Extracts from Lisa Margonelli’s article “When birders with binoculars are better than supercomputers” published in the Sunday Times 31 January 2016. She writes the Small Science column for Zocalo Public Square where she is the science and humanities editor.
“As old and personalised as it is, the bird count is a powerful way to collect data and a future model for understanding and responding to environmental issues on Earth-not to mention other planets.”
“The bird count has, at its core, concern about birds going extinct, but over the years that morphed into surprising political power to stop those extinctions.”
” The count also has a secret weapon: It simultaneously gathers needed data and mobilises concerned citizens to advocate on behalf of endangered birds.”
“Obsession makes humans good at finding things because they get distracted by anomalies and their fervour is driven by their emotions. Computers don’t have eureka moments.”
Over the years of counting birds here we have our share of eureka moments. The sighting of a Caspian Tern at Mandai Mudflats during the 2011 Asian Waterbird Census was one of those eureka moments.
In April 1986 the late Clive Briffet, then chairman of the Singapore Branch of the Malayan Nature Society Bird Group initiated and led the very first Annual Bird Census (ABC) here in Singapore. It has been faithfully held every March since with reports published in various scientific journals. It is the longest running census of wild animals conducted by any organisation in South East Asia. Between 1996 and 2005, a total of 33 sites were counted where we recorded 220 species and 88,596 birds, with 102 species (46%) showing an increase, 66 (30%) showing evidence of decline and 22 (10%) stable. We just completed the 30th ABC on 27th March 2016. Lim Kim Seng will be posting the results soon.
Every year up to 400 Whimbrels spent the winter at our Wetlands. Photo: Alan OwYong.
In 1990, members of the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch) joined our fellow Asian member organisations to count waterbirds in our first Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) coordinated by Asian Wetlands Bureau, now known as Wetlands International. Lim Kim Keang coordinated the census for Singapore. This year’s AWC, the 26th, covering all the mudflats and wetlands was held on 23th January 2016.
Lim Kim Seng, head of the Records Committee initiated the Mid Year Bird Census (MYBC) in 2000 and the Fall Migration Bird Census (FMBC) in 2004 to gather data on the population of our residents and pug the gaps in the diversity of autumn migration. We were able to ascertain that the diversity is just as high as the Spring migration.
With the support from Asian Raptor Research and Conservation Network (ARRCN), we started a full one day Raptors Watch in November 2008 with observers stationed at various locations all over Singapore to count migrating raptors. The count from Singapore help to fill in the missing data on the pattern of the autumn migration of raptors coming down from Malaysia to Indonesia. Over the years we were amazed at the numbers of some of the raptors like the Oriental Honey Buzzards and Black Bazas that passed through our island. It had become a very popular count among keen raptor watchers over the years, thank to Tan Gim Cheong’s efforts after taking over from Alan OwYong.
In 2010, the International Ornithological Union approached the Bird Group of the Nature Society (Singapore) to join in the global count of feral and non native parrots in our urban environment. Thus our latest count, Parrot Count, took flight, under the stewardship of Albert Low, Yong Ding Li and Alan OwYong. The report for our 6th Parrot Count on the 27th February will be published soon.
We will not be able to achieve the success of these censuses and bird counts without the dedicated and passionate members of the Bird Group, friends and the concerned public spending their weekends helping to document the bird life all year round. But we need more to help us to cover more sites. If you are not too familiar with the censuses, come to our workshops and we will brief you on how to count and identify the birds. You will find your eureka moments too.
Ref: Lim Kim Chuah and Lim Kim Seng, State of Singapore’s Wild Birds and Bird Habitats. 2009.
Compiled by Alan OwYong and edited by Tan Gim Cheong. Thanks to Francis Yap, Low Choon How and Alan OwYong for the use of their photos.