Greater Flameback in Malaysia

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Malaysia Greater FlamebackSouth-east Asia has a plethora of woodpecker species, and the greater flameback in Malaysia is one gorgeous example. This bird is one of the more attractive members of the woodpecker family, of which 26 species can be found in the country.

Greater Flameback in Malaysia

The greater flameback is undeniably a handsome-looking bird. The wings and upper back are a rich golden-yellow. The rump and lower back are flaming red, giving the bird its common name. The breast and belly are beautifully marked in bold black and white scale patterns. The face is contrastingly patterned with several black and white stripes. The iris (eyes) are pale in colour. In male birds, the spiffy crest is bright red. In females, this crest is black and flecked with small white spots.

Male Greater Flameback
The red rump is just barely visible from this angle. Notice how the tail feathers are helping to support the bird.

This bird reaches around 30-34 cm in length, thus making it a relatively large woodpecker. It has a long, robust bill which it uses to find food amongst tree bark or crevices. The black tail feathers are stiff, helping the bird support itself while foraging vertically along tree trunks.

The bird has a loud, high-pitched call somewhat similar to the call of the common flameback. Occasionally, you can also hear its drumming resonating within the mangrove forest.

Female Greater Flameback
Instead of a red crest, the female greater flameback sports a black crest flecked with white spots; nevertheless, it still remains a smart looking bird!

The Wikipedia and eBird page has more information on the species and its distribution across Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

Xeno-Canto has good recordings of the greater flameback’s call. Try comparing it with the call of the common flameback!

Where can you find the woodpecker?

The greater flameback is a relatively uncommon bird in Malaysia; therefore, the best place to look for it would be in its favoured habitat. In Peninsular Malaysia, this bird primarily inhabits mangrove forests, particularly those fringing the peninsula’s western coast.

One of the best locations to see the greater flameback in Malaysia is at Kuala Selangor Nature Park (KSNP). The concrete mangrove walkway within the park is a great location to spot the bird. From my experience, this isn’t a shy bird; hence good views and photographs are often possible.

Mangrove walkway at KSNP
The concrete mangrove walkway at KSNP is a great place to see the greater flameback.

Perhaps my most interesting encounter with this species was at KNSP in October 2022, where I spotted two greater flamebacks foraging within close proximity to 3 other woodpecker species (the common flameback, the laced and the Sunda pygmy woodpeckers)!

Other good locations to see it include the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve in Kuala Sepetang near Taiping and Tanjung Piai National Park in Johor. In Sabah, this species can be found in mangroves and lowland rainforests near the eastern coast, although it is quite rare there. This bird has not been recorded in Sarawak so far.

Greater Flameback vs Common Flameback

Confusingly, the greater flameback looks very similar to the much more widespread common flameback. Both species often occur in the same area (such as at KSNP and Matang). Furthermore, the calls of both species are also similar!

At first glance, the two species look identical; consequently, beginners may have trouble differentiating them. The key features to look out for are:

  1. Bill size – The greater flameback has a robust bill that is noticeably bigger and longer than the common flameback.
  2. The ‘moustache’ stripe – The ‘moustache’ line of the greater flameback is split into two thin lines, whereas in the common flameback, it is a thick black line. This might be tricky to notice if the bird is moving around too quickly.
  3. The eye colour – The greater flameback has pale eyes (iris), while the common flameback has dark ones.
  4. Another thing to look out for – The greater flameback has four toes, while only three are visible on the common flameback. However, this detail is difficult to appreciate in the field and best looked for in photographs.
Difference between greater flameback and common flameback.
With a side-by-side comparison, the differences between the two species are easier to see.

Combining all the features described above should allow for accurate identification. With experience, it becomes easier to distinguish the two apart!

Conclusion

The greater flameback is an uncommon but beautiful woodpecker that stands out with its attractive appearance and bold, active behaviour. Consequently, this bird is worth looking out for on any birdwatching trips in the mangrove forests of western peninsular Malaysia and eastern Sabah.


References:

Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Phillipps, Q. & Phillipps, K. (2014). Phillips’ Field Guide To The Birds of Borneo. Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan (Third edition). John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford, England.

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