World Migratory Bird Day – A Blast from the Past.

7 May 2015. Contributed by Alan OwYong.

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Lorong Halus dumping grounds after closure. The main pond in the background. 

This weekend 9 & 10 May is World Migratory Bird Day. But most of the migrants have passed through Singapore on their way back north by now. We have written many articles on recent migrations and migratory birds, so I thought that I will dig up an old trip report and revisit what birding was like in 1995 and which migrant species were around.

The place was Serangoon River where the Serangoon Reservoir is today. The date was 19 November 1995. So what was the place like 20 years ago? For a start it was a lot wilder as the Ponggol grasslands across the river was still undeveloped.  The banks of the Serangoon River was still muddy and overgrown with sandy patches nearer to the estuary. Back mangrove plants like the Sea Hibisus and Hollies lined the edges. There was a charcoal port near where the visitor center is now. The road leading to the port was full of portholes made worse by cement trucks going in and out. There were two large fresh water ponds at the dumping grounds and a sludge treatment plant along Lorong Halus. All this provided the area with a rich diverse habitat making it one of the premier birding sites in Singapore.

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A digitized photo from a slide of four Great Knots at the Serangoon Estuary on 19.11.1995. Earliest photo of this wader taken in Singapore.

My daughter and I had to drive in between the charcoal sheds and park at one end of the wharf to get to the ponds. Wooden prows from Indonesia would berth and unload their cargo of charcoal for storage in the sheds. We saw four rather big waders by the river side just as we got out of the car. They turned out to be Great Knots Calidris tenuirostris, a rare winter visitor and passage migrant. It was our lifer. I was extremely lucky to squeeze a few shots before they took off.

In my trip report, I listed two Common Ringed Plovers, Charadrius hiaticula, with a short description” It was a bigger plover and the white trailing edge was prominent during flight.” Unfortunately this brief description was not enough for a positive ID. Most of our past sightings of this rare winter visitor was at this site. I had my first encounter at a nearby canal in 1992.  Other shore birds seen were Ruddy Turnstones (4), Terek and Common Sandpipers, Pacific Golden and Mongolian Plovers, Common Red and Greenshanks and some Snipes, one was a Common Snipe.

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This is a scanned copy from a slide of four Black-winged Stilts taken at flooded grasslands next to Tiger Brewery at Tuas on 1.11.1992

It was more interesting at the ponds inside the dumping grounds. We came across a Garganey Anas querquedula and an adult Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus there, both rare winter visitors. In the 80s, the Garganey was a near annual visitor to our coastal sites but we have not seen one since the turn of the century. It returned to these ponds the next year. Alfred Chai, Ed Hagen and Lim Kim Seng all recorded the Black-winged Stilt at the estuary later that day.

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There were a total of 15 Little Grebes swimming around the ponds that morning with a few nests seen. Lim Kim Seng and Ed Hagen counted a total of 17 later, This is the highest count ever for this nationally threatened species. Common Moorhens (10), photo left, and Yellow Bitterns (10) were plentiful then and so were the Lesser Whistling Ducks (14). This was the best place to see them. We also had a high counts of Grey Herons (50+), and Cattle Egrets (100+). Two Cinnamon Bitterns, White-breasted Waterhens and Purple Herons made up the rest of the waterbirds seen that day. Such freshwater habitats were as predicted being displaced by developments, contributing to the decline of our resident waterbird species.

We had only five passerine migrants for the day. The most notable were a Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus, and Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava,.  Several Barn Swallows, one or two Common Kingfishers, and Brown Shrikes made up the rest of the list.

The tally for the day was 42 species, ticked between 10.30 am and 12,30 am.  Not bad for one of the favorite spots for shorebirds viewing besides Sungei Buloh Nature Park. With the damming of the Serangoon River and the filling up the larger pond, we have lost yet another multi-habitat birding sites in Singapore.

Reference: The Avifauna of Singapore. Lim Kim Seng 2009.

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