Monthly Archives: May 2015

Singapore Bird Report – April 2015

Indian Pond Heron photographed on 11 April by Joseph Tan at Bidadari Cemetery. Potentially a new addition to the Singapore Check List.

Indian Pond Heron photographed on 11 April by Joseph Tan at Bidadari Cemetery. Potentially a new addition to the Singapore Checklist.

We may have a potential new addition to Singapore Check List when Joseph Tan B.K. photographed an Indian Pond Heron, Ardeola grayii at Bidadari on 11th if it is accepted by the Records Committee. He did not process it until he saw a post of the Indian Pond Heron a week later. Er Bong Siong shot the same Pond Heron on the 17th and posted it as a Javan Pond Heron. Francis Yap saw the photo and noticed the dark brown mantle and scapulars, diagnostic features of an Indian Pond Heron. Unfortunately the Indian Pond Heron took off the next day much to the disappointment of many birders. Our first record was a summer bird on 20th March 1994 at Senoko but was placed under Category D for wild birds where possibility of escapee or release cannot be ruled out. Before this record the most southern range for this Pond Heron was in Ipoh, Perak. Another potential addition to our Checklist was the third sighting of the Pied Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus at Lorong Halus on 4th by Anthony Nik after Mark Oei’s at Halus Bridge and Lim Kim Chuah’s record at the Grebe pond last month.

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Asian Paradise Flycatcher Male making a one day stop over at Bidadari cemetery on 29th April. Alan OwYong.

We had been getting several rain storms in the late evenings and nights during the latter part of the month. As a result many of the migrants returning back north were forced to make a quick stop over here. We were pleasantly surprised that the migrants chose Bidadari Cemetery as their rest stop just as they did in the Autumn.  The list included the Hooded Pitta, Pitta sordida on 9th ( Frankie Lim), Chinese Pond Heron, Ardeola bacchus, a breeding Tiger Shrike, Lanius trigrinus,  and a male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Ficedula zanthopygia,  all on the 18th reported by Tan Kok Hui, a Dark-sided Flycatcher, Muscicapa sibirica,  on 25th by Zacc HD and the star of Bidadari, a white morphed male Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Terpsiphone paradisi, on 29th (Paul Lee and Vincent Ng). Those who turned up that afternoon went away happy after getting this much sought after flycatcher on their sensors.

Asian Paradise Flycatcher at Tuas South by Chan Boon Hong

Asian Paradise Flycatcher at Tuas South by Chan Boon Hong

Returning migrants were also reported elsewhere. An incei Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Terpsiphone paradisi male was picked up at Tuas South on 9th by Chan Boon Hong on his way to work. Hooded Pitta, Pitta sordid, on 18th by Kweechang Ling, Crow-billed Drongo, Dicrurus annectans, and Black Bittern, Ixobrychus flavicollis, on 12th at the Gardens by the Bay, ( Kelvin Yong and  David Awcock respectively), Green-backed Flycatcher, Ficedula elisae on 24th at Rifle Range Link by Lim Kim Seng, Black-capped Kingfisher on 24th at P. Ubin by Scarlet Lee, another Dark-sided Flycatcher, Muscicapa sibirica, on 25th at Sime Forest by See Toh Yew Wai and a Grey Nightjar, Caprimulgus jotaka, on 28th at Tampines Eco Green by Ang Teck Leng. The Green-backed Flycatcher sighting may be our new extreme date, the last being 9th April.

Non-breeding visitors reported were a Crested Serpent Eagle, Spilornis cheela, at P.Ubin on 4th by Amanda Tay  and a male and female Jambu Fruit Dove, Ptilinopus jambu, at the MacRitchie Boardwalk on 22nd by Laurence Eu.

April is the month when most of our resident species were busy bringing up new broods. We have several nesting records all over the island. Lucy Davis put out a nesting box in her garden at Wilton Close a few years back and now a pair of Oriental Magpie Robin, Copsychus saularis, finally decided to use it on the 5th. Lee Van Hein reported a pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, Dicrurus paradiseus, nesting high up in the Albizia at Hindhede Nature Park.  He also photographed Oriental White-Eyes,  Zosterops palpebrosus,  nesting at Jurong Eco Gardens on 15th. A pair of Common Flamebacks Dinopium javanense, were digging a nest hole at Pasir Ris Park on 18th (Lim Kim Keang) and Blue-throated Bee-eaters, Merops viridis, nesting at Jalan Kayu on 18th by Heather Gwach.

Sunda Scops Owl at Hindhede Nature Park by Frankie Lim

Sunda Scops Owl at Hindhede Nature Park by Frankie Lim

Interesting and notable resident species sightings include a Sunda Scops Owl, Otus lempiji, ( left ) at Hindhede NP during the day on 2nd by Frankie Lim, two grey morphed Pacific Reef Heron, Egretta sacra, at Sungei Buloh New Extension feeding during low tide on 3rd by Alan OwYong.

 

Black-crested Bulbul at Bukit Timah summit. Phototgraphed by Raghav.

Black-crested Bulbul at Bukit Timah summit. Photo by Raghav.

An introduced Black-Crested Bulbul, Pycnonotus melanicterus, at Bukit Timah NR on 4th by Raghav and Subha, Abbott’s Babbler, Malacocincia abbotti, at West Coast Park on 16th by Francis Yap, a lone House Swift, Apus nipalensis,  hawking for insects over at Labrador NP on 20th by Alan OwYong, Brown Hawk Owls, Ninox scutulata, off Mandai Road (L. Neo) and West Coast Park by Lim Kim Keang, five active and calling Mangrove Pittas, Pitta megarhyncha, and an Asian Drongo Cuckoo, Suniculus lugubris, at Pulau Ubin on 24th by David Tan, a rare Lesser Green Leafbird, Chloropsis cyanopogon, MacRitchie Forest on 26th by Lim Kim Seng and a Ruddy Kingfisher, Halcyon coromanda, at Pasir Ris Park on 28th by Lim Kim Chuah.  Good record for the Abbott’s Babbler returning to this part of the island. Both the Asian Drongo Cuckoo and Ruddy Kingfisher are also winter visitor and passage migrant respectively to our island. The House Swift is highlighted as their population have crashed in recent years.

Those who went out on the 2nd NSS Bird Group Pelagic Survey to the Straits of Singapore on 26th were rewarded with a rare sighting of a juvenile Lesser Frigatebird, Fregata ariel, and an adult Parasitic Jaeger, Stercorarius parasiticus. Other seabirds seen were Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels, Oceanodroma monorhis, and Lesser Crested, Thalasseus bengalensis, and Swift Terns, Thalasseus bergii.

Juvenile Lesser Frigatebird at Singapore Strait

Juvenile Lesser Frigatebird at Singapore Strait

An adult Parasitic Jaeger at Singapore Strait flying away at a distance.

An adult Parasitic Jaeger at Singapore Strait flying away at a distance.

Reference: The Avifauna of Singappore. Lim Kim Seng 2009. A field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia. Craig Robson. Asia Books Co. Ltd 2000. Edited by Francis Yap. The above records are taken from the various bird FB groups. pages, reports and forums.  Many thanks for your postings. Thanks to Joseph Tan, Francis Yap, Frankie Lim, Chan Boon Hong, Raghav and Alan OwYong for the use of your photos.

Migratory Bird Collisions in Singapore

The Black Bittern was exhausted. He had covered hundreds of kilometres during the night. Now the Sun was rising and it was time to find a suitable place to take a breather and find some food. However, everywhere he looked he saw the brightly lit outlines of concrete giants as far as the eye could see. Just then, he saw it. The first rays of sunlight had revealed a giant covered in greenery and, best of all, the unmistakable shimmering outline of a pond in the centre. The bittern changed course and made a beeline for the pond. Breakfast beckoned…

Singapore lies along a major migratory path along the East Asian-Australian Migratory Flyway (EAAF), undoubtedly Asia’s most important migratory flyway. Used by hundreds of millions of migratory birds annually, more than 100 migratory species pass Singapore on their migratory journeys to destinations further south, the most conspicuous being the shorebirds that can be easily observed in our wetland reserves. Less well known to the public are the songbirds, and other migratory landbirds like cuckoos, nightjars and kingfishers. Many of these species migrate at night, and while their journeys are fairly well documented in Europe and North America, species that migrate in eastern Asia remain very poorly known.

The phenomenon of migratory bird collisions is well-studied in North America, where estimates of birds killed range into the high hundreds of millions per annum, with the majority of these collisions occurring in heavily urbanised areas like New York City. According to scientists, these migratory collisions occur for two reasons. Firstly, many migratory birds migrating at night rely on stellar patterns in the sky for navigation, and thus may be misled by artificial lighting from man-made structures, drawing them in and leading to collisions. Secondly, birds are unable to distinguish reflections from real trees and greenery. As a result, birds flying through urban areas that have vegetation may be drawn to the reflections from windows. Either way, avian victims of these collisions are often too severely injured to proceed with their migrations, or otherwise perish.

Although the issue of bird collisions is unfamiliar to many Singaporeans, there have been an increasing number of reports from birdwatchers who were finding dead or injured migratory birds in urban areas beginning from the 1990s. To understand the extent of migratory bird collisions in Singapore, the Bird Group started a long-term (5 year) survey to document these collisions better. Our study aimed to 1) identify bird species that are prone to these collisions, 2) identify the geographical distribution of these collisions, 3) determine which time of the year these collisions are most frequent and 4) identify aspects of the urban landscape that may increase the risks of these collisions.

Our interview form was disseminated widely to the nature community in Singapore through Facebook and other channels. This form was designed to record key details on bird collisions records from the public, and is available online at http://www.tinyurl.com/sgbirdcrash. As the NUS avian genetics lab also receives many birds killed in such collisions, we are also collaborating with David Tan of the lab to compile details of these records.

This report summarises the results of the first year of data collection, which was carried out between September 2014 and April 2015. Migratory birds begin to arrive on our shores in numbers from September, and the vast majority will have left by April, so this period was chosen as collisions were most likely to occur within this timeframe.

A total of 47 incidents involving 18 species were documented between September 2014 and April 2015 (Table 1), of which 33 resulted in fatalities. Pittas (Pittidae) and flycatchers (Muscicapidae) were the most commonly reported victims, with 11 incidents involving two species of pitta and 10 incidents involving four species of flycatcher including the globally threatened Brown-chested Flycatcher (Rhinomyias brunneatus). Kingfishers (Alcedinidae) were also well represented with eight incidents, all of which involved the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx erithacus). The remaining 18 incidents involved a wide range of families ranging from raptors (Accipitridae) to grasshopper warblers (Locustellidae) although no more than 5 incidents were documented for each of the families involved.

Bird collisions were most frequent during the fall, or autumn migration period between October and November compared to any other period during the migratory season for 2014/15 (Figure 1).

Figure1
Figure 1: Number of reported migratory bird collisions sorted by month during the 2014/15 migratory season.

The central and western parts of Singapore were found to be hotspots for migratory bird collisions (Figure 2). Of 47 reported collisions, 20 were from the central region, which is characterised by Singapore’s central business district and several residential districts near the southern boundary of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. A further 13 incidents were reported from the west, which is characterised by heavy industrial land use but also includes a large tract of relatively undisturbed secondary forest at the Western Catchment military training area. These two regions combined accounted for 70% of all reported collisions during the study period.

The preliminary findings from our ongoing study indicate that in Singapore, the bird families most adversely affected by building collisions are pittas (Pittidae), flycatchers (Muscicapidae) and kingfishers (Alcedinidae). These three avian families are predominantly nocturnal migrants, with many nocturnal collisions and captures reported in other parts of the Malay Peninsula (Wells 2007). Consequently, these birds may be especially vulnerable to collisions with lighted structures owing to the multitude of high-rise, intensely lit housing and office blocks which are a feature of Singapore’s skyline and represent a deadly attraction to these birds.

Figure2
Figure 2: Migratory bird collisions classified by region based on boundaries demarcated on URA’s OneMap.

Our results also indicate that mortality resulting from building collisions was noticeably higher during the fall migration period compared to any other time during the migratory season. This finding was consistent with a recent study in North America (Loss et al. 2014), which suggested that this was due to larger populations of avian migrants in the fall due to the presence of first-time migrants which fledged during the preceding breeding season.

In summary, the preliminary results of this study demonstrate that bird-building collisions are a regular occurrence in Singapore, particularly during the fall migration period between October and November. Certain groups of birds, in particular pittas, flycatchers and kingfishers, appear to be particularly prone to such incidents. Collision incidents are also particularly prevalent along the central and western regions of Singapore.

We also encourage readers to report any bird crash victims they encounter via the online survey form found at the aforementioned address. Your contributions are invaluable in giving us greater insight into the dynamics of migratory bird collisions in Singapore and also assist in the formulation of management actions to mitigate these incidents.

Literature Cited
Loss, S.R., Will, T., Loss, S.S. and Marra, P.P. (2014). Bird-building collisions in the United States: Estimates of annual mortality and species vulnerability. The Condor 116: 8 – 23.
Wells, D.R. (2007). Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula. Volume 2. London, UK: Academic Press.

Table 1: The 18 species of avian migrants involved in bird-window collisions between September 2014 and April 2015. Migration period refers to the months of October to November as well as March and April where many birds are passing through Singapore, while wintering period refers to the months between December to February where collisions most likely involve birds which are wintering in Singapore.
Table1

Crashed Bird Gallery


 Downloadable Report (Microsoft Word): Link

  
Principal Author: Albert Low
Photo Credit: Lim Kim Chuah

World’s most destructive bird species now in Singapore

This bird pictured is the notorious Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea). It is a breeding female that is ready to lay eggs. It’s widely considered to be the most abundant and destructive bird species in the world, to the extent that it is referred to as the “feathered locust”. If there is a poster child of environmentally and economically destructive bird species, this would be it. It has been estimated to damage food crop to the region of USD70 million annually worldwide, and particularly in its native sub-Saharan Africa. So what is it doing here in Singapore?

A female Red-billed Quelea in breeding plumage  at Punggol Barat. Photographed on 18 April 2015 by Johnson Chua and used with permission. Another female was seen in March 2015

A female Red-billed Quelea in breeding plumage at Punggol Barat. Photographed on 18 April 2015 by Johnson Chua and identified recently as a breeding female by Dr. Dieter Oschadleus of University of Cape Town, South Africa. Used with permission. Another female was photographed in March 2015 and uncovered while this article was being prepared.

Every year birds and other invasive species are released in Singapore during religious festivities by some adherents as a gesture of compassion and to gain merit. Although it is frowned upon these days, it is still big business. This year, Operation “No Release” is being held with manpower gathered from government agencies and volunteers to minimize the number of releases of invasive species in Singapore. Yet we believe that although well meaning and a step in the right direction, it may be a case of “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted”. A destructive species like the Red-billed Quelea should never be allowed to be imported to Singapore to begin with, let alone released. Together with the proliferation of African waxbills, weavers, whydahs and whatnots, they represent what is wrong with our current wildlife management. The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) which is the gatekeeper of what species gets imported in, should be the one making sure such dangerous species are kept far away and to severely restrict imports of other non-native species.

In the last four years after African grassland species (waxbills, weavers, bishops, queleas) were released en-masse in Singapore, our grassland seed-eaters species mix have changed drastically, with the native munias and weavers numbers down significantly to the extent that in Lorong Halus and Punggol Barat, they are a minority species (personal observations). If this trend continue we will end up like Hawaii, where native species were wiped out by the aliens.

Red-billed Quelea and alien bird species Orange-breasted Waxbill (left) and a pair of Red Avadavats.

Red-billed Quelea and alien bird species Orange-breasted Waxbill (left) and a pair of Red Avadavats.

It is clearly evident that there is a spike in sales of such alien species during Vesak day. We recommend that AVA ban the imports of dangerous species, and limit the quantity of other alien species during the few months prior to the Vesak Day so that we do not suffer economic and ecological disaster somewhere down the line. If Queleas are breeding, history have shown that they are unstoppable in their native land causing already poverty stricken countries to be further left behind, with drastic drop in their already low yielding crop. What happens when this species takes hold in our region? Rice is an important crop for our neighbours and they are involved in high yield agriculture. The losses that result will be magnitude of times higher and the impact will be even greater than in its native region.

We would like to highlight the Pest Animal Risk Assessment done by Queensland’s state government in Australia. A relevant quote: “If permitted to naturalise, queleas have the potential to become super-abundant over vast areas of savannah grasslands and grain-growing regions across Queensland. A range of cereal grains—including sorghum, wheat, barley, corn and sunflowers—worth an estimate $429 million per annum (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008) could be at serious risk“. Red-billed Queleas are assessed as an ‘extreme’ threat species and listed as Prohibited Wildlife under the Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006 in Queensland and cannot be kept as pets.

We ask AVA to seriously look into this and other invasive species proliferation in Singapore and do similar pest risk assessments and management. It is heartening to know that AVA have taken action in the past to address importation of dangerous species like the piranhas, so we think that thoughtful and rational policies will win out.

We further hope that the government agencies work together with each other and with experts to address other fundamental problems in nature conservation and wildlife management. Do we want to open yet another ecological Pandora’s box, that we are now already wasting taxpayer’s money to solve? Our current Javan Myna and House Crow problem is indicative of past mistakes that we are clearly paying the price for.

In Singapore, sometimes it is difficult to talk purely on conservation. But surely when economic well-being and national and trans-national interests are at stake, we must do that much more.

Red-billed Quelea flocking at a waterhole in its native habitat. (Photo: Alastair Rae. Image from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Licence)

Red-billed Queleas flocking at a waterhole in its native habitat. (Photo: Alastair Rae. Image from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Licence)

Reference:
1. Red billed Quelea Risk-Assessment (2009): Invasive Plants and Animals Biosecurity Queensland, Australia
2. Quelea – Africa’s most hated bird: IRIN

In celebration of migratory bird day: Singapore and the East Asian-Australasian migratory flyway

Many of Singapore's migratory songbirds and cuckoos breed in the coniferous forest, or 'Taiga' that stretches across Russia, northern Mongolia and China. In eastern Siberia east of Lake Baikal, these vast forests are dominated by the Siberian and Daurian Larch trees. Some of our Taiga breeders include Siberian Blue Robin, Eyebrowed Thrush, Dark-sided Flycatcher and the abundant Arctic Warbler.

Many of Singapore’s migratory songbirds and cuckoos breed in the coniferous forest, or ‘Taiga’ that stretches across Russia, northern Mongolia and China. In eastern Siberia east of Lake Baikal, these vast forests are dominated by the Siberian and Daurian Larch trees. Some of our Taiga breeders include Siberian Blue Robin, Eyebrowed Thrush, Dark-sided Flycatcher and the abundant Arctic Warbler.

Living in the dark Taiga forests than spans Amurland, the Siberian Blue Robin could sense that the days were getting shorter and cooler, and evenings seemed to dawn a little earlier every next August day. The Taiga also seemed to be getting quieter. Just a few days ago, the familiar Arctic and Pallas’s Leaf Warblers were still out and about the larches, but they seemed to have gone quiet lately. The Siberian Bush Warbler that shared his clump was still there, bouncing from twig to twig every morning for its insect breakfasts, but the Red-flanked Bluetail that lived just a few bushes away seemed to have disappeared, and as the sounds of other warblers and robins faded away, only the trill of the occasional woodpecker or the Long-tailed tits could still be heard. As a starry night falls upon the shorter Siberian day, our Blue Robin will take flight and fly south to where the great Amur river separates the edge of the Russian taiga from the vast agricultural fields of Heilongjiang.

Lower Peirce

A Siberian Blue Robin at Lower Peirce Reservoir. Living among other resident Singapore birds like the Short-tailed Babblers

In no more than two weeks, he would have reached the eastern coast of China where he will stop, with some of his kind, to eat as many insects and worms he can find before heading south again. And if he survives the perils of crossing the mountain ranges of northern Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula, it wouldn’t be long before he reaches his destination in October. Here in the tropical forests of Singapore, our Siberian Blue Robin shares his little patch with a few familiar neighbours of his spring home, like the Arctic Warbler, as well as some old neighbours he’s seen from last winter, like the Short-tailed Babbler and the brightly-hued Hooded Pitta.

Jelutong Tower

Blue Robin’s neighbour, the drab Arctic Warbler decided to call the Macritchie Reservoir its home instead.

Map of Asian migratory bird flyways. Work by the US federal government, Fish and Wildlife Service, in the public domain

Map of Asian migratory bird flyways. Work by the US federal government, Fish and Wildlife Service, in the public domain

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway is a group of flight paths identified by biologists, and stretches from the arctic parts of Siberia, to as far south as New Zealand. Biologists came out with the concept of ‘flyways’ to describe the ‘collection of routes’ taken by different species of migratory birds from where they breed, to the places where they spend their winter. Probably the most important flyway in the world, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway is used by more different species of migratory birds than any other flyway on Earth, as well as numerous species that are in danger of extinction, most famously the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. No one has attempted to estimate how many birds use this flyway yearly, and while some biologists think that 50-100 million waterbirds may fly along this flyway every autumn, the total number which includes many of the small songbirds like our Siberian Blue Robin, remains unknown. It may be that the entire flyway is used by as many as anything from 3 to 5 billion migratory birds altogether, if we included all the little warblers, buntings, finches, pipits, flycatchers and robins that are very widespread across Siberia, Mongolia and northern China.

The critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Pak Thale, Thailand. Photo by Shirley Ng

The critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Pak Thale, Thailand. Photo by Shirley Ng

In autumn when most of the birds breeding across boreal and temperate parts of Asia fly south to spend their winters in the warmer tropics, many would pass undetected as they migrate at night under the guidance of the constellations. Examples include the warblers, robins, thrushes and possibly, even the pittas. While not many people has studied these migratory songbirds here in Asia, we know that they are mostly night migrants based on similar studies of related species in Europe, North America, as well as numerous accounts of birds flying into peoples’ houses at night. Not too long ago, I received an email (with photos) from a member of a public saying that a small brown bird has flown into his flat at night on the 27th storey of an apartment block here in central Singapore (Toa Payoh). The bird turned out to be one of our migratory flycatchers, after checking the photographs enclosed. Meanwhile, shorebirds, hawks and ducks mostly migrate in the day and so are among the best known of our migratory birds as it is much easier to observe them on migration. In Singapore, we have had conducted regular surveys to count the numbers of these migrants yearly in the form of the Annual Waterbird Census in January, and the Raptor Census which is usually carried out in October-November.

Juvenile, Bidadari

This juvenile Dark-sided Flycatcher made its first long distance migration, to land at Bidadari as a stopover. It could very well have landed at an apartment block instead.

Singapore sits near the heart of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and more than 100 species of migratory birds have been recorded in our forests, wetlands and parks. While many of our migratory birds, especially the hawks and shorebirds, continue to fly south to Indonesia’s islands, and for few species like sandpipers, Australia, over 50 species spend their winter here. Birdwatchers and ornithologists call them ‘winter visitors’ or ‘winter migrants’, on account of the fact that these birds will eventually spend nearly 3-4 months of their winter and spring on this tropical island. By contrast, the birds that we term as ‘passage migrants’ are so called because they merely pass Singapore, spending anything between one day to a couple of weeks here before heading south again during the months of the northern (boreal) autumn. In Singapore, the best known winter visitors are the numerous Whimbrels, Common Redshanks, Greenshanks and Lesser Sandplovers that throng the wetlands of Sungei Buloh or Sungei Khatib Bongsu every from August-September. Not many people however realise that there are in fact migratory birds everywhere in Singapore, even on busy Orchard Road. If you took a careful look at one of those Yellow Flame and Angsana trees that line parts of Orchard road in December, you might see the drab Arctic Warbler or even the Asian Brown Flycatcher, both which hail from Russia’s Taiga forests. Heading to our tropical forests in MacRitchie or Seletar, you might see a different set of migratory winter visitors, although it can be challenging to spot them in the dense foliage. While the Eastern Crowned Warblers or the Asian Paradise Flycatchers that made it here from the far-eastern Russian region of densely forested Primorye can be easy to see some November days, it can be harder to spot shyer migrants like our Siberian Blue Robin, or the Siberian Thrush. And besides migrants from Russia, our forests also draw in a few migratory birds from Korea, northern China and regions as far south as Thailand and Vietnam. For example, Blue-winged Pittas breed mostly in continental Southeast Asia, and so made relatively short journeys here to Singapore than their counterparts from further north.

Sungei Buloh

The Common Redshanks, Common Greenshanks and the Marsh Sandpipers make Sungei Buloh their winter home every year.

Bidadari

This colourful Blue-winged Pitta flew only a relatively short distance to land at Bidadari

As humans increasingly change the landscape in the form of infrastructural development, urbanisation to agriculture, wildlife everywhere is increasingly threatened. Some of the most endangered wildlife in the world today include Asia’s Sumatran rhinoceros, Orang Utan, tiger and panda. Migratory birds which have received far less attention from the media and NGOs, are also at risk from extinction. Some migratory shorebirds like the Slender-billed Curlew are now so rare that few have seen one for decades, and it may already be extinct in the wild. The fast changing environments of East Asia’s coastal regions, which contains the most densely populated parts of the planet, have threatened the important resting and wintering grounds of migratory waterbirds anywhere between South Korea, northeast China to Thailand and Singapore. Species like the Black-faced Spoonbill, Spoon-billed Sandpiper and the Nordmann’s Greenshank are now on the brink of extinction, with only a couple of thousand individuals left in the wild or even less. Songbirds like robins and warblers are even more poorly known. No one knows for sure where some of China’s and Japan’s rarest songbirds like the Rufous-headed Robin or the Pleske’s Grasshopper Warbler spend their winter. Here in Singapore, we are fortunate to be able to play host to the threatened Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher that flies in every Autumn from Central/Southern China on its way south. And as climate change increasingly takes its toll on temperate and boreal environments, it is very likely that the breeding cycles of many of these migratory birds will be affected. Scientists have already found evidence that habitat or ecological changes due to warmer seasons means that some migratory birds will not arrive in their habitats on time when food is most abundant, or that certain tundra predators like Arctic foxes may become more abundant, threatening shorebirds like Spoon-billed Sandpipers at their nesting grounds.

Bidadari

The globally threatened Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher flies in from Central/Southern China every autumn.

World Migratory Bird Day is a good time for us to take stock of the threats faced by migratory birds all over the world. As more technologies to monitor migratory birds are available to scientists today than ever before, we surely have more information that can be used meaningfully to conserve them. The power of social media also means that data can be more easily gathered than before, as much as sharing the beauty of wildlife in general, and migratory birds in particular, though various platforms not possible a few years ago. As birdwatchers and citizen scientists, many of us readers can also make a difference by submitting our observations of migratory birds to local and regional conservationists, and which can then be used by scientists to understand their ecology and help in their conservation. Action is needed now, today, because without it, it may be that in a few decades from now, the Siberian Blue Robins that keeps many of us birdwatchers and nature photographers busy today, will join that list of threatened species that keeps getting longer every year.

Photo Gallery

Article written by Yong Ding Li.
Photo Credits: Yong Ding Li, Shirley Ng & Francis Yap

Pelagic Survey on the Singapore Strait – 3 May 2015

The NSS Bird Group went on another pelagic survey in the early morning of 3 May 2015. Our route was almost the same as in previous survey, along the Singapore Strait.

We were anticipated a good haul of birds as previous year’s count at this same period usually yielded good number of migrants passing through the strait on the way to their breeding ground. Unfortunately the day started rather gloomily with overcast sky.

Lesser Crested Tern
(The first birds of the day were a flock of Lesser Crested Terns travelling south-east. The sky was still dark)

We encountered a flock of Lesser Crested Terns around 7am, followed by a Bridled Tern soon after. At around 7:20am, a few of us who were looking at the sea saw a pod of 6 Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins, south of St John’s Island. This was not the first time we have seen dolphins, but it is always a pleasure to encounter them. We had good views for about 8 minutes after which we sailed on to the first yellow buoy.

Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin
(It was hard to photograph the dolphins as the long lens for birds limited the field of view. However we did get a picture of a surfacing dolphin)

Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin
(There were 6 dolphins altogether, but we only managed to get a picture of 5 in a frame)

At the first yellow buoy, we saw 11 Lesser Crested Terns together with 3 Little Terns.

Yellow Buoy
(The Little Tern is the leftmost bird, and is smaller than the bigger-sized Lesser Crested Terns)

Yellow Buoy
(A close-up of the group of terns, permitting better size comparison)

Not much happened until we saw the second yellow buoy. Again another flock of Lesser Crested Terns were resting.

Yellow Buoy
(The second yellow buoy with resting Lesser-crested Terns)

It was relatively uneventful until we reached near Pengerang where the Leisure World casino ship normally does a slow cruise in international waters. There we saw our first 5 Swinhoe’s Strom Petrels. They were far away this time and we did not manage to catch up. By this stage last year, we already were counting triple figure of this bird species, so it was very disappointing count wise. We headed back soon after and there were a few birds here and there. We headed back to the second yellow buoy to see whether any jaegers were around, kleptoparasitizing the terns. No luck either!

Finally after that buoy we saw a pair of Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels. A bit far, but at least we had a picture of one.

Swinhoe's Storm Petrel
(Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel, flying just above water)

At the first yellow buoy, we again encountered the same terns. They scattered as we neared, permitting us to practice some tern flight shots.

Lesser Crested Tern
(Non-breeding plumage Lesser Crested Tern)

Lesser Crested Tern
(Breeding plumage Lesser Crested Tern)

The last birds we saw was a pair of Black-naped Terns following a big ship. A pretty boring and rather uneventful trip except for the dolphins encounter. But perhaps helpful for us to chart the migratory patterns of the various seabird species.

Black-naped Tern
(A Black-naped Tern dwarfed by the size of the ship)

Our final count include:
Lesser Crested Tern (62)
Greater Crested Tern (1)
Black-naped Tern (2)
Bridled Tern (7)
Little Tern (3)
Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel (7)
Grey Heron (1)
Swiftlets spp (12)
Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins (6)

pelagicmap
(Our route)

pelagicteam
(Our team L-R: Lawrence, Alfred, Yik Shih, Samantha, Kim Keang, Ju Lin, Francis)

Photo Gallery

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.

Resident cuckoos and their host parents: A pictorial guide

The cuckoos are well known examples of brood parasites, birds that lay their eggs in the nest of of another bird species and relying on their host to raise the young. Not all species of cuckoos do that however. In the local context, we have the malkohas and coucals that raise their young on their own, yet are part of the cuckoo family.

The most famous resident cuckoo is the Asian Koel, that is the source of most number of complaint from the public due to its noisy nature. It is known to use the crows and mynas as surrogate parents elsewhere. The House Crow is listed as the most common surrogate host for the koel in Singapore. However, less work and documentation exist for this host-brood parasite interaction even though these two species are a common sight. This is because crow nests are normally destroyed on sight as they are considered a pest species.

This article will therefore deal with the other resident cuckoos that we have more documentation on.

Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo
The Square-tailed Drongo-cuckoo (Surniculus lugubris) is one of the more common resident cuckoo. One of the peculiarity of this species is that there are two population. One that is resident and another that is a winter visitor. Some authorities consider them to be separate species but for now, we will only look at the resident subspecies. This cuckoo’s local hosts include the Pin-striped Tit-babbler and Yellow-vented Bulbul. Just across the border in Panti, Malaysia, an Olive-winged Bulbul was also reported.

Alan_Ng-Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo-2
(A young Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo ready to be fed by a Yellow-vented Bulbul. Photographed by Alan Ng at Dairy Farm Nature Park in August 2011)

Christopher_Lee-Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo-2
(A young Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo being fed by a Pin-striped Tit-babbler. This record is from Hulu Langat, Malaysia and was photographed by Christopher Lee in May 2010. We have other records of this host species at Macritchie Reservoir previously)

Johnny_Chew-Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo
(A Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo chick being fed by an Olive-winged Bulbul. Photographed by Johnny Chew at Panti, Malaysia in July 2010)

Plaintive Cuckoo
The Plaintive Cuckoo (Cacomantis merulinus) is a more uncommon resident cuckoo species. It is named for the plaintive call of the male in mating season. In the past, the British colonial birders referred to it as the Malayan Brain Fever Bird due to its call and the Malay called it Burung Mati Anak (Bird whose child died), such is the emotional intensity that it elicits. This species local host is reported to be the Common Iora but recent photographic report was with the Ashy Tailorbird.

Johnson_Sia-Plaintive Cuckoo-1
(A Plaintive Cuckoo chick being fed by a Ashy Tailorbird. Photographed at Pasir Ris Park by Johnson Sia in September 2014)

Rusty-breasted Cuckoo
The Rusty-breasted Cuckoo (Cacomantis sepulcralis) is another uncommon resident in Singapore. The female and young of the species is often confused with the Plaintive Cuckoo and the quickest way to sepoarate this two species is to look for the yellow eye-ring that is present in this species, but not the Plaintive Cuckoo. The local host for this species is the Malaysian Pied Fantail.

Rusty-breasted Cuckoo
(A Rusty-breasted Cuckoo chick post-feeding with its surrogate parent, the Malaysian Pied Fantail. Photographed by Francis Yap at Lorong Halus in August 2012)

Banded Bay Cuckoo
Rounding up the resident Cacomantis cuckoos is the locally uncommon Banded Bay Cuckoo (Cacomantis sonneratii). Unlike the other two species where the appearance of the male and the female differ (sexual dimorphism), both the sexes of this species are alike. The host of this species is the Common Iora.

Banded Bay Cuckoo
(A Banded Bay Cuckoo chick being fed by a Common Iora. Photographed by Francis Yap at Lorong Halus in May 2011)


(The video shows the behaviour of the chick in the presence of the the host parent, where the combination of call, wing flapping position and opened mouth with prominent gape all direct the iora with food to the cuckoo. This was taken at Lorong Halus in June 2011)

Little Bronze Cuckoo
The Little Bronze Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx minutillus) a common resident cuckoo species that is easily found in the various nature parks and gardens. Interestingly before 1964, they were not recorded in Singapore. There are two host species historically recorded, the Golden-bellied Gerygone and the Olive-backed Sunbird (2008).

Little Bronze Cuckoo
(A Golden-bellied Gerygone passing food to a recently fledged Little Bronze Cuckoo. Photographed by Francis Yap at Pasir Ris Park in August 2011)


(Video of a soon to be fledged Little Bronze Cuckoo in the nest, being fed by Golden-bellied Gerygone parents)

Violet Cuckoo
The last cuckoo in the roundup is the Violet Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx xanthorhynchus), probably the rarest resident cuckoo in Singapore. It’s host species include the Brown-throated Sunbird, Van Hasselt’s Sunbird and the Olive-backed Sunbird. Unfortunately we could not obtain any local photos of these although we had sightings records in the past. Perhaps the cuckoo’s rarity does not permit an easier encounter. Looking through the Internet we do have a photograph of a Brown-throated Sunbird feeding a chick from Sabah that can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/samsonso_photography/5991709159/

That about cover the resident cuckoos in Singapore and their host species. The sight of a small parent feeding a much larger bird often surprise the birder, even experienced ones. Most of the time, this size imbalance occur due to brood parasitism by the cuckoos. Do document it so that we have a much better understanding of this behaviour.

 

Photo Gallery

Reference
Lim K.S.(2009) “The Avifauna of Singapore” Nature Society Singapore

Notice: All photographs and videos are copyrighted by the respective photographers who contributed to this article: Alan Ng, Christopher Lee, Johnny Chew, Johnson Sia and Francis Yap. All rights reserved.

Destination Singapore: A Birder’s Gateway to the Jungles of Southeast Asia – Part 3

Singapore lies on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), a migratory route used by the greatest diversity of migratory birds on the planet. Each year, hundreds of millions of birds of more than 400 species set off from as far away as Arctic Siberia to spend the winter in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia. In Singapore, many people tend to associate migratory birds with the flocks of shorebirds that visit Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve every year from September to April. However, there are also many other species that either pass through Singapore en route to destinations further south or choose to spend their winter here. In this instalment, we profile three migratory birds which can be very difficult to see either in their breeding range or elsewhere in Southeast Asia during the migration period.

Swinhoe's Storm PetrelFirst up, we have the avian equivalent of the seafarers who made Singapore’s ports and associated shipping lanes famous. The Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel breeds on inaccessible islands off the coast of Korea, eastern Russia and Japan and makes the annual journey to winter in the Indian Ocean. As part of the process, these birds also utilise the Singapore Straits as the quickest means to get from the Pacific Ocean to their wintering grounds. Every year during the months of September and May, chartering a boat out into the Singapore Straits can yield hundreds of these birds moving East to West (September) and vice versa (May) as they make the arduous journey between the two oceans. Flocks of tired birds can even be seen resting on the water, against the backdrop of some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Interestingly, this bird is surprisingly difficult to see anywhere outside Singapore, and even serious Japanese birdwatchers have visited Singapore specifically looking for this species despite living relatively close to their breeding habitats further north.

Von Schrenck's BitternNext, we feature a secretive visitor to our well-wooded freshwater streams and ponds during the migratory season. The Von Schrenk’s Bittern breeds in the wetlands of East Asia and winters throughout Southeast Asia as far south as Sulawesi. Unlike its cousins, who inhabit open freshwater wetlands and marshes, this species appears to favour well-wooded freshwater habitats where it is usually solitary and extremely retiring. This species is apparently not uncommon in Singapore during the passage period, evident from the multiple records of dead individuals that collide with glass buildings while on migration every year. However, seeing them in the wild is a completely different matter, as they are often well camouflaged in the streamside vegetation of our forest streams and ponds. Nevertheless, in recent years it has become apparent that some individuals spend a comparatively long time around easily accessed sites, as recent sightings of a male at Lower Peirce Boardwalk and a female at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve demonstrate. Both these individuals were present for at least a month, providing observers with a rare opportunity to document the ecology and foraging behaviour of this little-known species. Outside of Singapore, they appear to be only rarely encountered, with one of the few regular sites being Happy Island in China during spring migration when the species passes by on their journey to Heilongjiang or Amurland.

Yellow-rumped FlycatcherLastly, we feature a handsome songbird which transits in Singapore on its way to its wintering grounds in the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. The Korean or Yellow-rumped Flycatcher is a sexually dimorphic species with males sporting a particularly attractive black and yellow plumage. Females are comparatively duller but can still be identified by their distinctive yellow rump. Every year in October, large numbers spend anywhere from several days to a fortnight in Singapore refuelling before making the final leg of their journey south. During this period, it is not unusual to find some trees in our forests and parks festooned with dozens of these birds, particularly after a sustained period of bad weather. Interestingly, significantly more females than males are observed in Singapore, the reasons for which are still poorly understood. Recent banding studies show that large numbers of these birds pass through small islands in the Gulf of Thailand on their way north in spring, but the species is otherwise unobtrusive and infrequently observed. One way to locate these birds is through their characteristic chattery-trill, which we have managed to obtain recordings of (xeno-canto Link). During the short aforementioned period, however, this species is locally common in Singapore and can be encountered anywhere from urban parks to our nature reserves.

Singapore, like many countries along the EAAF, is a hotspot for migratory birds between October to April every year. Beyond the flocks of waders that captivate visitors to our coasts, more than 100 species of migratory birds occur unobtrusively in our parks and green spaces, often right under the noses of visitors. The featured species are but the tip of the iceberg, and readers are encouraged to learn more about and appreciate the epic annual journeys made by many of these species, some of which are no bigger than the palm of your hand!

Photo Gallery of the birds featured:

Part 1 of the series
Part 2 of the series

This article is written and edited by our guest contributor Albert Low with help from Yong Ding Li. They are both highly travelled birdwatchers from Singapore, and are among the top Asian birders, ranked by number of bird species seen in Asia. Photo Credits: Francis Yap