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Have you tried catching up with these passage migrants?

Every migratory season offers a set of birding challenges. In Chennai, there is one posed by a clutch of rarely-sighted flycatchers

Dark-sided Flycatcher
In November 2011, senior member of Madras Naturalists Society (MNS) Ramanan Padmanabhan posted a picture of a flycatcher that had invited itself to his home at Shastri Nagar. It resembled the Asian Brown Flycatcher closely, but was smaller and darker on the sides. After studying the other photos of the bird clicked by Ramanan, Gnanaskandan Kesavabharathi, an eBird reviewer and also an MNS member, sensed it could be a Dark-sided Flycatcher.

The bird reportedly hanging around the greenery near Ramanan’s home the next day, Gnanaskandan decided to make a visit.

“There were heavy showers before the day of the sighting, on that day as well as the next. The bird was probably staying back due to the rains,” recalls Gnanaskandan.

Around evening time, when there was let-up in the rain, Gnanaskandan, a resident of Besant Nagar at that time, headed to another MNS member Sivakumar Hariharan’s home, and the two were on their way to Ramanan’s.

“I knew that if I let go of this opportunity, I would have to go only to the Himalayas to see the Dark-sided Flycatcher,” says Gnanaskandan. “After the vistiors had waited for a while, the bird showed up on a tree next to Ramanan’s balcony.

“We took pictures and jotted down notes. He used to see the Asian Brown Flycatcher there before; and so we had to be certain it was the same bird he had seen the day before. After thorough examination, we documented that it was a Dark-sided Flycatcher.”

Gnanaskandan continues: “The pointers were very clear: It was smaller than the Asian Brown Flycatcher; had darker flanks; a very pointed beak; a conspicuous narrow white line running in the centre of the belly; and the primary projection was larger than that of the Asian Brown Flycatcher.”

Gnanaskandan points out that in November 2015 in Avadi, there was a sighting of the Dark-sided Flycatcher by Pronoy Baidya, “a Goan birder who was living in Chennai at that time”.

Vikas Madhav Nagarajan, an eBird reviewer, documented the sighting of a juvenile Dark-Sided Flycatcher that was on its return migration, in March 2016, at Guindy National Park (GNP).

Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher

“Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher is a passage migrant in Chennai and its sightings are highly localised,” says Vikas. The bird seems to choose GNP and IIT-M probably because these places are heavily wooded, for its short sojourn, as records of its sighting have emerged from there. Vikas had seen a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher at Guindy National Park in November 2016, and interestingly made another sighting bang on “the other side of the wall on the IIT-M campus”. Other birders, Mahathi Narayanaswamy in particular, have sighted this scarce passage migrant at IIT-M.“It is a forest bird, and likes a particularly secluded area,” points out Vikas. “It is also drawn to patches with streams. In western ghats, I have seen this bird around streams.”

Ultramarine Flycatcher

During a one-year study of butterflies and birds at Guindy National Park, Vikas made quite a number of flycatcher records, and that includes the rare sighting in March 2016 of a male Ultramarine Flycatcher, a scarce passage migrant in Chennai, and a winter visitor to the Nilgris.

There are flycatchers with generous “coats” of blue, but there is an ethereal quality to an adult male Ultramarine Flycather’s blue. It has lapis lazuli written all over it. The white brow and the white patch running from throat to the belly accentuates the blueness. Birder Rama Neelamegam was one of the other birders on the spot when Vikas saw the Ultramarine Flycatcher at GNP. “I was there, but I missed seeing it,” says Rama. Given the rarity and beauty of the Ultramarine Flycatcher, she knows that would have made one unforgettable lifer, had she seen the bird that day.

Rusty-tailed Flycatcher
Vikas would choose to cautiously place the Rusty-tailed Flycatcher “somewhere between a scarce winter visitor and a passage migrant”, though he sees enough reason to name it a passage migrant, straightaway. “I had seen it on December 31, 2016 and in the previous season, in late April 2016. If a bird is seen at the beginning and end of a migratory season, they are likely a passage migrant for that area. The fact that I saw the bird on a December 31, well into a migration season makes me think that all may not be just passing through Chennai, and a few may be lingering on a bit longer than you would expect a passage migrant to,” explains Vikas.

The perch

Flycatchers share their diet preferences and even their table manners — they hawk to get their prey. However, each seems to have a mind of its own when it comes to deciding on the ideal height of their perches.

Says Vikas Madhav Nagarajan, “I have seen the Dark-sided Flycatcher only once in Chennai, but whenever I have seen it in the Himalayas, I have seen it sitting right at the top of a tree. The Asian Brown Flycatcher is in the habit being perched at the top, but the Dark-sided Flycatcher goes for a perch even higher. The Blue-throated Flycatcher would go for the lower branches, and the Brown-breasted Flycatcher would settle for the lowest. At GNP, there is a nice bamboo thicket opposite what is called KK Tank (Kathan Kollai Tank), where we would be treated to the sight of the Brown-breasted Flycatcher sitting really lower down the bamboo bush, to the point that it would appear to be sitting on the ground.”