On a recent business trip to various Asian countries I was fortunate enough to have some time for birding in Singapore. I spent a few hours one morning in strictly urban areas, then had a full day (dawn to dusk) birding with the assistance of a local guide. Part 1 of this report is a general description and logistics. Part 2 is a narrative of my actual birding time. Part 3 is an annotated bird list. Latin names appear only in Part 3.
Singapore is an excellent choice for a first look at South-East Asian birds. The city is very easy to get around in. There are many, but not too many, birds. English is widely spoken. The food and culture are wonderful. Singapore is a true crossroads of the world. It would be an excellent choice for a family or couple with both birders and non-birders. Those with more time or experience can find close access to other birding destinations (e.g. Johor in Peninsular Malaysia).
Recommended resources for Singapore include MacKinnon and Phillipps, A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra and Java (virtually all birds--and certainly the common ones--are illustrated here); Briffett and Supari, The Birds of Singapore (a small illustrated guide showing the common birds only, but very specific to Singapore and with an excellent complete checklist attached); the Lonely Planet guide titled Singapore ( a slim volume with thorough coverage of hotels, restaurants, getting around, etc.). I also consulted, but left at home, a borrowed copy of Davison and Chew, A Photographic Guide to Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore (nice pictures of some species, excellent habitat descriptions), and Keith Taylor's Checklist of Malaysian and Singapore Birds. Good maps are published by Nelles (OK) and Periplus (better, but hard to find in the US--easy in Singapore).
Also helpful was Hugh Dingle's report on a similar single guided day in Singapore, in the ABA Foreign Field Note Series #N-123 (helpful list of birds seen, resources, and--most importantly--a strong recommendation of the services of Mr. R. Subaraj as a guide).
The company put me in a nice business hotel near Raffles. I couldn't have afforded it on my own, but there are more economical alternatives in the same general area. The Lonely Planet guide has the details. My location did make it easy to get to Fort Canning Park, a good short-period birding destination (more below).
I am usually of the "do-it-yourself" school of birding, for reasons both financial and temperamental. I have birded in Hong Kong, and less thoroughly in Tokyo, but never in South-East Asia proper. Sadly, I only had one full day to devote to birding. Fortunately, with the generous assistance of my brother John I was able to make an exception this time and hire a guide. Mr. R. Subaraj is a first rate guide for the Singapore and Malaysia region. His advertisements were familiar to me from Birding Magazine. In his ABA notes High Dingle strongly recommends Mr. Subaraj. I can now concur: Mr. Subaraj is knowledgeable, well organized, and very pleasant to be around. I also give him my highest recommendation.
A guide is certainly not mandatory in Singapore, but doing it on your own without prior experience could pose some problems, especially for those with limited time. Public transportation in Singapore is generally very good, but not necessarily to the best birding areas. Most of the more remote (and some of the best) areas either have no or very infrequent bus service Renting your own car is possible, but reportedly very expensive. Hiring a taxi for the day could work well, and would probably cost only a little more than the car rental, and without all the bother of navigation. Also, birding conditions change frequently in Singapore. The pace of "development" is incredibly rapid, and the balance of power between "developers" and environmentalists is heavily weighted toward destruction of increasingly scarce wildlife habitat. Many of yesterday's great birding destinations are now paved, ploughed or the site of a new luxury shopping mall. Other factors are the location and recognition or species, both infinitely easier with a guide. Ultimately it's a personal decision.
One do-it-yourself strategy would be to forego the lure of the long list of birds in Singapore, and just select one or possibly two good areas (e.g. morning in the Catchment area forest, and afternoon at Singei Buloh Nature Park). You wouldn't see as many birds as I report on here, and you would have many more hours of confusion and interesting and unidentifiable bird sounds, but you would be in lovely areas and see many, many bird species, perhaps 50 or so (more if you have some experience with birds of this area).
Now on to the actual birding!
In the 1st part of this trip report I covered general information and logistics. This part is an account of the actual birding.
On December 11, 1996 I had a couple of free hours before my first meetings (who needs breakfast when there are birds about!). I slipped out the door just before dawn (around 7 am in equatorial regions) to the sound of calling COMMON KOEL (got a good look at one), and walked around Fort Canning Park. There are scattered trees and grassy slopes, but no true forest. Other parks in Singapore are better for birds (e.g. the East Coast Park and Botanic Gardens), but take more time to get to. At first light there were various hoots and twitters that I couldn't conclusively identify. My first bird was of all things a WHITE-BRESTED WATERHEN scampering across the path. The doves were conspicuous, including SPOTTED and ROCK DOVES (how nice to see the Spotted Dove in it's original range) and RED TURTLE DOVE. A pair of BLACK-NAPED ORIOLE was dazzling. High overhead I could not make out precisely what species of small swifts and swallows were flying about.
Common birds included PHILIPPINE GLOSSY STARLING, HOUSE CROW, WHITE-VENTED (JAVAN) MYNA and EURASIAN TREE SPARROW. An ASIAN BROWN FLYCATCHER was flycatching at the top of a large tree. A mystery bird flew high overhead, later identified as a BLUE-TAILED BEE EATER. In flowering trees near Esplanade Park BROWN-THROATED SUNBIRDS were abundant.
I also enjoyed reading the many historical markers and watching central Singapore wake up. What the outing really did, however, was whet my appetite for the next day's full birding. At the last possible minute I raced back to the hotel for a quick shower and a day of meetings etc.
On December 12 I met Mr. Subaraj in the lobby of my hotel at 6 a.m. He introduced me to Richard, the driver of a cab that we had for the whole day. Mr. Subaraj had a well-conceived itinerary, and Richard would drop us off and pick us up as the schedule required. It allowed us to cover 6 major habitats all over the island in the course of the single day. We were dropped off at the edge of the Singapore Island Country Club just off Sime Road. As we walked down the dark pathway we could hear COLLARED SCOPS OWL and got a good look at two cooperative BROWN HAWK OWLs. We walked out onto the empty golf course to the sound of calling LARGE-TAILED NIGHTJARS, and were buzzed by a MALAYSIAN EARED NIGHTJAR. GREATER RACKET-TAILED DRONGOS cackled, blooped and beeped all over the place. We would see these well later.
We waited at the shore of MacRitchie Reservoir for some time and saw and heard dozens of species. Among the highlights were WHITE-BELLIED FISH EAGLE and a pair of GREY-HEADED FISH EAGLE. The latter species is quite scarce in Singapore, but local ornithologists have been watching this pair for some time. Other great birds included JAPANESE SPARROWHAWK, PINK-NECKED PIGEON, WHITE-THROATED and BLACK-CAPPED KINGFISHERS, a large flight of BLUE-TAILED BEE-EATERS, DOLLARBIRD, ASHY MINIVET and ARCTIC WARBLER. As we made our way into the nearby Sime Forest, a HODGSON'S HAWK-CUCKOO silently rose onto a nearby tree limb and froze for long views. As we walked by a small marshy area a four foot long Water Monitor lizard scampered into the water, and a SLATY-BREASTED RAIL slipped into the deep weeds. We could hear the pounding of a WHITE-BELLIED WOODPECKER (reminding me of the drumming of our Pileated Woodpecker) coming from deep in the forest, but were never able to get a look at this magnificent, but endangered creature.
The forest and marsh ecotone was also very favorable for birds, particularly bulbuls (YELLOW-VENTED, OLIVE-WINGED and CREAM-VENTED BULBULS), ORANGE-BELLIED FLOWERPECKER and many of the species seen at MacRitchie. I was particularly interested in the vine-like pitcher plants growing along a watercourse.
The forest itself was the way forests are--pockets of birds with long stretches of beautiful, quiet, forest. Where were the woodpeckers? We heard one BANDED WOODPECKER, but found no others, when there should have been up to a half dozen. In the forest we saw many other wonderful birds, including LONG-TAILED PARAKEET, SCARLET-BACKED FLOWERPECKER, BLACK-CRESTED, RED-EYED and ASHY BULBULS, and BROWN-THROATED and CRIMSON SUNBIRDS. A fruiting tree yielded EYEBROWED THRUSH and GREATER GREEN LEAFBIRD. In this same location I was finally able to find a convincing PACIFIC SWALLOW.
After stopping briefly for a delicious Indian breakfast/lunch, Richard next drove us out to Sungei Buloh Nature Park. Malaysia was just a few hundred yards across the Johor Straights. This area of brackish ponds, low trees and mangroves is a well-managed nature park. The park boasts excellent interpretive signs, first-rate nature center and shop, and an extensive trail system with blinds and boardwalks. We saw a large number of birds here, especially including the expected herons and shorebirds. Details are in the species list that follows in Part 3. Highlights were SCHRENCK'S BITTERN, stunning views of a perched and flying pair of BLACK BAZA, WHITE-BROWED CRAKE, COLLARED KINGFISHER (but alas, no Stork-billed Kingfisher) and OLIVE-BACKED SUNBIRD.
Our next destination, Serangoon Estuary, is the kind of place I would have been unlikely to go but for Mr. Subaraj's able guiding. The access is on a heavily used service road to a landfill. We were the lone car in a long line of huge dump trucks driving and stopping our way through a grim industrial area. Upon arrival at the end of the road, we slipped through a fence and pushed through tall grass to some settling ponds with a marvelous array of marsh and other birds, among which were YELLOW and CINNAMON BITTERN, BRAHMINY KITE, another WHITE-BELLIED FISH-EAGLE, BAILLON'S CRAKE, more shorebirds, COMMON KINGFISHER, BLACK DRONGO, ORIENTAL REED WARBLER, PALLAS'S GRASSHOPPER WARBLER (heard only), STREAKED WEAVER (not clear if escaped or wild population) and WHITE-HEADED MUNIA. Nearby, Richard stopped at a seemingly random spot along the road, we hopped over a fence and a drainage ditch, and were face to face with a GREATER PAINTED SNIPE, a bird that isn't really easy to find anywhere. PINTAIL SNIPE, ASIAN PALM-SWIFT, BROWN AND LONG-TAILED SHRIKE and RICHARD'S PIPIT were in a nearby field.
Next we made a brief stop at a Loyang Camp, near some kind of government facility. Although it was a quick stop, we found a single tall tree with a good sized flock of RED-BREASTED PARAKEET, dozens of the originally introduced but now well-established GOFFIN'S COCKATOO and COPPERSMITH BARBET. While admiring these birds a CRESTED HONEY-BUZZARD and BRAHMINY KITE FLEW BY.
After that was lunch/dinner in a food court in Changi (Chinese and local Singapore fare, washed down with fresh pineapple juice with big chunks of pineapple inside), then a brief attempt to bird bird some coastal sand flats near Changi, thwarted by--what else--new construction. We did see an unexpected COMMON BUZZARD near the airport runways. As the light waned we raced over to Tyersall Woods near the Botanic Garden. We walked down a shady ditch, and at a certain spot Mr. Subaraj instructed me to be absolutely still. While we waited, a DRONGO CUCKOO appeared on a branch nearby, and a CHANGEABLE HAWK-EAGLE called from overhead. Finally, a RED-LEGGED CRAKE silently appeared in the ditch below us. My silent pointing to the bird and raising my binoculars was enough to make it creep off into the deep foliage, not to be seen again.
Our last stop was a garage in central Singapore, where I could see the nests of EDIBLE-NEST SWIFTLETS. The only safe way to tell them from the very similar Black-nest swiftlet is by the construction of the nest. Alas, new doors had been installed on the garage, and the nests were no longer visible. I had to satisfy myself with a "most likely to be Edible-Nest" Swiftlet.
This was a truly magnificent birding day, one to remember always. Throughout the day, we discussed not only birds, but the state of ornithological research in Singapore, the dynamics of local bird clubs (it's the same story there as here--only a few of us do all the work!), and the environmental movement in that challenging environment. Anyone wishing to contact Mr. Subaraj can reach him at Blk 127, Tampines St. 11, #09-444, Singapore 521127, or by phone/fax at 065-787-7048.
The first parts of this trip report covered general strategy and a description of the birding itself. This part is an annotated list of species. Birds with a location code only were seen in good numbers in the appropriate habitat.
FC = Fort Canning Park.
LO = Loyang area, close to Changi on eastern part of island.
MR = MacRitchie Reservoir and adjoining fairways of the Singapore Island Country Club, access off Sime Road.
SF = Sime Forest including edge habitat to MacRitchie and forest paths.
SB = Sungei Buloh Nature Park, in northwestern part of island, off Neo Tiew Road, across Kranji Reservoir from the Bukit Timah Expressway.
SE = Serangoon Estuary on northeastern part of island, off Tampines Expressway, including settling ponds and nearby reclaimed land.
TW = Tyersall Woods, across Tyersall Road from the Botanic Garden
W = widespread, including urban areas.
9 - heard only
2 - seen, but better view desired
2 - seen, status uncertain
100 - seen, status certain
113 - total species
Burlingame, CA, USA
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