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!
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.
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).
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.