It was late February in 2014 and Singapore was experiencing an unexpected drought. Birds inhabiting marshy areas were running out of places to hide as ponds and marshes dried up. Snipes were reported in multiple places. Two were found wandering around the grassy patch near a pond at Chinese Garden and attracted photographers hoping for good photos of this normally elusive species. But they weren’t the only birds being exposed there…
Seasoned bird photographer Lee Tiah Khee was rather perplexed. The bird he saw swimming on the pond seemed odd. His friends said it was a resident Ruddy-breasted Crake but he wasn’t convinced. He kept his peace and did what was sensible. When the bird came out walking, he managed to snap a few photos. Later that evening, he posted the photos to a Facebook group meant for documenting the Singapore Big Year competition being held the same year, hoping for a better answer. It didn’t attract much attention. The month was ending and everyone was preparing for the weekend and didn’t think too much about a nondescript crake.
A few hundred kilometres away, Dave Bakewell, a veteran birder based in Penang logged on his Facebook account early the next morning. Scrolling through all the postings he came across Tiah Khee’s photos. Dave had seen this bird species before a few years back. He knew instantly that a mega (birders noun for a very rare bird) has been found. He typed out a reply. “This is the globally MEGA-rare Band-bellied Crake – FIRST for Singapore? Ready, steady, GO!“. And so the race began, for all the Big Year participants and soon the rest of the birding fraternity in Singapore. Many SMS, Whatsapp and Facebook messages were sent, and weekend plans were changed immediately.
Soon Chinese Garden was teeming with birders looking for a bird that resembled a Ruddy-breasted Crake. A photographer who arrived earlier hoping to shoot the snipes before the news came out reported seeing a crake swimming in the pond earlier in the morning, but it soon disappeared. There was a palpable sense of tension. Could the bird have flown away? A one day bird? After more searching, most gave up the chase and headed for lunch.
Unknown to the birders, the crake merely wandered off to another section of the garden and was feeding unnoticed. A few that came in later saw the bird, photographed it and left. Later another batch saw it too and soon the news spread again. The crake was found, and the rush was on once more. I received the news from the other side of the island and quickly drove to the place within 45 minutes. The bird was wandering about in an open drain looking for food. I took out my camera to shoot, only to find out that it has no battery! I had forgotten to check before starting the journey. Veteran photographer Jimmy Chew had an opposite problem. He arrived at Chinese Garden with friends for another reason, saw fellow birders and went over to check. Although armed with a camera, he didn’t carry a long lens. Making the best out of the situation, we took turns to swap our gears and got the photos we wanted.
We both needn’t have been so “kancheong” (excited). The crake stayed for weeks before finally departing to its breeding ground up north in Russia or China. In the meantime, news spread widely and even regionally and soon birders around the region came to this tiny island specifically to see the crake and also the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler (that’s another story!). The event was even newsworthy enough to be picked up by the local newspaper.
The Band-bellied Crake (Porzana paykullii) is classified as a Near Threatened bird according to Birdlife International and is seldom seen nor photographed. Breeding population has been reported in the rather inaccessible parts of south-east Russia and north-east China. The wintering ground is also poorly known. Hence the excitement and the rush to see it. Most walked away happy, as the prolonged drought had forced the crake out in the open and it often foraged along very accessible drains and ponds, in a public garden no less. A few months later, it was formally included into the Singapore bird checklist.
The question remains as to the rarity of this bird in Singapore. Its close resemblance to the Ruddy-breasted Crake perhaps cause it to be overlooked by most. Post discovery of this bird, there was a report of a sighting in the same place in 2011. Perhaps we will see it again some day then.
Video of the Band-bellied Crake by Jeremiah Loei: