New flowerpecker species described from Borneo

Spectacled Flowerpecker
Spectacled Flowerpecker. Photo by Chris M. Milensky

It took 10 years, but a gray and white bird first seen by birders in the forests of Borneo in 2009 has now been described as a unique species.

It’s known as Spectacled Flowerpecker (Dicaeum dayakorum).

After the initial sighting in 2009, the species was spotted four more times from August 2014 through May 2017, at widely spaced locations on the island. But no researchers had been able to capture a bird, study it, and give it a proper name and description. That’s why you can’t currently find records of it on eBird, the bird-sounds website Xeno-Canto, or other ornithological references.

But the official sources will soon be updated because on March 31, 2019, a female of the species flew into a mistnet during an ornithological study conducted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and collaborators.

Christopher Milensky, collections manager for the museum’s Division of Birds, and Jacob Saucier, a museum specialist, were collaborating with Malaysia’s Sarawak Forestry Corporation to document the diversity of bird species living in the Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary. Their research site was miles from any reported Spectacled Flowerpecker sightings, so discovering one was unexpected. Still, Milensky said, he recognized it immediately. “I was fairly certain that’s what it was, and I knew it had not been formally described and documented,” he said. “As soon as I saw it, I knew we had a new species of bird to describe.”

‘Totally unique’

The team’s study, reported today in the journal Zootaxa, confirms that the bird belongs to a colorful family of fruit-eating birds known as flowerpeckers, which are found throughout tropical southern Asia, Australia, and nearby islands. But according to molecular analysis, the new species is not closely related to any other known flowerpecker.

“This bird is totally unique,” said Milensky. “It’s unlike anything else, and it is the latest example of the rich biodiversity that can be found in this region.”

The tropical island of Borneo in Southeast Asia is home to hundreds of species of birds, including dozens that can be seen nowhere else in the world. The Spectacled Flowerpecker has drawn special attention since it was first photographed and reported on by a group of birders in 2009. The bird’s stout, pot-bellied body and stubby bill immediately suggested it was a flowerpecker, but its distinctive facial markings — the prominent white arcs above and below the eyes that give the bird its spectacled appearance — were unfamiliar. That group, which included University of Leeds ornithologist David Edwards, dubbed the bird with a common name — Spectacled Flowerpecker — and proposed that it might be a species new to science.

This map shows six locations on Borneo where the Spectacled Flowerpecker has been seen since 2009. The 2019 site is marked F. Map by Chris Milensky/Smithsonian 

The handful of observations over the years at locations hundreds of kilometers apart suggested that the flowerpecker is “an elusive but widely distributed bird species that had somehow evaded scientific description,” the team writes. “Its frequent association with hemiparasitic mistletoe has led some to speculate that the bird is a secretive canopy dweller with a highly specialized foraging ecology, potentially nomadic tendencies, and low population densities; but the real reasons for the bird’s confounding scarcity remains a mystery.”

Distinct from other flowerpeckers

Milensky and Saucier returned to the museum to examine the bird closely, analyzing its external features and comparing its DNA to that of other flowerpeckers. Their genetic analysis turned up another surprise when the team realized how distinct the new bird was from its family members. “It isn’t related to any of the other flowerpeckers all that closely,” Saucier said. “It’s a whole new species that distinctly stands out.”

The Smithsonian team also analyzed the bird’s diet. Like other flowerpeckers, the new species has been spotted eating mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows high in the forest canopy. Through DNA analysis and close inspection of seeds from the bird’s gut, the team was able to identify the type of mistletoe that the bird eats. This information gives researchers a new perspective on this bird’s ecological needs and habitat preferences.

With more detailed information about the bird’s diet and ecology now available, people hoping to spot the new species will have a better idea of when and where to look, Saucier said. Despite being small, gray and keeping mostly to the treetops, the Spectacled Flowerpecker has already been seen in many locations across the island, suggesting it may be widespread. “We think that wherever primary forest and mistletoe occur, there’s a good chance this bird could be there,” Saucier said.

The researchers hope their discovery will bring attention to the unexplored diversity that remains in the forests of Borneo — and the importance of conserving these threatened ecosystems. Protecting the region’s natural resources from logging, palm plantations, and other sources of deforestation is critical to preserve endemic species, as well as the homes and livelihoods of the island’s indigenous people.

Saucier added that the knowledge and skills of the local people were essential in enabling the research team to access the wildlife preserve and animals for their study. The scientific name that the team chose — Dicaeum dayakorum— honors the Dayaks, the people who live in and are working to protect the island’s forests.

Thanks to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for providing this news.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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