Monthly Archives: June 2015

The first record of a White-tailed Tropicbird for Singapore?

Sitting on a region of shallow seas, the waters around Singapore are not particularly known for their high seabird diversity. Terns are the most ubiquitous seabirds on an average offshore birdwatching trip, although at certain months of the year, regular passage of the Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel has been documented. In recent years, spring passage of the Short-tailed Shearwater through Singapore and the Malacca Straits has also been reported. Every now and then and especially during periods of exceptional weather, very rare seabirds have been blown inland and sometimes end up in the most unlikely of places. For instance, a Wedge-tailed Shearwater was apparently picked up in Woodlands back in the late 1990s, near a wet field – the most unlikely place to see a bird with otherwise pelagic habits! In another surprising report, a Christmas Island Frigatebird was actually seen over the Central Catchment forest many years back!

Rescued White-tailed Tropicbird from Tuas (Photograph courtesy of ACRES)

Rescued White-tailed Tropicbird from Tuas (Photograph courtesy of ACRES)

On the 22 June 2015, I received a report from ACRES that an unknown seabird, possibly a very large tern was retrieved alive from Pioneer sector in Tuas. A quick examination of the photographs provided to me showed a very large, slender seabird with long tail streamers, yellow bill, and a very diagnostic black facial patch around the lores and eyes, thus confirming the identity of this ‘mystery seabird’ as a White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus). The golden-yellow wash on its plumage suggests that this individual is the form fulvus (also known as the Golden Bosunbird) that breeds only on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. While the exact route taken by this individual into Singapore waters will never be known, it is plausible that strong southerly winds most pronounced during the southwest monsoon period (June – August) played a part in nudging this tropicbird into Singapore waters. Thankfully I have just been updated that this bird is now under the expert care of veterinarians.

White-tailed Tropicbird (fulvus race) in flight on Christmas Island. Photo courtesy of Albert Low.

White-tailed Tropicbird (fulvus race) in flight on Christmas Island. Photo courtesy of Albert Low.

In the past, there have only been anecdotal accounts of tropicbirds being sighted in Singapore, but none with a confirmed species-level identification or even a photograph. This individual represents the first record of any tropicbird in Singapore, and currently awaits review by the Nature Society’s bird records committee. If accepted, it will join the steady stream of new national records that will eventually push Singapore’s bird list to the 400th mark.

The nearest colonies of the White-tailed Tropicbird to Singapore are in the Australian external territories in the Indian Ocean – Cocos-Keeling and Christmas Islands (endemic breeding ssp. fulvus). In the shallow waters of the South China and Java seas, reports of tropicbirds are rare. In Java (Indonesia), the species is most regularly encountered on the south coast that fringe the deep waters of the Indian Ocean, especially around Yogyakarta and Malang (Cahyono H., Yordan, K. in litt.), with small colonies of the nominate subspecies reported from Rongkop (Yogyakarta) as well as Uluwatu (Bali) and Nusa Penida Island, off Bali. There is a single record from Thailand (P.D. Round in litt.), and a few old reports from Malaysia’s Layang-Layang (Swallow) Reef in the Spratly Islands. In the Philippines, there are only a handful of records, and like the present record, also involved exhausted individuals recovered near coastal cities (e.g. Dumaguete in 1968, Saragani in 1929). Other Philippine records are from remote islets in the Sulu Sea (e.g. Jessie Beazley Reef).

White-tailed Tropicbird (fulvus race) with its chick on Christmas Island. Photo courtesy of Albert Low.

White-tailed Tropicbird (fulvus race) with its chick on Christmas Island. Photo courtesy of Albert Low.

White-tailed Tropicbird (fulvus race) fledgling 6 weeks after the previous picture was taken. Photo courtesy of Albert Low

White-tailed Tropicbird (fulvus race) fledgling 6 weeks after the previous picture was taken. Photo courtesy of Albert Low

Acknowledgements

I thank Anbarasi Boopal (ACRES) and her staff for sharing this important record. Photograph of the rescued tropicbird is courtesy of ACRES. Thanks also go to Heru Cahyono and Khaleb Yordan for commenting on the status of this bird in Java, and Philip Round, on its status in Thailand.

Threatened Hawk-eagles nesting at Mount Faber again.

14/3 Just hatch

14 March. We cannot see the newly hatched chick inside the nest. The parent stood guard to make sure that House Crows do not snatch the chick away

I am grateful to Laurence Eu for alerting me to this pair of Changeable Hawk Eagles, Nisaetus cirrhatus, an uncommon resident, nesting at Mount Faber this March.  They had been nesting at various parts of Mount Faber since 2001 when we found a nest in a Pulai Tree further down the valley.

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This time they chose to build its nest high up on a fork in an Ablizia. Luckily it was close to the road. This gave us a great opportunity to study their breeding behavior close up. It is listed as nationally threatened in the Bird Group’s Checklist borne out by less than 10 active nests per season. You can find out more in Tan Kok Hui’s 2011 study on the status and distribution of the Changeable Hawk-eagles in Singapore here.The status and distribution of Changeable Hawk Eagle .

The large nest (left) is made up of small branches that the Hawk-eagle picked up or broke off from the Albizia tree. The Albizias  is favored by the hawk-eagles and fish-eagles for nest sites due to its height. Danger from breaking branches has caused matured Albizia woodlands to be cleared.

Joyce Chia 1 April 2015

1 April. The furry white chick looked to be about 2 weeks old. The parent seldom leave the chick alone at this stage. Joyce Chia’s very timely record shot of the chick and parent.

By the time I went down to document the nesting around mid March, the incubation was unfortunately over. A small furry white “ball” can be seen popping up once in a while from inside the nest. Like all parents, they fussed over the young chick, flying in and out of the nest tendering to the newly hatched chick. It would guard the chick by staying in the nest to defer crows and other predators from an easy meal. It also had to keep the chick dry when it rained and cool when the sun got too hot.

30/4 5-6 weeks old

30 April. 6 weeks old. It spent most of the time moving around the nest checking its surroundings.

13/4 one month old

13 April. About one month old. The wing feathers were well formed. 

According to the many photographers there, the parents would normally bring back rats, lizards, squirrels, common and green pigeons to feed the chick in the morning. They will fly over the nest and drop the prey into the nest for the chick. Later in the day they will pick up any left over food and eat it outside the nest.

7/5  7 weeks old

7 May About 7 weeks old.

15/5 2 months old

15 May. 2 months old. All flight and tail feathers were fully formed. Fledged 3 days ago.

Stnding guard at nest with a chick. 1/4 2 weeks old

The parent bird standing guard by the nest during the first month 

During the first month, the pale morph parent will stand guard near the nest for hours on end while the dark morph parent will be out hunting for food. Unlike some raptors, it is not possible to tell the sexes based on their appearances. The chick’s black wing feathers were well formed by mid April. It can be seen moving around the nest to satisfy its curiosity.

30/4 6 weeks old

30 April. Around 6 weeks old. First observed flapping its wings in the nest. This is an important first step to learn to fly.

By end April, the chick was around 6 weeks old. It was first seen flapping its wings inside the nest. This will help to strengthen its wing. A big bulge at its breast made us wonder if it was deformed. It later disappeared, which meant that it may have been used to store uneaten food.  Even at this stage, the parents were seen bringing back branches to maintain the nest ( per comms. Andy Dinesh).

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15 May. It was able to fly from nest to the nearby branch after fledgling 3 days ago 

On 12 May, about 2 months after hatching, Johnson Chua was in place and on time to photograph it taking its first flight out of its nest to a nearby branch without any coaxing from its parents. So we now have an estimated duration of the fledgling of the Changeable Hawk-eagle.

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The dark morphed parent did most of the hunting in the morning and would dropped the prey into the nest while in flight. The chick would then fly back to take the food. Later this pale morphed parent would pick up any left over food and eat it at a nearby branch.

The parents would still be dropping food into the nest for the chick sometimes announcing its return with shrill calls. They would end the day with a family bonding time outside the nest in the late evening before retiring for the night.

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The chick would perch further away from the nest and wait for the parents, but would stay within the same tree. Its call was very similar to the adults and would use it whenever the parents were about to return with a kill.

At 9 week old, the chick, bottom left in the photo, would be more adventurous and perch further away from its nest.

By the 9th week, the fully grown chick would be more adventurous and started to venture to the other trees nearby. It even flew to the roadside trees to explore and at times perched very close to where the photographers were.

26/5 10 weeks old

26 May. Almost 10 weeks old. Fully grown. It would start to learn how to hunt in a few days time. 

End May, The 10 weeks old chick appeared anxious to do some hunting on its own. C.T. Lim reported not seeing the chick for most of the day. It had flew down to the valley below to join the parents to learn how to hunt for prey. This young hawk-eagle had been the main attraction to the casual visitors, joggers, nature and bird lovers for the past few months at Mount Faber. For the many photographers, birders and fans who have observed its short life span from birth, it had been a privilege. We were delighted that another of our threatened Hawk-eagle will grace our skies and perhaps raise a new brood of its own in the coming years.

Report and photos by Alan OwYong unless stated. Many thanks to all who so generously shared many of the important observations, dates and behavior  with me. 

References:

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Singapore. Yong Ding Li, Lim Kim Chuah and Lee Tiah Khee. 2013. 

Field Guide to the Raptors of Asia. Toru Yamzaki et al. ARRCN 2012

The Avifauna of Singapore. Lim Kim Seng. 2009.

A field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia. Craig Robson. 2000.

Avian “Staycations” – The Phenomenon of Intratropical Migration

Juicy caterpillars, beachfront real estate, a mild, coastal climate and an accompanying band of paparazzi – all the ingredients of a perfect summer vacation! As birders and photographers rushed to document the largest known non-breeding concentration of Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoos on vacation in Singapore, questions began to arise – Why are they here? Why would Australian birds, which enjoy comparatively mild winters, even need to migrate thousands of kilometres to spend the austral winter? In this article, we summarise available knowledge on the phenomenon of intratropical migration with reference to Australasian birds and shed some light on this poorly known aspect of avian migration.

An adult male Horsfield's Bronze Cuckoo at Punggol Barat, having a juicy caterpillar

An adult male Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo at Punggol Barat, having a juicy caterpillar

Australasia, a region comprising Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and surrounding islands like New Caledonia, is generally regarded as a self-contained system with regard to avian migration. A study of bird migration in this region noted that only 30 shorebird and 10 landbird species which breed in the Northern Hemisphere regularly winter in the region (Dingle, 2004). However, there is significant avian movement within the region, involving species which birders might be familiar with.

Figure 1: Map showing the movements of Australasian migrants during the southern winter.

Figure 1: Map showing the possible movements of Australasian migrants during the southern winter.

In the south, globally threatened parrot species such as Swift and Orange-bellied Parrots migrate hundreds of kilometres from their breeding grounds in Tasmania to winter along southeast Australia. Further north, forest jewels such as the Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher, Noisy and Red-bellied Pittas and Rufous Fantail migrate from Queensland to spend the austral or southern winter (March – October) on the island of New Guinea (Pratt and Beehler, 2014). Similarly, large numbers of waterbirds make the journey north as well, wintering as far west as the Indonesian islands of Timor and Flores. It is believed that the number of migrating birds and distance they travel is related to the onset of winter temperatures in Australia as well as rainfall patterns during this period.

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher from Cairns.  This stunning kingfisher breeds in northern Queensland during the southern summer but spends the winter on the island of New Guinea. Photo by Wang Bin.

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher from Cairns. This stunning kingfisher breeds in northern Queensland during the southern summer but spends the winter on the island of New Guinea. Photo by Wang Bin.

Until recently, it was thought that no Australasian breeding birds enter Asia beyond Wallace’s Line, a boundary separating the faunal regions of Asia and Australia (Dingle, 2009). However, with an increase in observer coverage, we now know that a small number of Australasian birds regularly visit Asia during the austral winter. In recent years, Sacred Kingfisher has been recorded from Borneo with some regularity, while further west Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo has now been recorded annually in Singapore, with small numbers reaching as far north as Penang Island in the current irruption.

Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo from Penang, Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Choy Wai Mun.

Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo from Penang, Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Choy Wai Mun.

The lengthy migrations undertaken by these two species are particularly surprising given that both are habitat generalists, able to survive in a wide variety of environments ranging from coastal scrub to urban gardens. As such, one would expect there to be sufficient areas of suitable habitat within Australasia for them to spend the winter, so why the Malay Peninsula?

One possibility is the cold snap that was experienced throughout most of eastern Australia in the first week of June. Many areas experienced subzero overnight temperatures and it is possible that the sudden onset of cold weather might have triggered eastern populations of the Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo to migrate further north than they usually do. In view of the territoriality demonstrated by birds on wintering grounds, it is plausible that given the potentially large number of birds involved, immatures and older adults might have been forced to winter at the limits of their wintering range along the Malay Peninsula, with suitable areas closer to Australia occupied by territorial adults in their prime.

Interestingly, these cuckoos do not stay for more than a week or two from the time of their first sighting in Singapore. It is recommended that birders continuing to document the cuckoos at Punggol Barat make notes of the dates on which they observed the birds as well as the number observed. On a regional scale, with the advent of geolocator technology (a kind of miniature tag to monitor the movement of animals), long distance austral migrants like the Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo could serve as an excellent study species for mapping the migratory routes of Australasian birds during the austral winter, thereby unravelling the mysteries of this poorly understood aspect of avian migration.

Literature Cited
Dingle, H. (2004). The Australo-Papuan bird migration system: another consequence of Wallace’s Line. Emu, 104(2), 95-108.

Dingle, H. (2009). ROWLEY REVIEW. Bird migration in the southern hemisphere: a review comparing continents. Emu, 108(4), 341-359.

Pratt, T. K., & Beehler, B. M. (2014). Birds of New Guinea. Princeton University Press.

Photo Gallery

Author: Albert Low

Pink-necked Pigeons nesting in a flower pot.

15 June 2015. Contributed by Yang Pah Liang.

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The male Pink-necked Pigeon took turns to incubate the eggs.

IMG-20150501-WA0009What do you do when you find a pair of Pink-necked Pigeons, Treron vernans, nesting in one of your flower pots? I had banana tree growing out of a plastic pot on my 10th floor balcony. My neighbors told me that these pigeons have been doing this for some years now. Apparently the pigeons have learnt that this is the safest place to nest, away from natural predators.

Throughout the nesting period, the female allowed me to come very close when she was incubating the eggs. But the male was more guarded. It would seemed that they are used to humans and after several successful nestings, they knew that they have nothing to fear. But I would still try not to go to the balcony unless I have to water my plants. Just had to take extra care not to disturb them.

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Newly hatched after 12 days of incubation

I found two white eggs one morning on the 19th April inside the pot. There were hardly any twits or nesting materials around. The soft soil seemed to be fine with them. Both parents took turns to incubate the eggs. After 12 days, the first egg hatched. The chick was as tiny as the egg, no feathers, Their eyes were still closed. The second egg hatched the next day.  Both parents again took turns to sit on the young chicks to keep them warm. I did not see any feeding and assumed that they are sucking the secreted milk from the breast of the parents. The chicks spent the early part of their life sleeping close to the parents, to save energy I supposed.

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4 days old chicks, still with their down feathers. The parents would take turns to baby-sit them.

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6 days old. The chicks were keen to explore their surroundings.

After 6 days, the first chick became more active and started to venture around the pot. One of the parent was always around taking turns to guard the chicks. The first signs of some dark wing feathers can be seen on the 9th day and they can be seen preening after that. They can now jumped up to the brim of the pot for their first look around and explore a bit.

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8 days old chick. The first primary wing feathers appears the next day.

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Fully covered by well formed greenish feathers at 12 days. At this age they will start to beg for regurgitated food from the parents.

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Fully fledged after 2 weeks, this chick took a dive to the balcony below.

I had a mini shock on the 14th day. One of the chicks stood on the edge of the balcony. It fell off when I tried to bring it back. I was expecting the worse. I could not find it on the grounds but when I went back it was sitting on the balcony none the worse for it. It must have dropped down to the balcony below and somehow made it way back up. This is the moment that I know for sure that this pair will find its way to join the rest of the wild pigeons at the Botanic Gardens. So thankful to be able to witness close up the breeding behavior of one of our colorful Green Pigeons.

10 rare resident bird species in Singapore and where to best find them

The months of May to August tend to be rather quiet birding wise as the migrants that winter here have almost all returned. We have featured the recent discovery of our only austral winter migrant the Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo, so now we will concentrate on the rarer residents that may have eluded most birders.

I am using the term resident very loosely, as some of these are refered to in our checklist as non-breeding visitors. But for the context here, since they have been repeatedly sighted, the term resident probably applies equally well. The criteria here is that these species are hard but not impossible to find, and we have had recent sightings to guide us on where to best search for them.

1. Mangrove Whistler
There is only one ‘bao jiak‘ (Hokkien loosely translated to ‘sure thing’) bird in this list. But most people are unaware of its very existence. The Mangrove Whistler (Pachycephala cinerea) can be found at Pulau Hantu Besar, a short boat ride from the mainland. The other recent locality is Changi Reclaimed land that is now sadly off-limits. It is also found at Pulau Tekong. Historically, there are even records from Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. It’s an easy bird to see if you make an effort, as their habitat is well defined.

A Mangrove Whistler at Pulau Hantu in May 2014

A Mangrove Whistler at Pulau Hantu in May 2014

2. Mangrove Blue Flycatcher
The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis rufigastra) is a rare resident that is found mainly at Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. In 2010 and 2011, there were successful nestings beside the Chek Jawa mangrove boardwalk. So the next time you are there, look out for our only resident flycatcher. There was another more recent sighting in 2013 at Changi boardwalk but there was no follow up on that bird.

Male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher at Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin. Photographed in April 2011.

Male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher at Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin. Photographed in April 2011.

3. Black-naped Monarch
The Black-naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea) a common bird at Pulau Tekong. If you are serving National Service, here’s your chance to see it. It has also occasionally been found at Pulau Ubin, and once near Jelutong Tower. A good looking bird, but sadly for most birders, more easily found in nearby Panti forest in Malaysia.

A male Black-naped Monarch at Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand.

A male Black-naped Monarch at Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand.

4. Barred Eagle-Owl
The Barred Eagle-Owl (Bubo sumatranus) was photographed at Bukit Timah Summit in 2012. Another was videoed at Macrithie Reservoir after Treetop Walk in January 2013. Since then it has been heard a few times at Macritchie and Bukit Timah. It seems likely that the Macritchie and Bukit Timah sightings are different birds. Your best bet is at Macritchie, since Bukit Timah summit is only sporadically open to the public. Previously it was also found at Pulau Ubin, so that is another place to look for this owl.

Barred Eagle-Owl at Le Grandeur Palm Resort , Johor.

Barred Eagle-Owl at Le Grandeur Palm Resort , Johor.

5. Lesser Adjutant
The Lesser Adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus) is listed as Vulnerable species according to Birdlife International. In Singapore, they are normally found at the Western Catchment Area, and recently photographed there in December 2014. Previous sightings were in Sungei Buloh and Turut Track (2010-2014). Latest sighting was a bird at Punggol Barat in January 2015. Your best bet is to look out for it in the sky across the western and northern parts of the island. You may get lucky!

Lesser Adjutant at the Western Catchment Area. Photographed by Albert Low. Used with permission.

Lesser Adjutant at the Western Catchment Area. Photographed by Albert Low. Used with permission.

6. Buff-rumped Woodpecker
The Buff-rumped Woodpecker (Meiglyptes grammithorax) is a new addition to our Singapore checklist. A bird was seen in 2012 at Macricthie. Subsequently, another bird was photographed at Jelutong Tower in 2013. Latest bird was at Bidadari in March 2015. This bird only entered the Singapore checklist in 2013 and with 3 separate sightings recently. So chances are there will be more encounters soon. Your best bet is in the forest of the Central Catchment Nature Reserves.

A Buff-rumped Woodpecker taken at Bidadari in March 2015. Photographed by Lim Kim Keang. Used with permission.

A Buff-rumped Woodpecker taken at Bidadari in March 2015. Photographed by Lim Kim Keang. Used with permission.

7. Yellow-vented Flowerpecker
The Yellow-vented Flowerpecker (Dicaeum chrysorrheum) has historically been found at the Bukit Batok Nature Park and Bukit Timah Nature Reserves, although sightings at the former site seem to have ceased once the mistletoe bearing trees there were removed. Recently, a bird was spotted for a day near Dillenia Hut in November 2014 feeding on a fruiting tree. Another bird was spotted and photographed at River Safari feeding on the Indian Cherry tree (Muntingia calabura) near the Viewing Deck/Boat Plaza junction in August 2014. Bukit Timah summit is the best place to see it at the end of the year when the figs start fruiting, although it can be a neck-straining experience. Look out for the Indian Cherry trees at River Safari if you go there as well.

Yellow-vented Flowerpecker taken in Johor by Raghav. Used with permission.

Yellow-vented Flowerpecker taken in Johor by Raghav. Used with permission.

8. Yellow-eared Spiderhunter
Although a rare resident bird, the Yellow-eared Spiderhunter (Arachnothera chrysogenys) was historically easy to see in the now defunct Mandai Orchid Garden in the years between 1999-2003. It has also historically been seen nesting at Pulau Ubin. Recently, a bird was spotted for a few days near Dillenia Hut in November 2014 feeding on a fruiting tree. Previous sighting in 2006 was at nearby Rifle Range Link. Your best bet is to wait for another flowering/fruiting event at the trees near Dillenia Hut.

Yellow-eared Spiderhunter photographed near Dillenia  Hut in November 2014

Yellow-eared Spiderhunter photographed near Dillenia Hut in November 2014

9. Thick-billed Flowerpecker
The Thick-billed Flowerpecker (Dicaeum agile) is actually listed as a non-breeding visitor, although it is likely they occur in low numbers in our forest. A bird was spotted for a day near Dillenia Hut in November 2014 perching on a bare tree branch. Previous sighting was at Bukit Batok Nature Park at Lorong Sesuai in 2005 when up to 8 birds were doing their characteristic dancing on bare branches. You best bet is to look for fruiting mistletoes, as they seem attracted to these.

Thick-billed Flowerpecker at a bare tree near Dillenia Hut. Photographed in November 2014 by See Toh Yew Wai. Used with permission.

Thick-billed Flowerpecker at a bare tree near Dillenia Hut. Photographed in November 2014 by See Toh Yew Wai. Used with permission.

10. Cotton Pygmy Goose
The Cotton Pygmy Goose (Nettapus coromandelianus) is a rare resident in Singapore. It prefers freshwater marshes, ponds and reservoirs. Historically, a high count of 35 birds were seen at Poyan Reservoir in 1982, and 26 at Lorong Halus in 1996. Recently a single bird was photographed in January 2015 at a pond in Turut Track. Previous record was a pair at Kranji Marsh in January 2010. You probably have to be a bit patient with this bird. Hopefully when Kranji Marsh is open to the public once again, we will have an opportunity to see this species there. Alternatively look for marshy ponds and reservoirs around Singapore.

Cotton Pygmy Goose at Turut Track, Singapore. Photographed by Raghav. Used with permission.

Cotton Pygmy Goose at Turut Track, Singapore. Photographed by Raghav. Used with permission.

They say that chance favours the prepared mind. Prior knowledge of the places where they inhabit and the timing in which they appear greatly help in finding the desired birds. This is both applicable to resident birds as well as migrants. We hope this article will provide a good starting point for birders looking for some inspiration in their search for birds in Singapore. So be prepared and good birding ahead. Report back to us if you find any of these rare species.

Photo Gallery

You can see 100 different birds in a day here.

The National Library Board commissioned the SG50 book “Living the Singapore Story” to celebrate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee. Lim Kim Seng, a committee member of the Bird Group and Head of the Birds Record’s Committee was featured in this book. The Bird Group thank the National Library Board for their permission to publish this article in our blog and Facebook page and Goh Yue Yun for making the text available.

Bird guide Lim Kim Seng holds the record set in 2012 for the most number of species spotted here in a year – 265 species. He can recognise 350 different birds and identify their calls

Bird guide Lim Kim Seng holds the record set in 2012 for the most number of species spotted here in a year – 265 species. He can recognise 350 different birds and identify their calls

I joined the Nature Society in 1975. Back then, there would be only four people – the leader, his friend, my brother and I. But nowadays, such trips can attract as many as 50 people.
Tourists like to come here for bird-watching. Singapore is a good place because although it may have less wilderness, there are four or five different habitats like grassland, forest, coastal, mangrove – and all can be reached easily within a day with little travelling. Our guides are also better-trained.

The tourists are always surprised to see so many different birds here – we can see as many as 100 species in a day, especially when the migratory birds are around. We start early in the morning, when it’s still dark, to see owls in the forest. Then, when we leave the forest at sunrise, the visitors are always surprised by the transformation when we emerge into the open. I take them to places like the central catchment area, Pulau Ubin, Sungei Buloh and even Bishan Park.

The oldest tourist I have taken birding was an 82-year-old American woman. But I don’t mind older visitors – I go slow, too, and tell them often: “Let’s take five.” Actually, I’m the one who needs to take five because I’m laden with my bag, binoculars and telescope and need to pace myself to last the day.

The authorities have done a good job at attracting birdlife, like planting the right fruit trees, making temporary parks out of unused places, and turning canals into streams with natural banks. Except that, this being Singapore, the need to be clean is always there, but too much pruning and trimming can be disruptive to birds as they may lose their nesting areas.

In Singapore, as in other cities, birds face the problem of flying into high-rise buildings, especially those with reflective glass. We are studying if having stickers on glass façades will help.

People often ask if I keep birds at home, seeing how I admire them. I don’t because I prefer to see birds in the wild, flying. But I know pet birds can bring people joy too – and if they are captive-bred, that’s fine. But if they have been poached, that’s not fine.

There are good reasons for people to poach birds – some songbirds can bring in $10,000 to $20,000. When I come across these poachers – which can be two or three times a year – I ask them to leave or tell them I’ll call the police. But even the police need more awareness of this problem. Sometimes when I call, a perplexed response will be: “Someone’s catching birds? What’s it got to do with me?”

I can remember the common names and Latin names of 350 species of birds. With birds, it’s not just identifying the features from top to toe and learning that one species may have a white eyebrow and another a yellow eyebrow, or that some woodpecker species have four toes instead of three. But it’s also their calls you need to learn to better detect them.

When I hear a bird call, I try to memorise it – sometimes identifying it as a kind of Morse code. Or I record it and then play it back. And birds have a language, too – some calls are alarm calls, some are for contact, others for mating. So it’s like remembering at least three different calls for each bird, making it about 1,000 different calls I now can identify. It took me about 10 years to do this.

You really need to know your birds and this, coupled with the fact that I’ve been birding for longer than most other people here, helped me set the record in 2012 for the most number of species spotted in what bird-watchers call a Big Year. The competition was intense, with the lead spotters changing positions several times. A trip to Pulau Tekong in December helped me clinch the win with 265 species spotted, beating the old record of 247. What a year!

Once a friend texted me to say there was a rare masked finfoot in Sungei Buloh. I went late and missed seeing it by five minutes. I waited and waited. I called my boss, said I was not feeling well and wouldn’t be in. I waited half the day and didn’t see it. But even if I don’t see anything, a day spent out with nature is a day gained, not lost.

Lim Kim Seng, 55, has been a qualified bird guide since 2002. He takes tourists and sometimes Singaporeans to different areas to spot birds and other wildlife. He also teaches a course on environmental education at Republic Polytechnic and is the author of Birds: An Illustrated Field Guide to the Birds of Singapore and several other books on birds.

The Javan Myna – mixed fortunes of a familiar stranger

Introduction

Our recent article on the Red-billed Quelea in Punggol generated much debate in local conservation circles and the media about how invasive birds can impact our native biodiversity. Sitting at the crossroads of trade in Asia, Singapore is inevitably also a hub for the pet industry and sets the stage for the sale of many thousands of birds, mammals and reptiles, not to mention the less visible transit of many more animals from the region destined for markets further afield. Every now and then, some of these animals find their way into our wilds, either from accidental or deliberate releases by people.

While there is no immediate danger of the quelea being established here, one does not need to look far to find a non-native bird that has colonised Singapore’s landscapes in a big way, and now regularly feature in our national newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Today, the familiar Javan Myna is probably our commonest resident bird, has topped the counts of almost all our bird censuses in recent years, and has probably also annoyed more people here than any other bird species (by their large noisy roosts). While there is limited observational evidence of how Javan Mynas have competed with other native species like the Common Myna and Oriental Magpie Robin, some conservationists believe that the decline of both species may be associated with the rise of the Javan Myna. Not surprisingly, there is considerable overlap between the habitats used by the Javan Myna and these two species, leading to competition for resources.

Many Javan Mynas on a bare tree. Photo Credit: Low Choon How

Many Javan Mynas on a bare tree. Photo Credit: Low Choon How

A declining native

While the Javan Myna has thrived in its non-native distribution, particularly in the Malay Peninsula (including Singapore), parts of Sarawak (e.g. Kuching), Sabah (e.g. Tawau), and increasingly does so in northern Sulawesi (e.g. Manado), not many people are aware of the massive declines suffered in its native range of Java and Bali. A massive demand for Javan Mynas and other wild starlings (e.g. Asian Pied Starling) in the Indonesian pet trade has taken its toll on the indigenous population of this species. In seven visits to West Java and Bali since 2003, I have only encountered the mynas twice, and only as singles or pairs, but never in the big flocks seen in Singapore. Some Indonesian colleagues casually remarked that the only Javan Mynas left on Java are the poor few lingering on in the national parks or nature reserves. At the same time, I have seen it on sale in large numbers in bird shops in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta, Bogor, Palu and Padang. In some bird shops in Bogor for instance, single Javan Mynas may fetch over 300,000 IRP (30 SGD) or more.

A myna difference

One of the benefits of being a naturalist living in two cities is that one can make comparisons of the animal life of both, and see how it can change with time. In my childhood days, I spent much time in Kuala Lumpur’s outskirts, as much as I did in Singapore and so had an opportunity to observe birds in two somewhat similar urban settings 350 km apart. It was interesting then to note that mynas I observed in my school grounds in 1996 were mostly the ‘black’ ones (i.e. Javan Myna) while those in my KL backyard were the ‘brown’ ones (i.e. Common Myna). The differences in voices meant that it was not too difficult to identify either species’ presence even when the mynas were not seen. So it intrigued me one day in 2000 when I heard a familiar screeching sound in a neighborhood playing field in Kuala Lumpur – that of a Javan Myna! A quick search found one Javan Myna in a large group of 20 Common Mynas. In the 15 years that followed, Javan Mynas have became more ubiquitous in my estate and in my last visit in 2014, large groups can now be seen all over Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley.

Common Myna at Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photo Credit: Francis Yap

Common Myna at Singapore Botanic Gardens. Photo Credit: Francis Yap

Epilogue

Looking back in time with an ecologist’s lenses, it becomes quite clear that the spread of the Javan Myna from Singapore into Peninsular Malaysia has been rapid even though the exact time frames cannot be determined due to patchy documentation by birdwatchers for abundant bird species. Javan Mynas are now common across Johor north to Kuala Lumpur and large flocks can now be seen commuting the Straits of Johor daily. Documentation from other birdwatchers in Malaysia showed that the Javan Myna has spread to as far north as central Perak and continues to expand its range, aided possibly by large areas of deforested countryside made available to them. In its march north, novel ecological problems are created, because species that have never interacted with Javan Mynas will now have to. Native starlings of open country like the Common and Jungle Mynas are of course now faced with an aggressive competitor, and may decline in the long term. Further north, the White-vented Myna may soon cross paths with its southern, non-native relative, with predictable consequences.

Jungle Mynas at Juru, Penang. Photo Credit: Low Choon How

Jungle Mynas at Juru, Penang. Photo Credit: Low Choon How

The spread of the Javan Myna up the Malay Peninsula, as revealed by the observations collected by birdwatchers in Malaysia and Singapore, is possibly one of the most striking changes in avifauna in the region in recent years, made more so by the ubiquity and conspicuousness of these birds. While the resources to manage the invasion of this species was probably not available many decades ago when it was more manageable, the rapid range expansion of the Javan Myna is a clear reminder than an invasive animal from a climatically different part of Southeast Asia (i.e. monsoonal and drier Java), has the potential to spread far and wide, especially if it is facilitated by other broader landscape changes caused by deforestation, urbanisation or even climate change. On the other hand, the declines in its native Java reflects the mixed fortunes faced by the Javan Myna, and poses interesting questions for conservationists. It is possible, and plausible that the invasive populations of this species in Singapore or Malaysia, can be used to repopulate areas in Java or Bali where it has been hunted out, or that these populations can be used to alleviate the pressure on wild populations by the Indonesian pet trade. Whatever the case, the Javan Myna story poses an interesting challenge for conservationists in a modern setting where innovative solutions are needed to conserve species effectively.

Cover Photo: “Javan Mynas on a tree trunk” by Low Choon How

An old record of the Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo.

Contributed by Frankie Cheong. 4th June 2015.

HBC Frankie Cheong 30 May 08

Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo taken at Pulau Tekong on 30th May 2008.

One of the perks of my job is access to the restricted birding haven of Pulau Tekong. This and Pulau Ubin in the north of Singapore is the home of many of our rare resident species not found on the mainland, like the Black-naped Monach and occasional rare migrants.

On the 30th May 2008, at the reclaimed land of the island facing Changi, I came across  small cuckoo perched low among the scrubs. It had the appearance of a Little Bronze Cuckoo. I manage to get a photo or two.

Then about a month later on the 24th and 25th of June, I came across another very similar cuckoo around the same vicinity. This time I had the side views and partial frontal shots. But it did not look to be the same as the May bird.

HBC 24 May 2015 HBC Frankie Cheong 25 June 08

Horsfield’s  Bronze Cuckoo. 24th and 25th June 2008.

The identification came from NPSS members after I posted the photos there. I also received a confirmation from Lim Kim Seng who used of it in his article. It was the rare migrant from Australia, the Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo, that many birders and photographers were looking for.

The May photo showed the dark eye strip and a tinge of rufous on the outer tail, while the June birds has the dark forehead, striped throat and incomplete underpart barrings, all features of the Horsfield’s. I was happy to reconnect with this cuckoo few days ago at Punggol Barat where a few of them were “wintering’ there.

Singapore Bird Report – May 2015

HBC Albert Tan 24 April 15 Horsfield's Bronze Cuckoo Eric Tan.

Albert Tan’s 24th                                       Eric Tan’s 25th. Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo

May is the usual slow and quiet month as most of the migrants have left and the residents were in their post breeding period.  But all these were shattered with an influx of the long awaited and rare Austral migrant, the Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo, Chrysococcyx basalis.

Apparently it was photographed at Punggol Barat on the 10th by Vincent Lao, but was dismissed as the Little Bronze Cuckoo. Albert Tan and Eric Wang posted their exciting finds on 24th and 25th after reading a timely post by Francis Yap of Lim Kim Seng’s old Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo article.

Horsfield's Bronze Cuckoo at Punggol Barat

Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo at Punggol Barat

The race was on to find them before they are gone. To everyone’s surprise, there were a bunch of them flying around at the Mimosa open waste land at Punggol Barat. This is Francis Yap’s excited text on 30th: “Got the horsy, Punggol Barat now”, “Lost track of it, near pond”, “Cannot find. Very hot now”, “Found again”, “3 birds now, near pond”, “ 4-5 birds”, “ Lost count liao after 10 birds”. Con Foley was calling this a “Cuckoo Convention”. It was just incredible. In June 2005 we had one adult and one juvenile that stayed for a week at Marina South. The past eight records, all were single birds. This is our chance to study their “wintering” behaviour.

Asian Paradise Flycatcher by Vincent Ng

Asian Paradise Flycatcher by Vincent Ng

The month started well with the sighting of a male white morphed Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Terpsiphone paradise, at Bidadari on the 2nd ( new extreme date?).  Many of us were grateful for the instant alert from Vincent Ng as it was gone the next day, clearly on passage back. Two Von Schrenck’s Bitterns, Ixobrychus eurhythmus, were photographed at Pasir Ris Park on 5th by Billy Goh and 8th at SBWR on 8th by Alan OwYong. They are known to stay late till June. Another late migrant was an adult Tiger Shrike, Lanius tigrinus, picked up at Bidadari on 9th by Lim Kim Seng. A total of 49 Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels, Oceanodroma monorhis, on passage were counted during a private Pelagic trip to the Straits of Singapore on 10th ( Francis Yap). This was the largest flock recorded for the year, a low count compared to previous year.

Eric Wang managed to photograph all three Jambu Fruit Doves, Ptilinopus jambu, adult male, female and a juvenile feeding on the same tree at Bidadari on the same date. These are the uncommon non breeding visitors attracted by fruiting figs. Another uncommon non breeding visitor was an Cinererous Bulbul, Hemixos cinereus, recorded at Belukar trail on the 20th, another new extreme date.

Interesting resident records include a Lesser Whistling Duck, Dendrocygna javanica at the Japanese Gardens, reported by Laurence Eu , Buffy Fish OwlsKetupa ketupu, one at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on 8th ( Richard White) and another at Bidadari on 15th (Er Bong Siong). All are new for the location.

Two eggs belonging to the Large-tailed Nighjars, Caprimuigus macrurus, were found by Lucy Davies on 10th at Wessex, while the chick of the Changeable Hawk Eagle at Mount Faber fledged on the 12th, much to the delight of the  many of its fans ( Johnson Chua). The young eaglet that was rescued and looked after by the vets in Sentosa turned out to be a Crested Goshawk, Accipiter trivigatus This is the first record of this rare resident raptor breeding there. It will be tagged before released back into the wild. Seng Alvin painstaking monitoring of the pair of Malaysian Pied Fantails, Rhipidura javanica, paid off.  He documented the fledgling of two chicks on the 25th. Happy days.

Nesting Malaysian Pied Fantails about to fledge. Photo: Seng Alvin

Nesting Malaysian Pied Fantails about to fledge. Photo: Seng Alvin

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Crested Goshawk chick rescued at Sentosa in April. Same chick a month later. Ready for tagging before release. Photos; Daniel Seah of SDC.

One crash record came from John Arifin who found a concussed female Jambu Fruit Dove, Ptilinopus jambu, at Winsland House off Orchard Road on 27th. He informed us that the dove managed to fly off on its own after a short recovery.

Reference: Avifauna of Singapore. Lim Kim Seng. 2009. A field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-east Asia. Craig Robson Asia Books Ltd.2000. Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. Simpson and Day, Edited by Francis Yap. The above records are taken from the various bird FB groups. pages, reports and forums.  Many thanks for your postings. Many thanks to Francis Yap, Vincent Ng, Seng Alvin, Daniel Seah, Albert Tan and Eric Wang for the use of the photographs.