands, and commercial development at Genting Highlands, there is a great need to conserve these highland forest ecosystems,” says Tan Choo Eng, Bird Conservation Council chairperson for the Malaysian Nature Society (BirdLife Partner).

The next step? To discover the full extent of its wintering range in Malaysia, in order to protect it. “Although there is no documented evidence of this species being trapped in Malaysia, every effort must be made to ensure it is not trapped or traded in its wintering range. More surveys are needed, especially the highlands of the Bintang and Titiwangsa ranges,” says Tan.