The Master of Garden Birdsong

The Master of Garden Birdsong

Oriental Magpie-robin in urban and suburban environments. Is it thriving?

Deepal Warakagoda, 13 May 2024

The Oriental Magpie-robin in Sri Lanka

The Oriental Magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) or Polkichcha (in Sinhala) and Katikuruvi (in Tamil) is a very familiar garden bird throughout the country. It’s doubtful that there’s anyone out there (with normal hearing) who has not heard the voice of the magpie-robin in the vicinity of their home, whether paying attention to its sounds or not. The magpie-robin is a songbird, not just an ordinary one but a master of singing, at which it can challenge all but very few bird species in the world. The singing is powerful, far-carrying and often includes melodious passages. Songs of male magpie-robins resound in every part of the country, except the interior of rainforests and cloud forests, in many months of the year. These are some reasons for Sri Lanka Nature Sounds to choose this bird as Sri Lanka’s first ‘Songbird of the Year’ in 2024 (see here).

Magpie-robin as a songbird

The Oriental Magpie-robin belongs to a distinct group recognized as ‘true’ songbirds, or ‘turdiform’ (thrush-like) birds in the Superfamily Muscicapoidea under the Order Passeriformes. They have a remarkable ability in singing and have a widely varied song repertoire. They can sing notes of different pitches in a rapid succession or even lower and higher pitched notes at the same time, producing complex, modulated and highly variable song. The songs are melodious, which is pleasing to us. The magpie-robin has this ability at the highest level among the songbirds (see here).

A preliminary study

I have been studying a few pairs of magpie-robins in the larger vicinity of my residence at Udahamulla in the suburbs of Colombo for 17 years now (since 2007). My observations have been mostly focussed on their singing and related behaviour. However, I have observed and audio recorded songs of the magpie-robin since 1991 in many areas of the country, though roughly in the western half, from Jaffna in the North to Yala in the South-east. These recordings are archived at the Drongo Nature Sounds Library. Throughout the 17 years my main focus has been on the pairs in my vicinity which live in a suburban environment.

Magpie-robins in our cities and suburbs – are they on a silent decline?

A good number of magpie-robin pairs are readily found in urban and suburban areas of Colombo. It may well appear to anyone noting this that the species is thriving in this environment. Male magpie-robins sing more or less continuously for about eight to ten months (mostly from October to June or August of the following year) during their breeding season. This prolonged singing might make one think that there is successful breeding every year.

However, my observations in my area in these past years suggest that the pairs here do not succeed in producing young for a number of years. During these 17 years I have observed not more than 11 young birds born in the larger vicinity of my residence. The pair occupying my and a few neighbouring gardens as part of its territory during this time had only three young ones! All sightings of the species showed only one young bird for a pair. This poor rate of breeding success is of great concern.

Magpie-robins appear to be fairly long lived birds, apparently over 17 years, from personal observation of two singing males in my near vicinity since 2007. It is not clear whether: having fewer offspring is a natural phenomenon to cope with increasing demand to establish new territories for males in decreasing habitat in urban and suburban environments; or suitable nesting sites in this environment are diminishing; or nests are often disturbed or predated thus preventing pairs from incubating eggs or raising young; or there is a lack of food, maybe sources of protein, to raise young successfully in successive years; or yet other causes are involved.

We need to seek answers for the deficiency in breeding to see whether our urban and suburban magpie-robins require appropriate attention from us, to also have them continue singing in our home gardens. It is also important to assess the situation with the pairs of magpie-robins in rural areas to compare the two populations.

For these reasons I think it is important to have information gathered from many urban and suburban areas, and from rural areas too, to assess the situation with regard to the magpie-robin pairs in cities and adjacent areas.

If you are interested in sharing some observations from the area you live in I would like to invite you to join the following facebook group. What is requested from you are reports: of magpie-robins singing, as all singing indicates attempted or successful breeding; of them nesting, which is done typically in tree hollows; and of the presents of young ones, described below.

How to detect the magpie-robins in your area

Magpie-robins are highly territorial birds throughout the year. The two birds of a pair occupy an area which they have separated clearly for themselves from other magpie-robin pairs in surrounding areas. Hence the pair in an area is easy to detect most of the year, especially the male as it sings for a number of months in a row in the year from every vantage position within its territory.  The female is less easily detected except when she stays in the vicinity of the singing male or is feeding on the ground nearby. If she is incubating then there is minimal chance to find her. Sometimes the two are seen together also when the male chases after her calling loudly in courtship. If there’s a bird feeding table in your vicinity then it is very likely you will see the pair here either singly or together at various times of the day. During the period, the months of year, the male is not singing the places to detect the birds of a pair are the regular feeding sites in their territory. Young birds accompany one or both parents for a few weeks after they are fledged out of the nest.

You can see below the images and identification captions of male, female and young birds of the magpie-robin.

 

 

 

 

Male, deep blue-black upperparts and breast with white underparts and wing-stripe.

(Photo by Uditha Hettige)

 

 

 

 

Female, duller than male with greyer on upperparts and breast.

(Photo by Uditha Hettige)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Young bird, resembles an adult female but duller and has small brown spots on throat to breast and brown on wings.

 

 

 

 

 

Older young bird, more like an adult female but has some brown spots on throat, breast and head, and brown on wings.

 

Join our facebook group to share your observations of the magpie-robin in your home garden – facebook group

 

Sri Lanka Nature Sounds Songbird of the Year 2024

Sri Lanka Nature Sounds Songbird of the Year 2024

Oriental Magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) – the garden songbird in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Nature Sounds in conjunction with Drongo Nature Sounds Library has decided to present a songbird in Sri Lanka each year as ‘Songbird of the Year’.

For 2024 we present Oriental Magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) as the Songbird of the Year.

(Photo by Namal Kamalgoda)

The background for this recognition is as follows. The founder of the two organizations above Deepal Warakagoda accompanied a bird photographer Frank Haugwitz on his photography tour of Sri Lanka in January. During their field explorations Frank suggested to Deepal naming a species as ‘Bird of the Year’ in Sri Lanka as done every year in his country Germany. One result hoped for is a special focus on it during that year by bird and nature observers.

Deepal then gave thought to the idea, and decided to name a ‘Songbird of the Year’ through his above two foundations, with his partiality to studying songbirds in Sri Lanka during the last few decades. The choice was also influenced by a discussion last year with his friend Rajith Dissanayake who was much impressed by the singing of magpie-robins in the Colombo area during a visit to Sri Lanka at the time.

In the early 1990s veteran birder Upali Ekanayaka, who was the leading expert on bird sound identification in Sri Lanka, drew Deepal’s attention to the Magpie-robin as the songbird most striking to him in the country, pointing out the extraordinary variability and musical quality in its songs. A few years later Prof. Valentine Basnayake, a well-known Western classical musician and educator in the country, commented to Deepal that the bird has clear notes that match those of Western musical scales. Deepal worked in a project to provide Prof. Basnayake with sounds of some of our bird species as educational material for Western music in the secondary school curriculum.

He recollects here with gratitude these three persons, and all the early writers who recognized the species to be one of the finest songbirds of Sri Lanka.

‘Songbird of the Year in Sri Lanka’ was first announced at the talk Deepal delivered on the topic ‘Bird Songs in Nature Soundscapes’ on 5th May 2024 (which was also International Dawn Chorus Day: please see the preceding blog post) at the exhibition National Wildlife Photography Awards, 2024, organized by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka.

Audio albums: It is planned by Sri Lanka Nature Sounds to launch a few audio albums featuring some of the melodious songs of our Magpie-robin, from the recordings archived at the Drongo Nature Sounds Library, in due course. Below are a few samples of the recordings of the Magpie-robin’s songs heard in three different areas in the country.

at Gangodawila, off Nugegoda, a suburb of Colombo

at Seenuggala, Udawalawe National Park, in the Intermediate climatic zone of Sri Lanka

at Weddagala, off Kalawana, near the Sinharaja rainforest

 

Sri Lanka Nature Sounds & Drongo Nature Sounds Library                                                                                                                                        6th May 2024

 

 

 

International Dawn Chorus Day 2024

International Dawn Chorus Day, 5th May 2024

5th May is International Dawn Chorus Day. On this day people listen specially to, and often audio record, the sounds that many birds make together at dawn, in varied settings, across the world, with members of bird and nature societies sometimes gathering in groups to do so. The tradition is now nearly half a century old, having begun in Britain.

This year, a microphone rig setup in my garden in a suburban environment, here in Sri Lanka, captured the early morning chorus of garden birds in my neighbourhood. A part of the recording of the chorus can be heard below. A major participant in the chorus here these days is the Oriental Magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis). It sings its beautiful songs in many variations differing across days, weeks and months, during its breeding season.

 

A week before, the same bird (Oriental Magpie-robin), at the same location, in the morning:

Oriental Magpie-robin

Photo by Namal Kamalgoda

The Magpie-robin is one of the few prolific songbirds in Sri Lanka and is the only one found every home garden in the country. The singing ability of this bird is truly remarkable. Its songs, consisting either almost entirely of clear “musical” notes, or a mix of some of these with high squeaks, resound almost everywhere in the country during the time it is breeding. Every male tends to sing a different song to another male in the vicinity, these performances being territorial. Having closely studied the singing life of the Magpie-robin, and thereby knowing its abilities as a songbird, I thought it is well justified to name it the Songbird of the Year 2024, on this International Dawn Chorus Day: see the following blog post for more details on this subject, https://www.srilankanaturesounds.com/sri-lanka-nature-sounds-songbird-of-the-year-2024/

Deepal Warakagoda                                                                                                                                                                                                        Sri Lanka Nature Sounds                                                                                                                                                                                             6th May 2024

 

 

 

World Rainforest Day 2022 – 22 June

World Rainforest Day 2022 – 22 June

Today is the sixth World Rainforest Day. Highly biodiversity-rich Sinharaja rainforest is one of our most important Rainforest Forest Reserves in the country, which is also a World Heritage Site. During my visit to the rainforest in February 2022, just before the country was closed down due to Covid 19 pandemic, I captured voices of the animals waking up at dawn there. Below is an excerpt of a long audio track of a recording I made at periphery of the forest where I stayed.

Species in foreground and background of the audio track: Insects, Square-tailed Bulbuls, Purple-faced Langur, Sri Lanka Hill Myna, White-throated Flowerpecker, Black-capped Bulbul, Green Imperial-pigeon and Orange-billed Babbler.

One of the loud and interesting voices in Sinharaja rainforest is of the endemic Sri Lanka Blue Magpie. This fairly large and very beautiful bird utters some of the unforgettable sounds in the forest. Below is an excerpt of the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie in the ‘Birds of the Rainforest’ track in The Bird Sounds of Sri Lanka. Habitat Edition 2017 digital audio album, that I have recorded at Morning Side in Sinharaja rainforest in June 2002.

 

Deepal Warakagoda, 22 June 2022

 

Green Warbler vs Greenish Warbler

Green Warbler vs Greenish Warbler – differences and similarities in vocalization

Green Warbler (Phylloscopus nitidus) is a regular and locally fairly common winter migrant in Sri Lanka, whereas Greenish Warbler (P. trochiloides) is a rare winter migrant to the country. Both these closely related leaf-warblers are similar in their plumage and the similarity is even very close when at their certain plumage stages. Recognizing them apart can be tricky by their appearance but their vocalization often helps in this to some extent. The Green Warbler’s typical call is trisyllabic and it is in the Greenish Warbler disyllabic, and higher in pitch and delivered in shorter duration (faster in utterance of notes in the syllables).

Green Warbler

Greenish Warbler

The Green Warbler also utters the trisyllabic call in higher pitch than the usual typical pitch, which is then similar to the pitch of Greenish Warbler’s call. The Green Warbler also has a few high-pitched, more or less drawn out monosyllabic calls (see below). Further it occasionally utters a disyllabic call too which reminiscent of that of the Greenish Warbler and especially when is uttered in higher pitch it is then very similar in sound to the call of Greenish. (However, analysis of notes in these calls reveals the difference between the two.)

Besides the typical trisyllabic call and the other calls, the Green Warbler utters a few warbling songs (see below), and these are in high pitch as its own high-pitched calls (and those of the Greenish Warbler too.)

The Greenish Warbler has a similar variations in diversity of the vocalization as in the Green, and its songs are very similar to of those of the Green too (see below). Further, it sometimes utters trisyllabic-like call that rather reminiscent of the Green Warbler’s higher-pitched call. However, all vocalizations of the Greenish are higher in pitch than the typical trisyllabic call of the Green Warbler and also structure of notes between the similar-sounding calls of the two warblers is different.

Utterance of songs in between the calls by both these warblers in their wintering grounds is obviously for maintaining and defending individual feeding territory for each bird from others of their own kind during their stay in the tropics away from winter.

Green Warbler’s vocalizations 

Typical trisyllabic call of the Green Warbler, recorded at Tanamalwila, Sri Lanka, in Jan. 2016.

Typical trisyllabic call of the Green Warbler in higher pitch than the usual, recorded at Horton Plains National Park, Sri Lanka, in Dec. 2011. (Call of Large-billed Leaf Warbler also in the foreground of the recording).

Monosyllabic and disyllabic calls, and songs of the Green Warbler, recorded at Horton Plains National Park, Sri Lanka, in Nov. 2013.

Greenish Warbler’s vocalizations

Typical disyllabic calls of the Greenish Warbler, recorded at Thekkady, South India, in Oct. 2015.

Calls, including trisyllabic-like call, of the Greenish Warbler, recorded at Thekkady, South India, in Oct. 2015.

Calls and songs of the Greenish Warbler, recorded at Thekkady, South India, in Oct. 2015.

Deepal Warakagoda
Nov. 2020

Singing Skylarks

Singing Skylarks

 

 

Skylark on the ground (Photo by Varuna Abeyratne).

 

In early January I joined in a trip to Mannar arranged by a family of my friend birders. During our birding sessions there I came across several pairs of Oriental Skylarks (Alauda gulgula) occupying a fairly large grass flat together with other garland birds, i.e. Bushlarks, pipits. Male skylarks are singing one at a time quite often there indicated they are getting ready to breed soon. The skylark sings in flight very high up over the ground, hence the name ‘skylark’, and it is a prolong song delivered while the bird is still in flight. It’s a fascinating singing behaviour to watch. Male starts singing as it begins to fly off from the ground vertically and continues to sing till it reaches quite high up when it’s seen as a speck in the sky. Once it reaches the required height it stops and keeps hovering and singing from one place for a while, and then slowly moves around with stops over its occupied territory on the ground. The continuous singing would usually last between one and two minutes and it then descends to the ground quite rapidly with stopping the singing just before it touches the ground. Sometime later a male of another pair in the vicinity performs this singing behaviour, and it is followed by other males in turns.  It was a very interesting to watch all these skylarks popping up over the ground one after the other singing their long songs. 

 

Male singing in flight (Photo by Varuna Abeyratne).

 

 

 

In fact it is the longest continuous single song delivered non-stop in one singing session that I have experienced amongst our songbirds here, and I believe it is true for all the skylark species worldwide amongst the world songbirds. In the grass flat the males some times sang over two minutes in the sky and one male astonished me with singing for nearly six and half minutes continuously in the sky. There I was overwhelmed by these skylarks with their singing performance. I selected a couple of spots in the grass flat to record these singing skylarks.

 

At times males sing while on the ground but, song is not long as they sing in flight.

 

 

Male singing on the ground (Photo by Varuna Abeyratne)

 

 

 

While walking to a suitable recording spot (Photo by Varuna Abeyratne).

 

 

 

Garden Songster

Garden Songster

 

Soon after months of prolonged rains ceased, last couple of months in the last year Oriental Magpie-Robins (Copsychus saularis) in the area began to sing getting ready to commence their breeding season. The Magpie-Robin is a prolific songbird and is the familiar garden songster amongst our garden birds. It has a large variable song repertoire, and the songs are musical.

The male of the pair that occupies our garden too within its territory, was singing from a couple of gardens away from ours and was in full. Below is a part of its songs captured with a parabolic reflector microphone setup.

 

Below is a recording made when the male was singing from a close by tree.

 

The singing male.

Male of the pair of an adjoining territory was too singing a few gardens away in a different direction. Captured a part of its song in the parabolic reflector microphone setup while its singing about 100 meters away.

 

 

 

Bulbuls awakening

Bulbuls awakening

Chirping Red-vented Bulbuls (pycnonotus cafer ) in my vicinity

I couldn’t to attend to record much of bird sounds in my garden during last few years. Noise in the environment, particularly man-made, has improved a lot and it makes great difficulty now taking a clean recording over even a minute! I have been listening to the chirping of Red-vented Bulbuls (pycnonotus cafer) in early morning last several days and thought to capture their early morning rather soft chattering sounds soon they have flew out their night roosts. A small gathering of them on tree at a boarder of my garden provided the recording below. Soon most of them fly away to their usual feeding areas leaving the few pairs staying in my area.

 

Calling of the bulbuls captured next day at the tree they gather.

 

 

 

A bird of the resident pair in my garden on the ‘gathering tree’. (Photos by DW)

A couple of pairs retaining in the area keep calling from tree tops in vicinity, before they descend for their breakfast for the day.

 

 

Bar-headed Goose – my 400 bird species in the country!

Bar-headed Goose at Korakulam. Pix by Sudheera Bandara.

Bar-headed Goose – my 400 bird species in the country!

On 30th December morning I managed to see this beautiful goose at Korakulam wetland in Mannar. Following the directions given by my friend birder Sudheera who saw it in the previous days, I found the bird by the small water hole at the location. I enjoyed my 400 ‘life bird’ with prolong scope views while it was feeding and resting by the water there. This goose was first found and photographed by Ravi Darshana (a member of Ceylon Bird Club) on 19th Dec. at this site and the sighting became the first confirmed record of the Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus) in Sri Lanka. Thanks to Sudheera for providing the photo featured here.                                            
Bar-headed Goose at Korakulam. Photo by Sudheera Bandara.