Asia’s shorebirds in decline.
Common Redshanks roosting in the mangroves at Sungei Buloh during high tides. Fortunately their yearly numbers are still good.
Many of Asia’s migratory shorebirds are in decline. This is especially so for species migrating along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, a major migratory corridor that includes Singapore. In the past decade, conservationists have identified the loss of coastal wetland habitats, especially in eastern Asia as among the key reasons driving the decline of migratory shorebirds. Illegal and unsustainable hunting across many parts of the region is also a major threat to migratory species.
The Nature Society (Singapore), in a recent interview on Channel News Asia’s “Singapore Today”, highlighted the decline of migratory shorebirds in Singapore, and more broadly in the region, based on the data collected from our bird censuses. Many viewers were alarmed by the absolute low numbers displayed for the Pacific Golden Plovers, Lesser Sand Plovers and Whimbrels.
The first Annual Bird Census was conducted by the Nature Society in March 1986 and had been faithfully carried out every March since. These single day counts from sites surveyed across Singapore provided us with 33 years of continuous data to determine the population trends of the country’s bird fauna.
Every year about 200 Whimbrels winter over at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
Together with the data from the Annual Waterbird Census, which started in 1990, the declining numbers of shorebirds such as the Pacific Golden Plovers, Marsh Sandpipers, Lesser Sand Plovers and Curlew Sandpipers are very clear to field observers. The loss of Serangoon Estuary and Senoko Wetlands is thought to have contributed to the decline of many shorebirds in Singapore. The Common Redshank has suffered less, and there are still good numbers annually, fortunately.
Some Pacific Golden Plovers choose to roost inland or even on the fish farms at the Straits of Johor instead of the dry ponds at Sungei Buloh.
Their numbers were in the thousands in the 1990s, but the counts were in their tens or low hundreds during recent surveys.
Figure 1. Abundance trends for Pacific Golden Plover (1997-2017) based on Annual Bird Census data.
Figure 2. Abundance trends for Marsh Sandpiper (1997-2017) based on Annual Bird Census data.
Figure 3. Abundance trends for Common Redshanks (1997-2017) based on Annual Bird Census data.
Rich coastal ecosytems like the Seletar mudflats must be conserved as they are irreplaceable.
So how can we stop or reverse these trends for our declining shorebirds? For a start we must continue work to conserve all our remaining wetlands like the rich coastal ecosystems at Mandai Mudflats, Seletar and Chek Java, which are highly irreplaceable. More importantly, we would need to continue with our long term monitoring work through bird censuses as tools to guide our ongoing and future conservation efforts.
Reference. NSS Bird Group Annual Bird Census 1995-2019.
20 July 2014. Discovered by Roy Sim in the preceding weeks.
Text and Photos by Mohamad Zahidi. 1st Oct, 2016.
There are a few places in Singapore we can go for shorebirds but I chose Yishun Dam as its close to where I live. For the shorebirds that flew thousands of miles from their Arctic breeding ground, the rich sand banks and mud flats provide a great refueling stop and a natural habitat to document them.
Some of the early migrants to Yishun Dam. Small numbers of the Lesser Sand Plovers were seen.(6 Aug 2016).
Increased in numbers in the following week. (15 Aug 2016)
I normally spend few hours playing the ‘waiting game’ under the hot sun and try to scan that area for some lifer or uncommon shorebird. The birds there also tend to forage for food at Khatib Bongsu and at some smaller island nearby.
Shorebirds shooting at low tide under the hot sun at the Yishun Dam. Photo: AlanOwYong
This year I am so determined to see the uncommon Greater Sand Plover. During my last Pelagic Trip in May, I was asking around about this Plover which I dipped during my unofficial Big Year in 2014. FrancisYap and See Toh suggested that I should go visit YD frequently in the month of Aug so that I can have a better chance to see the Greater Sand Plover there.
Lesser Sand Plovers at the sandbank. Background is the shoreline of Khatib Bongsu.
I finally decided to visit Yishun Dam (sandbank) somewhere in late July in order to see some early migrants with my birding kaki, David Tan. We ended up finding the Great-Billed Heron which Alan OwYong said was a new record for Yishun Dam (sandbank). The Western Osprey also made a brief appearance towards the end of our morning session there.
Great–billed Heron adjusting to a new standing position. (23 July 2016)
Western Osprey was seen hunting for fish (23 July 2016)
Western Osprey dropped its catch in mid-air (23 July 2016)
The news that a Great Knot landed in Yishun was sent to many by Francis Yap on a Saturday morning while I was at work. It attracted many photographers and avid birdwatchers to Yishun Dam again. It was time for me to get some new shot of this globally endangered star bird. There was a chance of getting the Greater Sand Plover as well.
Great Knot was seen flying with the Lesser Sand Plover (15 Aug 2016).
Finally, on 22 August Lawrence Cher alerted us about Greater Sand Plover spotted in Yishun Dam. I was eager to go down asap but only managed to do it on 26 Aug 2016 despite the haze that morning.
Greater Sand Plover foraging along the shoreline (26 Aug 2016)
Spotted another Greater Sand Plover at the sandbank. (17 Sep 2016)
Yishun Dam is a perfect place to see these great shorebirds and really hope that it will not be lost to development. I would like to thank Singapore Bird Group for the invite to write this article.
Below are some of my collection of birds taken recently at Yishun Dam.
Common Sandpiper with baby cobra in threat posture (22 Sep 2016)
A pair of Pacific Golden Plover (22 Sep 2016)
Terek Sandpipers foraging on sandbank. (22 Sep 2016), Their numbers are in decline over the years.
A juvenile Yellow Wagtail was spotted catching insects at Yishun Dam (5 Oct 2014)
Ruddy Turnstone (28 Sep 2014)
Close-up shot of Ruddy Turnstone (5 Oct 2013)
Reference: A Naturalsit’s Guide to the Birds of Singapore. Yong Ding Li, Lim Kim Chuah and Lee Tiah Khee. John Beaufoy Publishing Limited 2013.
Compiled by Alan OwYong and Yong Ding Li.
Granite seawall next to the Marina Barrage where the plovers are spending the winter.
We were fortunate that Loke Peng Fai found some Kentish, Charadrius alexandrinus, and Malaysian Plovers, Charadrius peronii, at the granite embankment next to the Marina Barrage on 24 Oct 2015 now that the access to Changi Cove was restricted. Not only that, a distinctive subspecies of the Kentish Plover were also spending the winter there together with a few Lesser Sand Plovers, Charadrius mongolus,. These are the Swinhoe’s or White-faced Plovers (ssp. dealbatus). This gives us an great opportunity to study them in different plumages close up as they can be rather difficult to identify as a result of their superficially similar plumage patterns.
Let’s start with our resident Malaysian Plovers first.
Malaysian Plovers are more sandy in appearance, and show more mottling on the upperpart. They also have paler legs and more extensive breast band. Both male and female have a white collar. The male has a black breast band while the female has a rufous band both extending over the neck. (Male left, Female right)
The Kentish Plovers also have the same white collars as the Malaysian. But they are duller brown with plainer and more uniform upperparts. The legs are darker and the breast band is also less extensive than that of the Malaysian Plover. Unlike the Malaysia Plover, the black breast band of the male does not extend fully around the neck.(Male left, Female right).
The Swinhoe’s or White-faced Plovers is a rather distinct looking subspecies (ssp. dealbatus) of the Kentish Plover. It has a similar white collar and uniformly brown upperparts as the Kentish. But the breast band is often hardly noticeable and the broader white lores and brow gives it a white looking face.
The Lesser Sand Plover (behind) is 2 cm larger than the Kentish ( front) as can be seen from this photo. The key difference is the lack of a white collar for the Lesser Sand Plovers.
Now that you are clear about the different features of the four small plovers, can you tell which plover is this? Better still can you tell the sex and age as well?
Reference: A field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia. Wild Birds Society of Japan 1993.
Further reading on the spp dealbatus. “The Rediscovery of a Long-lost Charadrius Plover from South East Asia. Peter Kennerly, Dave Bakewell and Philip Round” at http://www.thaibirding.com/ornithology/lostplover.htm
Group photo of some of the volunteers from NSS, NParks and the public at Sungei Buloh Wetand Reserve at the start of the 2016 Asian Waterbird Census, which is celebrating its 30th year and the IWC its 50th year. Photo: Lim Kim Keang.
The Bird Group kicked off the year with the Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) on 23 January 2016. This year is also the 50th anniversary of International Waterbird Census and the 30th anniversary for the Asian Waterbird Census. Eleven teams fanned across the island to coastal, wetland and marshy sites to count all the waterbirds there including kingfishers and raptors that depend on these habitats for food, shelter and nesting sites.
The members of the then Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch) held the first AWC in 1990 by joining regional bird organisations in the count coordinated by the International Wetland Bureau. Today this annual event coordinated Nature Society (Singapore) Bird Group in Singapore is still going strong under Wetlands International after more than 25 years. Such censuses will help to monitor the trend of migrating shorebirds and resident waterfowls all over Asia and provide an invaluable tool in alerting conservation organisations and agencies to take necessary actions of declining trends of a particular species or site.
Mandai Mudflats at low tide looking towards the Causeway. Whimbrel flock one of the shorebird species that feeds here. Photo Lim Kim Keang.
The sites covered by the teams were Lower Seletar Dam, Mandai Mudflats, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserves (Route 1 and 2), Kranji Marshes, Kranji Dam, Pulau Ubin (Central and Chek Jawa), Lorong Halus, Pasir Ris and Khatib Bongsu.
It turned out to be a wet afternoon for many of the participants especially those sites in the NW of Singapore and some of the counters had time-outs to wait out the heavy showers and strong wind. But overall, the shorebirds were not affected and continued to be active at the major feeding grounds.
Chek Java at low tide, looking towards Johor. Photo: Willie Foo.
The Mandai Mudflats as with previous census recorded the highest count of 1,619 shorebirds from 11 species with the Lesser Sand Plovers being the most numerous at 630 birds. There were good counts of Common Redshanks (280), Pacific Golden Plovers (330) and Common Whimbrel (240) and Common Greenshanks (93). Other notable species were Rufous-necked Stints (15), Marsh Sandpipers (2) and Curlew Sandpipers (2). Both Marsh and Curlew Sandpipers are rarely seen in Singapore in recent years. The latter is in sharp decline globally and need concerted effort to find the right solutions to arrest the trend.
David Li (with cap) from Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserves with Lim Kim Keang, main co-ordinator for the AWC 2016 at Mandai Mudflats. Photo: SBWR
Over at Sungei Buloh it was egrets galore, all three migratory species were counted with the Little Egrets as expected topping at 75 birds. A single wintering Terek Sandpiper and Grey-tailed Tattler were also picked out. Many of the migrating waterbirds were at the Mandai Mudflats as the favourable low tides provided extensive exposed mudflats for feeding.
From left Jacky Soh, Jimmy Lee and Angus Lamont at the bund at Khatib Bonsu helping with the count there. A pair of Red-wattled Lapwings appeared be nesting nearby. Photo Ho Hua Chew.
Over at Chek Java, a flock of Great Crested Terns numbering 120 were counted. Other species of note were 26 Grey Plovers, 4 Bar-tailed Godwits and 2 Great-billed Herons.
Five species of Kingfishers including the rare Black-capped were recorded at Kranji Marshes. The resident Red-wattled Lapwings seem to have taken to the newly created mud banks there. A high count of 16 were recorded. Unfortunately there were no signs of the Black-backed Swamphens. We hope they will make a comeback soon.
Marcel Finley counting herons at Pekan Quarry at Pulau Ubin. A total of 31 Grey Herons were counted here. Photo Willie Foo.
At Lorong Halus ponds, the Little Grebe was a no show but there were 9 Pond Herons in their non breeding plumage. There were 40 Grey Herons and at least 31 active nests at Pasir Ris Park although counts of other waterbirds were as usual quite low.
One of the tidal ponds at Khatib Bonsu, a restricted area. Three Stork-billed Kingfishers and a Grey-headed Fish Eagle sighted. They need such ponds for survival. Photo Ho Hua Chew.
On behalf of Wetlands International the Nature Society (Singapore) wishes to thank all the site leaders, NSS members , staff of Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserves and volunteers for helping out with this IWC 50 census. A full report will be published once all the data have been collated.
Report compiled from selected results from various site leaders with editorial help from Lim Kim Keang. Many thanks to Lim Kim Keang, Ho Hua Chew, Willie Foo and SBWR for the use of the photos.
Part of the 32 Black-tailed Godwits that arrived at Sungei Buloh last week. Photo David Li.
The wetlands at Sungei Buloh came alive this September with the arrivals of three uncommon and sought-after shorebirds. David Awcock started the ball rolling with the sighting of a lone Black-tailed Godwit, Limosa limosa on the 7th. Timothy Lim managed to get a group photo of about 30 the next day. David Li, Researcher Officer the Reserve did a count and came out with a total of 32. The highest count were 60 here on 9 October 1994 ( Iora 1).
As the excitement subsided, John Ang photographed a single Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus on the 19th. This is listed as a rare winter visitor and passage migrant to our shores but have been sighted in the last few years. This was followed by a photo of a Eurasian Curlew, Numenius arquata taken at Hide 1D by Ben Lee the next day. He posted it on the WildbirdSingapore e-forum. Most of the sighting of this Curlew were at our sandy coasts like Con Foley’s sighting on 22 Sept 2007 and another by Lena Chow, Jimmy Lee and Gerard Francis on 14 November 2010. Both were at the Changi Cove. Frankie Cheong had not one but three records at newly reclaimed land at Pulau Tekong ( 18.9.10, 4.10.10 & 22.2.12).
Ben Lee’s sighting brought Francis Yap, Zacc HD, Robin Tan and Alan OwYong to the main hide the next Monday morning. Fortunately we were joined by David Li and Mendis Tan later. Mendis was the one who picked the Curlew among the flock of Whimbrels just as we were about to give up.
Earlier Robin was photographing the Whimbrels when he found the Asian Dowitcher. We had a pleasant surprise when four birds were seen. In 2013, we had the highest count of 7 birds on 9th Sept, beating the old high count of 6 birds on 7th Sept 1980. Then heavy rain fell and to our delight, they all came down from the bund to feed. This gave all of us the opportunity of getting better and nearer shots, but the low light was not ideal. But we were compensated with precious photos of both the Curlew and the four Dowitchers in one frame. Everyone except Alan got their lifers for the day with Francis getting his long awaited global lifer, the Eurasian Curlew. PS. David Li made a very interesting observation. All these birds were juveniles. Could it be that they being younger need to have a stopover for a rest and refuel. The Eurasian Curlew was still around at the main pond on the 22nd.
Reference: The Avifauna of Singapore. Lim Kim Seng 2009. A field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia. 1993 Wild Bird Society of Japan. Thanks to David Li for the use of his photo and the alerts from David Awcock, John Ang and Ben Lee. Also thanks to Robin Tan and Mendis Tan for picking out the Dowitcher and Curlew on 21st.