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Investigating a possible sighting of White-eyed River-Martin: by Doug Judell

White-eyed River Martin
(Photo by H. E. McClure)


In March of 2004 Wayne Mcullum thought he saw a group of White-eyed River-Martin, Eurochelidon sirintarae, while birdwatching in Cambodia. He tentatively identified it using Craig Robson's book "Birds of Southeast Asia", but it wasn't until afterwards when he read the accompanying text that he realized that it would be a very rare sighting indeed; subsequently he contacted Wildlife Conservation Society [WCS] in Phnom Penh and suggested that they send someone to investigate his sighting. At the time I was living in Cambodia teaching English as a volunteer to some of the WCS staff so it was suggested that as an experienced birdwatcher I accompany Wayne on a second trip to the area of his sighting.

In mid 2004 I met Wayne and we took a boat for an hour or so up a river and walked around a sparsely populated area where Wayne worked; there were Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica, Red-rumped Swallows Hirundo daurica, Treeswifts Hemiprocne spp, Bee-eaters Merops spp and many more species that could conceivably be confused with White-eyed River-Martin. There were, however, no signs of our target. Wayne told me that the location of his previous sighting was another hour further along the river and that we did not have time to make it that day. He had work and I had other plans and it was decided that as all previous sightings of White-eyed River-Martin in South-East Asia had occurred in the winter months and that it was widely considered to be a migrant to the region during these months (Tobias, 2000) it would make more sense to try again later in the year. Shortly after that I came down with Falciparum malaria and was forced to leave Cambodia for the next year and a half.

On my return to Cambodia in March 2006 I met with another NGO worker who Wayne had suggested I contact and we rented a boat for an overnight trip to the exact place where Wayne's possible sighting occurred. We reached this location at approximately 4 pm, with an interpreter, and met the farmer on whose land the sighting had taken place. The farmer remembered Wayne and claimed to be familiar with the species that Wayne had seen, stating that he saw it every year in March and April just after he cut his one hectare reed bed. He reported that up to 20 of them flew around the stream at dusk catching insects and that we had only 20 minutes to wait to, hopefully, confirm Wayne's sighting. We managed to discover that he had never noticed the birds at any other time of the year and that he was unaware of any nests: he could also describe the noises it makes. The farmer seemed convinced that they were nothing out of the ordinary, a fact of which he was doubly convinced when he saw that it was pictured on the back of A guide to the Birds of Thailand by Lekagul and Round (1991).

I later asked him if he had ever noticed the white rump and he took that as further proof that I was familiar with the bird because he said he could almost never see it as they flew too fast when they were catching insects and when perched on poles in the stream (set as supports for fishing nets) the white rump was not visable. My Khmer language skills are between poor and non-existent but even I could understand when he told the interpreter that we should look in "the big reed bed' close to town.The farmer seemed a practical man and a credible source of information; his observations of the bird in the winter months tie in with previous observations; his comment that the birds are associated with reedbeds fits in with previous assumptions (Birdlife International, 2001; Tobias, 2000); the observation that they are active shortly before dusk is in keeping with those who speculate that White-eyed River-Martin may be crepuscular or nocturnal (Rasmussen, 2000).

Having forged a bond with this farmer the NGO worker and his interpreter accompanying me announced that we had to leave dispite being told that the birds would likely appear within 20 minutes (the time was 20 to 5). Over my strong objections I was forced to leave and was taken out of the region. When we returned to town the next morning I called WCS and told them the strange story of my investigation and being forced to leave 20 minutes before I could see what Wayne saw. They subsequently received a call from the NGO worker asking for grant money to "study the possible sighting".

Despite numerous attempts on my part I have not been able to return and I am currently researching White-eyed River-Martin from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Every time I have attempted to return to the farmer's reedbed it seems that I have been prevented from making the trip by falling victim to attempted scams, unhelpful interference by the police and a general lack of assistance to reach my goal. Whether these are coincidences, or someone is intent on preventing me from returning is difficult to tell, however, it is possible that my presence in the region of the original sighting is "inconvenient" to developers.

I will continue my ongoing investigation into Wayne's sighting over the next few months by creating a printed sheet of White-eyed River-Martin and possible confusion species before returning to the location to further question the farmer to see if he is able to differentiate between these and, most importantly, to enquire if there is a Khmer name for the species, which would add weight to the concept of it having been present in the region over a long period. In 2007 I intend to be present at this site when the reedbed is cut to see what exactly it is that arrives just before dusk to catch insects.


Birdlife International (2001). White-eyed River-martin Eurochelidon sirintarae, Red Data Book; Threatened Birds of Asia. Online at [Accessed 21/02/06].

Rasmussen, P. M. (2000) in litt. Cited in Tobias, J. (2000). Little-known Oriental bird, White-eyed River-martin Eurochelidon sirintarae, Oriental Bird Club Bulletin 31; June 2000.

Tobias, J. (2000). Little-known Oriental bird, White-eyed River-martin Eurochelidon sirintarae, Oriental Bird Club Bulletin 31; June 2000.

Submitted by Doug Judell, 31st July 2006.
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Comment on Doug Judell's article

Doug contacted me with this information after I had made enquiries about White-eyed River-Martin whilst researching the species in order to write an assignment for my second year degree studies in Wildlife and Countryside Conservation at Bishop Burton College, East Yorkshire, UK. To read my assignment click here. I have arranged to accompany Doug to Cambodia next year in order to meet the farmer who appears to be able to add some credible information to the possible sighting made by Wayne Mcullum in 2004 who, Doug tells me, is an experienced naturalist, although not exclusively a bird watcher, and did make his observation with the benefit of binoculars and Craig Robson's Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand.

If anyone else has details of any unconfirmed sightings of White-eyed River-Martin I would be very interested to hear of them. Please E-mail the details to

Nick Upton, 1st August 2006.
Further Comment

The only other possible sighting of White-eyed River Martin that I have heard of in recent years is one by Genie Silver from a trip report to Prek Tol Bird Sanctuary in January 2003, posted on the Birdchat website. It seems that this observation was not made under the most reliable of conditions with a less than satisfatory aid to identification -

"The motor boat that we took to the inner sanctuary was not in great shape and the motor died not infrequently. Our guide did not speak English and what he possessed to inform us of what birds we were seeing were two large laminated sheets with the pictures of the birds and their names written in English, French and Khmer. There was scanty information about some of the birds, whether they were endangered, and how many pairs usually nested at the sanctuary. The guide did not spot birds -- I would see a bird and ask him what it was and he would point to it on the laminated sheets."

This sighting attracted a lot of attention and after being contacted by other birders Genie decided that it was likely to be a case of mistaken identity. I contacted Genie to enquire after the details of her observation and this is what she had to say -

"I wish I knew exactly where the White-eyed River Martin was pointed out to us by the guide, but I don't. We were on the river on our way to the tall wooden viewing stand for the storks and the bird flew by fast in a swampy area. I asked the guide [a non birder]what the bird was and he pointed out the White-eyed River Martin on the laminated sheet of birds. I am sorry, but that is the best I can do. At the time we saw the bird we were still in an open motorized boat, before we transferred to flat canoes to get close to the viewing stand."

So, it seems that this "sighting" is almost certainly a misidentification, however, it remains intriguing in light of the possible sighting under investigation by Doug Judell.

Nick Upton, 13th September 2006.
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