Category Archives: Conservation

Central Forest IBA at the Crossroads.

 

Marshes at MacRitchie Forest

Fresh Water Marshes at MacRitchie Forest

Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) are places of international significance for the conservation of birds and other wildlife. Birdlife International’s IBA program identifies, monitors and protects these places with the help of their local partners.

How does a site qualify to be an IBA? They have to meet the following internationally accepted criteria:

A1. Globally Threatened Species:  Sites with species in the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable.

A2.  Restricted-range Species: Sites holding a significant component of a group of species whose breeding distributions define an Endemic Bird Area (EBA).

A3. Biome-restricted Species: Sites holding a significant component of group of species whose distributions are largely or wholly confined to a biome.

A4 (1). Congregations: Sites known to hold on a regularly basis > 1% of a biogeographic population of a congregatory waterbird species. There are three other sub criteria.

IBA Central Forest

 

Our neighbour Malaysia has 55 IBAs making up the 12,000 IBAs worldwide. Not many people knows that Singapore has our own IBAs. The Nature Society (Singapore) and the Bird Group had identified three Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas in Singapore: a) Kranji-Mandai, b) Ubin-Khatib and c) Central Forest . The Central Forest IBA is made up of the Central Catchment Nature Reserves, Bukit Timah Nature Reserves, Bukit Batok Nature Park and Bukit Brown (Google map left ).

All three IBAs satisfy Criterion A1 due to the presence of the globally threatened species. Central Forest for the Straw-headed Bulbul and the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher and Ubin-Khatib for the Chinese Egret and Nordmann’s Greenshank. They also satisfy Criterion A3 – Biome as part of the Sundaic Lowland Forest bioregion.

If a tiny urban island nation like Singapore can have three IBAs, it makes sense to do our best not to lose them. If we allow any part of the Central Catchment Nature Reserves to be impacted with a loss of diversity and the endangered bird species, it will not qualify for IBA status anymore. Running the Cross Island Line through the southern part of the CCNR may lead to such loss and ultimately an IBA.

Reference: http://www.birdlife.org. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Singapore Birders’ Contribution to the Discovery and Conservation of the Plain-pouched Hornbill in Peninsular Malaysia

A Pair of Plain-pouched Hornbills (female with blue pouch)  Photo: Jimmy Chew

A Pair of Plain-pouched Hornbills (female with blue pouch) Photo: Jimmy Chew

This recent article by Yeap, C. A. et al in the Malayan Nature Journal on the Plain-pouched Hornbill traces and summarises the great and conscientious efforts by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) towards the protection of this species which occurs in massive numbers in the Belum-temengor Forest Complex from the nineties to 2012.

Singaporean birders may be interested to know that it was Sutari who was the first birder to have discovered the massive flight of the Plain-pouched Hornbill in Peninsular Malaysia — in 1992 at the  Temengor area, along the upper reaches of the  Perak River.  Subsequently , in 1993 a team organised by Sutari  and Hua Chew,  comprising mostly of the members of the Bird Group, carried out two earlier attempts (1993 & 1998) at a systematic count of their spectacular flight along the Perak transect, yielding  a maximum  of 2, 067 individuals in one morning session.  The presence of this hornbill species in Peninsular Malaysia was considered non-existent or highly controversial among ornithological experts at that time. In 1999, Sutari and Hua Chew submitted the results of their observations to the MNS-Bird Conservation Council for scrutiny and within the year the Plain-pouched was “accepted as Malaysia’s tenth hornbill species” by MNS Birds Records Committee.  The experience was most exhilarating and unforgettable for the participants, and the count sessions constitute Singaporean birders’ contribution to the Malayan Nature Society’s  efforts to protect  the species.   The “totals of more than 2000 hornbills at Temengor  seem to be unprecedented anywhere in the world for any hornbill species …. “ said Dr. Geoffrey Davison” (Yeap, C.A. et al, 2015). A later count by an MNS team in 2008 yielded 3, 261 individuals, the highest number obtained so far in a single session at the peak period.

ac8cc35f-f26e-479e-bbbb-8906a8835ae6

A large flock of Plain-pouched Hornbills. Photo: Sutari.

According to Yeap, C. A. et al (2015: “The seasonal migration of Plain-pouched Hornbills must rank as one of the most spectacular natural wonders in Asia. The Hornbill Triangle offers the best hope for the future survival of the southernmost population of Plain- pouched Hornbills.” We wish our Malaysian counterpart great success towards the achievement of this goal for the benefit of the present and future generation of the world.

Video by the late Ong Kiem Sian on their 1998 Hornbill survey here (Video)

Reference:  Yeap C.A. et al “Conserving the globally threatened Plain-pouched Hornbills in the Belum-temengor Forest Complex, Peninsular Malaysia”Malayan Nature Journal  (MNJ) (2015, 67 (2), Link

Kranji Marshes, a New Haven for Waterbirds

 

 

 

 

Desmond Lee opening of Kranji Marshes LKC

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Mr. Desmond Lee declaring the Marshes open with URA and NParks CEOs and Directors. Photo: Lim Kim Chuah.

Contributed by Alan OwYong and Alfred Chia. 1st February 2016.

Two years ago, Senior Minister of State for National Development & Home Affairs Mr Desmond Lee visited the Kranji Marshes. After touring the place, he saw the potential benefits that can be reaped if the marshes can be protected & properly managed. His vision and support on the project finally turned into reality when the Kranji Marshes was officially opened by him on 1 February 2016.

The fully covered marshes 21 March 2014 before work began (left). The marshes today with open water patches for the ducks and moorhens. Photos: Alan OwYong.
The Nature Society (Singapore) [NSS] was involved as early as 1985 when it proposed to the authorities to conserve the marshes. But it was not until 2008 that the society was finally allowed by the authorities to adopt & manage the marshes under the PUB’s Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme (ABC). This was the first time that NSS was tasked to manage a nature area, a ringing endorsement of what the society had managed to accomplish over the years.

Pond Maintenance under NSS management, 12 Jan 2013. (left). Heavy dredgers needed to clear the vegetation to open up the marshes 21 Feb 2015. Photos: Alan OwYong.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A Pair of Grey-headed Fish Eagles have made their home at the Marshes taking advantage of the aquatic life in the open ponds

With help from both Bloomberg and various student groups, weeds were periodically cleared. Small islands were also built to entice back the waterfowl. Soon, resident birds like the Black-backed Swamphens, Lesser Whistling Ducks & Common Moorhens returned. Migrant waterfowl like Watercocks & snipes also made Kranji Marshes their wintering ground. Passerines like reed and grasshopper warblers also made their visits.

20160201_081126

SMOS Mr. Desmond Lee with Lim Kim Keang, Wong Tuan Wah and Lim Kim Chuah touring the marshes. Photo: Alan OwYong

The culmination in the opening of the marshes is a result of long term planning & vision of statutory boards like the National Parks Board (NParks) and Urban Redevelopment Authority. It is to be lauded. The Bird Group of NSS is glad to have played its part in the planning of the marshes by offering its input on design and planning. It will continue to do so after the opening when it partners NParks in conducting guided tours to the public.

Albert Low of NParks showing the Purple Heron to the students from Raffles Institution. Bird Group Chairman Lim Kim Chuah scanning for waterbirds. The lush Lotus Pond from Bee-eaters Blind with photo panels by Lee Tiah Khee. Photos: Alan OwYong.

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.

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

Birding Hotspot – Bidadari

Anyone headed in the direction of town along Upper Serangoon Road or Upper Aljunied Road may occasionally notice a little stretch of ‘jungle’ after passing the Woodleigh MRT station and some backdrop of flats. No more than just a patch of secondary woodland that has regenerated in an exhumed old Muslim cemetery (Goh, 2002), it is dominated by non-native Albizia (Falcataria moluccana) and Acacia (Acacia auriculiformis) trees.

Many local naturalists deem these species to be of minimal conservation value. Is this green patch not just one of the many botanically-similar ‘wastelands’ that dot Singapore’s landscape, its days perceptibly numbered and, who knows, awaiting impending transformation into spanking new blocks of condominiums? Certainly not, if you do bother to stop here and scrutinize the view. You will walk out amazed at nature’s diversity and resilience.” So began the article by Yong Ding Li (Nature Watch July-Sept 2013). It was itself an update and a continuation to a much older article by Goh Si Guim (2002). Bidadari’s history and its significance to birdwatchers and nature lovers goes back a long time. I remember having a chat with Leslie Fung, who birded in the place when it was still boarded up, and tall grasses hid snipes and other surprises.

Both the articles are hosted here (NatureWatch 2002) and here (Nature Watch 2013) for a more in depth look at the place, its history and its ecological significance. The Nature Society (Singapore) have also put in a conservation proposal here.

In 2013, when Ding Li’s piece came out, there were around 140 species of birds counted in the area. Two more seasons in, quite a number of new species have been sighted and photographed there. The newest species found there are as follows: Chestnut-cheeked Starling, Cinereous Bulbul, Oriental Scops Owl, Greater Coucal, Buff-rumped Woodpecker (2015), Buffy Fish Owl (2015), and Indian Pond Heron (2015). The Indian Pond Heron if accepted into our official checklist would bring the total to 153 bird species.

Since a lot of the activities these days have moved to Facebook, you may be interested in joining the Saving Bidadari for Birds and People Facebook Group, where you will find various postings of the wildlife in the area.

For the novice birdwatcher and nature enthusiast, the directions to Bidadari is simple. The embedded map shows the car park. The nearest MRT station is Woodleigh station. Bidadari is a wooded area, as such be prepared with proper footwear and drinking containers. There are no toilet facilities within the compound. The best time for birdwatching is anywhere between 7-12pm. As Bidadari is a migratory bird hotspot, the months between October to January are the best months to see the rarer migrants, but resident birds are around the whole year around. Go quickly, before another unique area disappear for good!

Let’s end this article by quoting Ding Li again in his article.

“Preservation of so-called degraded secondary habitats like Bidadari, Bukit Brown and Pasir Ris Greenbelt is a ‘tacky issue’ that has been hotly debated in our local conservation scene of recent times. We hope to persuade land-use planners to view such sites of apparently ‘low’ secondary value differently in a more holistic and robust approach to conservation.”

“Bidadari holds dear in the hearts of people who have perceived its uniqueness, one way or another. Future plans to replace the woodland with more concrete blocks and manicured lawns will mean the end of those precious Bidadari sights and sounds for jogging/strolling residents, photographers, birdwatchers and other nature-lovers. Are we happy to be left with fond memories and the mere name of a place? In the case of Bidadari’s wild denizens — a home vanished and gone forever?”

Photo Gallery

Save our native munias and weavers!

Last week’s posting of the Red-billed Quelea sightings attracted a lot of media attention, with reports from our three major English newspapers (Straits Times, New Paper and Today) and online news website (Mothership.sg), as well as posts in Twitter and discussion on Mediacorp radio. We’re heartened by the feedback we’ve received so far.

The is a temptation to engage in further debate over the degree of danger posed by the queleas. Since we expect more to be released as AVA doesn’t restrict their importation, the jury is out on that one. Either there are more of them around soon or none survive in the field. We’ll find out soon enough.

What I try to present now instead is exactly what is the broader argument. That is, we are getting too many alien species in our midst and we are already paying the price for this neglect. Just sticking to the facts.

Let start with a table summarizing the number of bird species classified as seed-eaters in our Nature Society’s Singapore Bird Checklist (2013).

Species Scientific Name Family (Scientific) Status
House Sparrow Passer domesticus Passeridae Introduced
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Passeridae Uncertain
Streaked Weaver Ploceus manyar Ploceidae Introduced
Baya Weaver Ploceus philippinus Ploceidae Native
Red Avadavat Amandava amandava Estrildidae Introduced
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata Estrildidae Native
Javan Munia Lonchura leucogastroides Estrildidae Introduced
Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata Estrildidae Native
White-capped Munia Lonchura ferruginosa Estrildidae Introduced
Chestnut Munia Lonchura atricapilla Estrildidae Native
White-headed Munia Lonchura maja Estrildidae Native
Java Sparrow Lonchura oryzivora Estrildidae Introduced

We have 5 native seed-eaters out of a list of 12 birds. Not a great record to begin with. But lets dwell into this further. Of the five native species, the White-rumped Munia is nearly extirpated. The last sighting of this munia was in October 2010 during the 27th Singapore Green Bird Race 2010 at Pulau Ubin. Both the Chestnut Munia and the White-headed Munia are uncommon species nowadays although we do get a few sightings a year. The trend is that it is increasingly difficult to see them. The most successful native species are our Baya Weavers and the Scaly-breasted Munias. However, let’s examine closely the “success” of the Scaly-breasted Munia.

Look at the picture below comparing two such birds. One taken at Pulau Semakau and the other at Sengkang. If you pay attention, the one at Sengkang have a different coloured upperparts and breast pattern compared to the Semakau bird. That’s because they are of different subspecies. Where does the Sengkang subspecies come from? The subspecies topela is native to Indochina, China and Taiwan. And if you were to look around our remaining grassland, many are of this kind and some are a cross between these two subspecies. And how did they get here? As usual they are imported legally and subsequently released by devotees. Celebrating the success or lamenting the imminent demise of our native bird species sometimes depends on how closely you look.

Scaly-breasted Munia at Semakau on the left, and Sengkang on the right. Our native subspecies is fretensis while the imported ones are topela. Biggest difference is the pattern of the scales on the breast as well as the richness of the chestnut-coloured upperparts.

Scaly-breasted Munia at Semakau on the left, and Sengkang on the right. Our native subspecies is fretensis while the imported ones are topela. Biggest difference is the pattern of the scales on the breast as well as the richness of the chestnut-coloured upperparts.

Let’s move on to the next table. You have seen the official checklist. But what is the actual situation in the field? What are the other seed-eaters in our field competing with our weavers and munias? I have kept photographic records of these birds. They are not meant to be exhaustive but rather a solo effort to document them. There is no Red-billed Quelea in the list as I have not seen them yet. Records are from 2011 to present.

Species (English) Scientific Name Family (Scientific) Origin Breeding
Vitelline Masked Weaver Ploceus vitellinus Ploceidae Africa
Golden-backed Weaver Ploceus jacksoni Ploceidae Africa Possible
Asian Golden Weaver Ploceus hypoxanthus Ploceidae Asia Possible
Red-headed Quelea Quelea erythrops Ploceidae Africa
Yellow-crowned Bishop Euplectes afer Ploceidae Africa Possible
Zanzibar Red Bishop Euplectes nigroventris Ploceidae Africa
Southern Red Bishop Euplectes orix Ploceidae Africa Possible
Cut-throat Finch Amadina fasciata Estrildidae Africa
Blue-capped Cordon-bleu Uraeginthus cyanocephalus Estrildidae Africa
Orange-cheeked Waxbill Estrilda melpoda Estrildidae Africa
Crimson-rumped Waxbill Estrilda rhodopyga Estrildidae Africa Possible
Black-rumped Waxbill Estrilda troglodytes Estrildidae Africa
Common Waxbill Estrilda astrild Estrildidae Africa Possible
Orange-breasted Waxbill Amandava subflava Estrildidae Africa
Bronze Mannikin Lonchura cucullata Estrildidae Africa
Red-backed Mannikin Lonchura nigriceps Estrildidae Africa Possible
Pin-tailed Whydah Vidua macroura Viduidae Africa Possible
White-rumped Seedeater Crithagra leucopygia Fringillidae Africa
Black-throated Canary Crithagra atrogularis Fringillidae Africa
Yellow-fronted Canary Crithagra mozambica Fringillidae Africa

20 additional species in the field excluding the recently discovered Red-billed Quelea. All competing for the same limited resources. Out of which, 19 are from Africa, and 8 of these may be breeding due to recent increase in numbers. So have we gone too far? Outnumbered and with the competition getting fresh reinforcement every year, how long more can our native birds last?

No records of the quelea imported and that you cannot find said exotic bird in your urban bird survey? Well how about these then? How about saving the birds we have, instead of making Singapore a mini-Africa grassland?

Let’s work together on an alien bird survey in Singapore. Find out how many species there are in our midst and in what numbers compared to our native species. Then we can start an intelligent conversation on how to make things better before drastic actions need to be taken. Denial of the problem doesn’t make it go away, the same way that the introduced Javan Mynas and House Crows don’t go away much as some wish they would. When guns and traps have to be deployed, what more is there left to say?

Past articles on introduced seed-eaters: Link 1, Link 2

Newspaper articles on Red-billed Quelea

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

China to Sumatra via Singapore: The Journey of the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher

To many casual birdwatchers, the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher (Rhinomyias brunneata) is just another of the many hundreds of ‘brown jobs’ that dwell in the region. The more serious birders and conservationists however, know it to be globally threatened, and appreciate its rarity in the region.

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher
(A Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher from Bidadari, Singapore. Photographed in September 2012)

In Singapore, veterans of the Singapore Bird Race remember it as a ‘species in bold’, in the race checklist, a classification reserved for many of our rarest birds, and thus in need of special documentation in the race. First discovered in northern Singapore back in the early 1980s, the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher was a bird one seldom saw, and there were only a handful of records every year. In recent years, much has been learnt about the ecology of this little songbird. Birdwatchers visiting the famous Bidadari Cemetery found small numbers of these birds every October since 2006, and in 2013, a total of eight birds were sighted in the little patch of woodland of no more than 15 hectares in size. Parallel surveys I conducted in the Central Catchment Forest found as many as six birds in one morning in mid-October, or an average of 1 bird for every kilometre walked. Birdwatchers around the world now acknowledge that Singapore is probably the best place to see the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher in the world during the fall migration period between October-November, much more so that at it’s breeding habitat in China.

So, why the apparent rarity? One reason is that the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher has a habit of skulking in dense patches of undergrowth in woodlands and forests, perching motionless on a low twig while watching the ground for the unfortunate bug. Many birdwatchers are thus likely to have walked past the flycatcher without realising that it is there, just metres away in the bushes. Secondly, the drab-brownish colour tones of the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher mean that to the uninitiated, it can be quite a challenge to tell it apart from other flycatchers, many of which are also brownish and show subtle differences which are difficult to pick out when seen poorly. Thirdly, not many people know the calls the Brown-chested Jungle-Flycatcher makes. Only in recent years do we now know it produces a harsh series of ‘ticks’, a call made when it is alarmed, or when another Jungle Flycatcher comes too close into its territory. (Link to my recording on Xeno-canto Link1, Link2). This call is so similar to that made by Blue Flycatchers of the genus Cyornis, that it is not surprising why some taxonomists now consider it part of that group.

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher
(A Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher from Bidadari, Singapore. Photographed on a low twig.)

In Singapore, the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher occurs as a passage migrant, which means that birds seen here are on their way to their wintering destination elsewhere. Breeding in the mountainous broadleaved forests of southern and central China (e.g. Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Fujian, Guizhou), Brown-chested Jungle Flycatchers head south from August onwards, briefly passing through northern Vietnam. By mid-September, they would have reached Central Thailand, as confirmed by regular sightings around Bangkok . Sightings from Singapore are mainly from the last few days of September to early November and there are very few records of birds staying through winter. Birds have also been collected from the One Fathom Bank Lighthouse in the Straits of Malacca in November before the 1920s, while hundreds were mist-netted on migration in Frasers Hill in the 1960s.

For many years, no one knew for sure where they spend their winters. A major clue came when a team in Java mist-netted a Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher in the Gunung Halimun National Park southwest of Jakarta. Subsequently, photographers based in Sumatra obtained images of ‘unknown flycatchers’ which were subsequently re-identified as the Brown-chested Jungle Flycatchers. Part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that the bird was not listed for Sumatra in the main bird field guide (i.e. Mackinnon et al’s Birds of Sumatra, Borneo, Java and Bali) covering the region. We now know that the bird has been found in the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Lampung, and the Harapan Rainforest in Jambi province. In short, we now know that the humble Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher makes a journey of 3,500km each way in Autumn and Spring, a massive distance for such a small little bird.

Photo Gallery

Reference:
MacKinnon, J., & Phillipps, K. (1993). A field guide to the birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali: the Greater Sunda Islands. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

This post is written by our contributor Yong Ding Li with additional input from Albert Low. Photographs by Francis Yap.