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.
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.