Pelagic birding in the Singapore Straits. 18 Sept 2016. Text and Photos by Dirk Tomsa.
Cruising eastwards at the start of out Pelagic with the Singapore skyline in the distance. Photo: Gerard Francis.
On 18 September 2016, the Bird Group of the Nature Society Singapore organized its first pelagic birdwatching trip for its members. There were ten of us including the leaders Alfred Chia and Lim Kim Keang. We left Sentosa Marina just before 6 am and set course for the Singapore Straits. I had done a few pelagics in Australia before and always loved them, so I was full of anticipation when we finally cleared immigration – yes, passport clearence out at sea, a first for me – and headed out to more open water. Compared to my previous experiences in the cold waters of the Southern ocean, this tropical pelagic promised very different birds. Terns, not albatrosses or prions, would be most prominent, with up to eight different species possible including the beautiful Aleutian Tern which migrates through Singaporean waters around this time of the year. Furthermore, we were hoping to see Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel, another migratory species that routinely passes through the Singapore Straits in September. For me personally, these two were the main targets as both would be lifers for me. And, as it turned out, I would not be disappointed.
Terns like this Greater Crested Terns will be the most prominent pelagic species encountered.
In fact, it didn’t take long at all until we saw the first storm-petrels. Navigating the waves low above the surface, several small groups of Swinhoe’s whizzed past the boat, but unfortunately none of them came really close so that it was difficult to clearly see the subtle markings on these essentially brown birds. Eventually, my binoculars captured a bird close enough to the boat to enable me making out the slightly paler, crescent-shaped wing bar. Most birds, however, kept their distance and so I felt kind of reassured that Swinhoe’s was actually the only ‘stormie’ likely to be encountered here. Identifying different species at this long range would be a huge challenge. In the end, Alfred and Kim Keang confirmed that all storm-petrels seen that day were Swinhoe’s and that the total number of birds migrating through the straits that morning must have been around 300-350. Good numbers indeed, and a valuable tick for my list.
At this time of the year, the Straits of Singapore is one of the best places to see these Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels as they migrate through the Straits. More than 320 were counted this morning. Photo: Gerard Francis.
The storm-petrels were most abundant early in the morning. As the clock approached 9 am, the little brown birds became scarcer and we turned our attention to terns. Apparently a solitary Little Tern bid farewell to our boat as we left Sentosa but I had missed it, watching the distant silhouette of a Brahminy Kite instead.
Close up view of two Great Crested Terns in non-breeding plumage at the yellow buoy.
But now out at sea, more and more terns appeared near the boat. As expected, the most numerous were the fairly common Greater Crested Terns. More than twenty of this large tern species flew past throughout the trip and we were treated to some close-up views early on when a group of six perched on a buoy. We circled the buoy a couple of times so that everyone could get a good look. For the majority on board, this was their first pelagic birdwatching trip, so seeing these large terns so close was a great experience for all.
The Lesser Crested Tern on the left and the Greater side by side for comparison. The bright orange bill of the Lesser is a good feature to tell them apart.
Getting such good views of the very similar Lesser Crested Tern took a lot longer. In fact, we had to wait until we passed the same buoy again on the way back. This time the six Greater Crested Terns shared the tight space with two Lesser Crested Terns, thereby providing an excellent opportunity to compare these two species at close range. Despite the names, the difference in size is actually not that big, but the brightly coloured bills – orange in the Lesser, yellow in the Greater – made it easy for everyone on board to tell the birds apart.
In between our two encounters with the Crested Terns, there was a prolonged period where there were no birds at all. During this intermezzo, my thoughts drifted and I struggled to stay awake as my body reminded me that I had gotten up at 4.30 am. I staved off the temptation to just close my eyes by chatting with other participants, eating some snacks or looking at the field guides Alfred and Kim Keang had kindly provided. And then, just when I was about to doze off, another bird appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
Bridled Tern with its distinctive dark upper wings and eyebrow. An uncommon winter visitor.
A Bridled Tern emerged near the boat and was gone within seconds, but then another one appeared. And another. With their dark upper-wings and distinct eyebrow, these are among my favourite terns. We would see several others later on, but most of them remained distant specs on the horizon and unfortunately not everybody on board saw them.
Fantastic views of the Aleutian Tern resting on a flotsam, a well known habitat for this tern. We counted eight of these wonderful terns during the trip.
The Bridled Terns had barely disappeared out of sight when someone from the front of the boat shouted ‘bird on water’. That sounded promising for Aleutian Tern because this species is well-known for its habit to rest on flotsam. And sure enough, an Aleutian Tern it was. Undisturbed by our approaching boat the bird perched calmly on a piece of driftwood, allowing fantastic views and great photo opportunities. Soon we saw a second bird perched a bit further away. All in all, we counted eight of these wonderful terns.
An uncommon Common Tern was our last and sixth tern species for the day.
Yet, not every tern on the water was an Aleutian Tern. Thanks to the sharp eyes of our ever-watchful guides, one of the flotsam squatters was identified as a Common Tern, a species which despite its name is actually fairly uncommon in Singapore waters. This was the sixth and last tern species to go onto our list for the day. The other two possibilities, Black-naped and White-winged Tern, did not grace us with an appearance this time, but that was only a minor blemish on an otherwise thoroughly rewarding trip.
A big thank you to Alfred and the Bird Group for organising this trip, both Alfred and Kim Keang for the guiding and Gerard Francis for the use of his photos.