by Jagath Gunawardana
The Layard’s Flycatcher, also known as the Brown-breasted Flycatcher, is a common winter migrant that arrives in Sri Lanka every year around early October and keeps itself unnoticed and unidentified with its drab colouration and silent and quiet demeanor.
It also closely resembles the Asian Brown Flycatcher. However, it is a bird with a fascinating past and also some unusual and interesting habits. It was described by E.L. Layard in 1854 as Muscicapa muttui from a specimen procured from Point Pedro in Jaffna, the northernmost point in Sri Lanka. This bird was thought to have been an endemic till the end of the 19th Century.
It was found neither by an ornithologist nor a collector but by a person working as a cook for Layard, who named it in honour of his employer, but there is no record of the full name of the person after whom it has been named. Thus, it is not only a bird that was discovered at the tip of the country but also one which has immortalized an unknown person.
It is a shining beacon to the character of Layard, who did not have any qualms in giving honor to the person who deserved it as the founder of a new species.
The grateful Layard named it after his cook Muttu and the dedication of the species reads as follows: “I name this new species after my old and attached servant Muttu, to whose patient perseverance and hunting skill I owe so many of my best birds. This one he brought to me one morning at Pt. Pedro during the month of June.” Thus, the virtually unknown Muttu has been immortalized in a scientific name.
Layard thought it to be an endemic to Sri Lanka as the first specimen was obtained in June, a time when all winter migrant birds in Sri Lanka had left for their respective breeding grounds. The second record of this species was made by Vincent Legge who obtained (killed) two specimens near Trincomalee in January 1875, and the third record was made in February 1877, when he obtained three out of four birds at a place described as Ikkada Barawa in the Hewagam Korale, now known as the Barawa Forest.
Legge (1880) doubted the possibility of it being a migrant because he managed to obtain all his specimens during the North-East monsoon period. Nevertheless, he stated that it has to be a resident and endemic (peculiar to Ceylon) because Layard got his specimen in June, a time when all the migrants have left the country.
Thus, it seems the Layard’s specimen was a loiterer. This is most peculiar and fascinating because unlike in the case of some other migrant bird species that arrive in Sri Lanka, no loitering Layard’s Flycatcher has been recorded ever since.
The Layard’s Flycatcher arrives in Sri Lanka in October and spends the winter in the low-country wet, intermediate and dry zones and in the hills up to a height of 1,800 metres (5,000 feet). It is always found in the lower braches of trees and in shrubs at a height of one to three metres and readily descends to the ground to feed and perch. It frequents shady, secluded places and is found often near small streams and other openings such as ponds.
It is shy and crepuscular in nature and continues hunting till it is very dark – a trait that helps it to feed on insects that come out at dusk. It is territorial in nature and each bird is seen in a well-defined territory where it will live throughout the stay if not disturbed. There are several favourite perches in a territory that are used as vantage points to keep vigilance for prey. Once it spots a prey, the bird makes a sortie to catch it and thereafter returns to the same place or takes it to another perch to devour.
It feeds mainly on small flying insects but has been seen to pick up many other creatures off the branches and even pick prey off from the ground. This is quite unusual for a flycatcher adapted to take flying insects. Such unusual preys include ants, insect larvae, earthworms, centipedes, and it was once seen even taking a small Kangaroo Lizard. The wide gape helps it to gulp down large prey without difficulty.
A silent, peaceful bird
The Layard’s Flycatcher is seen in many forests and tree-covered parks, pathways and at times even in home gardens. It seems to be more common in the wet zone and the adjoining hills. It is often overlooked, both due to its retiring, silent nature and also because it is usually seen in gloomy places. It is usually silent during the stay and the only note that was ever heard was a low ‘chik’, uttered only when startled.
A very peaceful bird, it has never been observed attacking or chasing away other birds coming into the territory. This bird does not nest in Sri Lanka and leaves the country in March and April. It starts to feed voraciously during the end of the stay and becomes plump and rotund before leaving. It also undergoes a moult before departure, and hence, looks brighter.
The Layard’s Flycatcher is quite similar to the closely related Asian Brown Flycatcher and some have difficulties in telling them apart. But, the differences in size, plumage and habits help to make a positive identification. The Asian Brown Flycatcher is smaller in size, has gray-brown upper parts, lacks both the brown breast-band and the moustache (malar) stripe and has a pale, fleshy pink base to the bill.
However, the best feature that helps to definitely tell them apart is the colour of the feet, which is dark gray, gray brown or black in the Asian Brown Flycatcher as opposed to the prominent yellow of the Layard’s Flycatcher. The Brown Flycatcher is always seen in the higher branches of trees and never descends to the ground. Unlike the Layard’s, the Brown is quite voluble and frequently utters a characteristic chirping call, which helps locate it amongst branches.
*The term Flycatcher is used loosely to describe members of three closely related families of birds.
*Those that belong to the family Muscicapidae are known as Old World Flycatchers.
* Seven species of this family are recorded from Sri Lanka and is comprised of three residents (including an endemic) and four migrants.
*The Layard’s Flycatcher (Muscicapa muttui ) is also known as the Brown-breasted Flycatcher, the latter name being used more often at present.
* It is about 14cm (five-and-a-half inches) in length, or about the size of a House Sparrow, with a large head, a large conspicuous black eye and a longer and broader based bill.
*The upper parts are a warm brown (Burnt Sienna) in colour with a prominent white eye-ring that is connected to the forehead by a short white band through the lores.
* A dark brown stripe runs down from the base of the lower mandible of the beak (a malar stripe) to the throat that looks like a drooping moustache when seen from the front and is described by some as the moustache stripe for this reason.
* The chin and throat are white and the upper-breast has a brown band across it. This band may be complete or broken in the middle, wide or narrow and the colour may vary from a pale grayish to gray, gray brown to brown.
* The lower breast and abdomen are light brown or white and the flanks are brownish. The secondary flight feathers have pale margins.
*The upper mandible of the beak is brown with a yellow base while the lower mandible is yellow with a darker tip.
* Legs and feet are usually yellow but may vary from a bright to dull yellow or pinkish yellow.
*Both sexes are similar in size and colouration.
*It has long, pointed wings that give them a strong power of flight and good maneuverability that helping it to catch flying insects easily.
*The short, pointed beak is flat and wide at the gape (base) and fringed with a row of strong bristles, an arrangement that helps to catch flying insects.
*The legs are short and weak and help it only to perch and not to walk about or hop. Courtesy: CeylonToday