Edward Lear was a 19th century English author and poet, renowned today primarily for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose, and especially his limericks, a form that he popularised. His literary work include the nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussycat, and a volume of limericks called A Book of Nonsense. Less known was the fact that he began his professional life as an artist and illustrator of birds.
The 19th century was a time of great discovery for birds, with lavish expeditions to parts unknown to the western world to collect specimens. Many of such bird specimens arrive in the great museums of the day, ready to be classified and illustrated. It was also a time when these very illustrations were compiled and published as volumes for sale. Advances in lithography made mass reproduction of such colour illustrations possible, although at a high price. Edward Lear was one of those artist that excelled in this art form.
A few illustrations from his collaborative work with John Gould, the ornithologist and artist on the monograph entitled “Birds of Europe” is reproduced below. This is limited to the raptors and except for one drawing, all these birds have been sighted in Singapore before. The original book is from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the digital copy is available at Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Above is a video featuring David Attenborough on the bird illustrations done by Edward Lear.
The Western Barn Owl is an uncommon resident owl in Singapore. The painting by Edward Lear also depict this bird with a background of man-made structure, precisely where they are normally found in Singapore too.
The Black Kite is an uncommon migrant to Singapore. The subspecies found in Singapore is lineatus and is sometimes split into a new species called the Black-eared Kite.
The Common Kestrel is a rather uncommon bird in Singapore and is considered a rare migrant. It is nicely illustrated here holding on to a caught mouse., which is one of their main diet. It has been observed in Singapore hovering over open fields searching for prey, presumably small mammals like mice.
The Peregrine Falcon exist both as a migrant and a rare resident in Singapore since the subspecies that migrate differs from the subspecies that is local. Regardless of the subspecies, it is reputed to be the fastest animal in the world. It has to be fast, as its main prey are other fast moving birds.
The Common Buzzard is an uncommon winter migrant to Singapore. A few are quite regularly sighted at the perimeter of the Changi Airport runway. The ones found in Singapore are likely to be split off into different species in the future and called differently.
The Short-toed Snake Eagle is a rare passage migrant to Singapore, although in 2013 there have been two separate sightings in Tuas and over Jelutong Tower.
The Western Osprey is a can be found the whole year around in Singapore, although numbers increase greatly during winter months due to some birds migrating southwards. It is a fish-eating bird of prey, found mainly near the coast.
In the drawing, the eagle is simply called the Spotted Eagle. Subsequent findings have split this into the Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagle. In Singapore, the Greater Spotted Eagle is an uncommon passage migrant.
Simply called the Eagle Owl then, the Eurasian Eagle Owl is the one bird that is not found in Singapore. Included here as it is widely held that this drawing is one of the iconic one done by Edward Lear.
Jurong Lake district was in the news lately. There will be new hotels, condos and entertainment centers coming up around the Chinese and Japanese Gardens. New parks will also be created but will all the development change the wild nature of the place? I took a walk last Sunday morning and came across an abundance of wildlife enjoying their natural surroundings. The Grey Herons were happily nesting on the Casuarina trees by the lakeside. A juvenile Sea-eagle with nothing better to do decided to harass them on its way to the lake. They were not after the chicks as they feed mainly on fish.
All the herons can do was to spread their wings to defend their nests. They did not go after the eagle but left that to a flock of House Crows flying nearby.
The Crows flew over and started chasing the eagle away from the heron’s nest. Size does not matter. The eagle was out numbered and the crows were more aggressive. I guess the Crows see the eagle as their competitor for any scrape of food around the lake including the Grey Heron chicks. A few months back a juvenile Crested Goshawk was roosting among the tall pine trees near the tea house. We are expecting the Peregrine Falcons to return to winter here towards October. Last week a Grey Wagtail was seen foraging. the second passerine migrant ( the Barn Swallow arrived last month) reported so far.
One the the challenges for new birders everywhere is not so much to see the birds (you are bound to bump into birds), but to identify what has been seen. After all, as an insightful Chinese proverb goes: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
More experienced birder rely on their memory to tell birds apart. But before one gets experience, there is always the learning process. The best and easiest way is of course observing birds with others who are more familiar that can point things out. But that is not always an option.
So how does the modern birder do it? Here is a brief guide to what sort of resources are available:
The printed book is still one of the easiest and most useful tool to start identifying birds. For Singapore birders, there are a few notable ones that one can buy and start their journey. I will be very brief on the subject as to the pros and cons of each.
- The newest guide with good coverage of Singapore birds. By restricting itself to only Singapore birds, one will not be so confused compared to regional guides.
- Photographs instead of illustrations. New birders feel comfortable with pictures while experienced birders are happier with illustrations and written description (go figure!)
- Each species is given a description, possible sites and conservation value all in the same page.
- It’s limited to Singapore birds, so as your birding adventure grows, you have to buy other guides.
- One picture per bird. Sometimes they have different plumage depending on age or sex. Flying and perched birds look different too.
- Very well written and illustrated book covering the South-East Asia region, so rather comprehensive.
- Most of the illustration shows a consistent, high standard of details and proportions.
- Gold standard for the South-East Asia birds.
- More for intermediate to advanced birders as there are way too many species described, so one tends to be overwhelmed with info.
- The detailed descriptions are on a different page from the illustrations, so one have to flip back and forth.
- Some of the birds that are listed as being recorded in Singapore are really not, and some of the species are split into different species not recognized locally.
- Cover each bird in details down to subspecies level.
- Detailed description of the range and abundance of each species.
- Will cover Malaysian birds as many local birders eventually cross the causeway for birding.
- Not many people use this book anymore in this side of the causeway. For one it is the most expensive.
- Bird illustration not as good as the above.
- The detailed descriptions are on a different page from the illustrations, so one have to flip back and forth.
Pros: No need to buy anything, just use the mobile phone.
Cons: Only for iOS and Android. Not available for other platform.
If you have the name of the bird at hand, then this website serves many pictures of the said species so that you can verify if the looks of the bird matches. It is user contributed, so quality of pictures vary.
We have a lot of introduced species originating from Africa. While we do not like this situation, the challenge of identifying these birds still exist. So this bird images database can be a useful resource.
If you recorded or remembered a bird species calls or songs, then you can compare them to other possible candidates at this site. Identifying a bird by its call is always a good challenge, and is one that birders need to learn.
If you wish to know the Chinese name of a bird, you can use this translation service that have all the names of the birds of the world in the Chinese language. This was highlighted by one of our reader, Chye Guan.
A quick trip to Seletar Dam/Yishun Dam mudflats this afternoon to look for early migrants yielded quite a number of birds. The Lesser Sand Plovers were present in good numbers (>300 birds). There was the rarer Greater Sand Plover, the Common Sandpipers, Common Redshank and a Pacific Golden Plover. Residents sighted at the mudflats include a few Striated Herons, a non-breeding Little Tern and unexpected flocks of Pink-necked Green Pigeons and Asian Glossy Starling that seem to be feeding at the outer edges of the mudflats.
It is still early days for the migrants and we expect more birds to come. The little mudflat at Seletar has proven to be a good ground to observe shorebirds. Most will be passage migrants, staying for a few days to a few weeks. A brief stop for food and needed rest before journeying further south.
Mating Woodpeckers attacking its image.
The Rain Tree outside my balcony has become the mating ground for this pair of Common Goldenbacks. They will come over in the mornings and start calling each other from different branches. Then they will fly to their favourite perch and start their mating rituals. First they will both turned their heads skywards and start rolling the heads around. Then they will approach each other nodding their heads. One will move up the branch followed by the other.
As an added drama, the male saw his reflection on the window and flew over to confront it. It kept flying from branch to window trying to chase his assumed rival away. Surprisingly the female joined in as well. They gave up after a while when they see that the image was not moving and continued with their courtship. I have observed this behavior with the Crimson Sunbirds pecking on my car’s side mirrors to protect their surroundings.
Male Common Goldenback with its bright red crest.
The Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) is a cute, charismatic sandpiper with a distinctive spatulate bill. This small-sized wader breeds in northeastern Russia and winters in Southeast Asia.
(Drawing of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper from “The Birds of Asia” by John Gould 1850–83)
The last record of its arrival in Singapore was a juvenile that was present in a freshwater pool at Tanah Merah that stayed from 25 December 1999 until 4 February 2000. It is currently listed as a critically endangered species, due to habitat loss on its breeding grounds and loss of tidal flats through its migratory and wintering range. The current population in the wild is probably fewer than 100 pairs.
Due to this catastrophic situation, efforts are underway to save this species from extinction. You can read more about the conservation project here. We urge you to read up more.
This year, this species has been selected as the Shorebird of the Year to raise awareness of its plight and hopefully raise much needed funds to keep the project going.
Here are a few YouTube videos from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that we find interesting.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Breeding Season
Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Courtship
Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Foraging
Spoon-billed Sandpiper: Hatch
File photo: Lesser Sand Plover with Broad-billed Sandpiper
We are all geared up to tick off the migrants but it is all quiet except for the usual suspects.
Some shorebirds would normally turned up at our mudflats during the first week of July. Whimbrels should be the first to arrive followed the Common Redshanks and Common Sandpipers. But they did not appear until the latter part of July. However the Lesser Sand and Grey Plovers first seen by Kim Keang at Pulau Ubin on 28th July was very close to their usual arrival date. Barn Swallows are always the first passerine migrants to arrive. We have records of them arriving as early as 6th July. This year Kim Seng had the privilege to see them flying over the Jelutong Towers and another two at the Kranji Marshes on 21th July, They were two weeks late. We have to wait for almost a month before KC Chan photographed another passerine migrant, a female Grey Wagtail at the Japanese Gardens. I remembered seeing lots of Asian Paradise Flycatchers by early August but so far there were no sightings of any flycatchers. The good news is that Con have seen the Siberian Blue Robin, Yellow-rumped and Brown-streaked Flycatchers at Fraser’s Hill during the past two days. They should be coming down this week or so. You can help by reporting the sightings in Wildbirdsingapore e-forum and the FB birding groups. Many thanks and happy migrant hunting all.
Birding in Singapore has a recreational and scientific activity for a long time. In the 19th century, shooting a bird literally meant shooting it with a rifle. The recreational aspect of this is manifested in the naming of certain class of birds as game birds, and collection of birds meant collecting bags of shot birds, either for eating or for bragging rights. The more serious collector went through various means to shoot and collect different bird species that in ended up in private collections and museums for scientific cataloging.
As we progress to a gentler means of birding, the binoculars and scopes replaced the gun. And now, many birders supplement or replace their binoculars with digital cameras.
Before bird photographs were common or even available, guide books that described the avifauna of any region needed detailed description through text, and artistic rendition done by those who had access to museum skins of birds. One such person was Henrik Grönvold. He was a Danish born naturalist and artist active in the first half of the 20th century. He started work at the Natural History Museum in London preparing anatomical specimen, and was skilled as a taxidermist. He progressed to bird illustration armed with the knowledge gained on the job.
There are many books in which he was commissioned as an artist, as his skill was much sought after. One of them was the seminal work on the birds of the Malay Peninsula, by Robinson & Chasen simply titled The Birds of the Malay Peninsula. Covering 5 volumes starting in 1927 to 1976, it is an ornithological work that serves an an important source of historical avifauna information for the region. Grönvold was involved in the illustration for the first 4 volumes.
Having obtained a rare second-hand set of these books, I have reproduced a few of these paintings from the first volume below. The style of illustration may be a bit outdated, and having worked on them purely based on museum skins rather than having seen the real bird (he never traveled to our region), there are some oddities. Nonetheless there is still a lot of charm in these drawings. So 87 years after publication, here are some of them for everyone to enjoy.
The Spotted Dove on the left and the Zebra Dove on the right. These two are still common birds in Singapore. Many of the names of the birds have changed over the past 80 years.
The Crested Serpent Eagle. One of the pitfall of solely relying on museum skin sample for the drawing is that sometimes you get the gist of the bird very wrong. This is one such example, where the illustration and the real bird differ in appearance. The eagle is a rare resident in Singapore.
The Black-thighed Falconet. Extinct as a breeding resident in Singapore, but in rare occasions some visit as non-breeding visitors.
The Sunda Scop Owls. I would not imagine a scops owl scaling a bark of a tree trunk that way! The owl is a common resident in Singapore although their nocturnal habit make them hard to find.
The Long-tailed Parakeet. Our native parakeet can still be found in good numbers in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, but is noticebly declining over the years.
Our two most common kingfishers in Singapore, the Collared Kingfisher and the White-throated Kingffisher. Gronvold does well here to illustrate them.