Better Birds, Birders and Birding Through Data (Singapore Edition)


Ask any experienced birder in Singapore about what’s the best and busiest month for birding and you’ll hear either October or November mentioned. After all, migratory birds are coming in fast and furious during this period. One must therefore ask the question, “Are there any studies done to establish whether these two months are indeed the best month for birding?” And if such a study exist, is it October, November or some other months? Now is as good a time as any to have find out.

Before that, let’s have two other interesting questions that are often asked. “Where are the best places for birding?”, “What’s the best time to photograph/observe birds?”. Almost everyone has thoughtful answers for them, based on their own experience and what have been passed on as common wisdom from more experienced birders. It’ll be good if we can get some hard data to confirm these as well.

Birding observation platforms like eBird or iNaturalist may provide some answers to these questions through the sheer amount of data they accumulate from birders over the years. I expect Raghav (our resident data wrangler) to provide some answers and more to these questions sooner or later, using his amazing number crunching skill.

In the meantime, playing the role of a citizen scientist, I am presenting another method here. Not as good, but simpler and tailored for photographers willing to undertake similar projects.

Most photos these days are taken with additional data (metadata) that reveals for example where and when the photo was taken. They also include what sort of camera settings that used to take these photos. When a smartphone is used to take photos, companies like Google and Apple make use of these metadata to customize and remind users of life events like past birthdays and anniversary photos for example (based on date and time encoded in photos), or maybe organize all photos taken on an overseas trip (based on location data encoded in photos) on their virtual album for the users to peruse through.

Using the same type of metadata on bird photos taken using camera gear specialized for that purpose, accumulating enough of them, and cataloging these photos and supplementing these with additional data (when necessary), one can build a mini database of information that allows more definite answers to the questions that were posed at the start of this article.

Methodology (briefly)

The base photos for this particular analysis located in a photo album posted online at

The album contains representative photos of all the Singapore bird species I have photographed and curated over 12 years of bird photography. At the time of analysis, there are 1248 photos over 368 species. To be clear, these are non-random photo selections based on my preferences and birding habits. Photo aesthetics and other technical considerations influenced the final photo set as well.

The program/app called EXIFTool ( is used to extract metadata of all the photos mentioned above and subsequently written to one XML file. The resulting XML file is imported into a database and through some SQL queries, tables and charts are prepared for presentation. The second step can be done in different ways. I am just outlining my general approach. Time and date-centred queries to the raw data from the photos were pared down to 11 full years starting from October 1, 2011 to September 30, 2022. The first year or so of birding wasn’t the most productive nor the most insightful, as lack of experience and a lot of trial and error on the author’s part probably distorted the data in that earlier timeframe.

Full disclosure: There are 5 photos with the wrong EXIF data information due to new camera misconfiguration. These were taken in November 2014 but the EXIF information showed October 2014. Those have been manually reassigned for the graph. The possibility always exist that human error can result in wrong interpretation of data. Luckily these errors were known ahead of time.

Results and analysis (with apologies to serious data scientist)

Best months for birding

A plot of month of the year vs number of photos. Click to see larger chart.

Let’s start with the assumption that bird and birding activity is correlated with the number of bird photographs posted in the album. Extracting and compiling the data on the date in which each photo was taken, we have the chart above.

Mid-year seems to have the least amount of activity locally, as migrant bird species are absent. It is a good time for birders to consider going overseas for birding. Activity start picking up during autumn migration from the north starting from July/August and reach its peak in the month of October. Hence the answer to the first question posed is October.

November and December are still active months for birding, but action tend to slow down in the new year. A modest rise in activity in March can be attributed to peak spring migration. where the migrant birds from the south return up north for their breeding season, passing briefly through Singapore.


Best time of the day for birding

A plot of time of the day vs number of photos. Click to see larger chart.

From the analysis of the time where each photo in the album was taken, we can deduce which hour is the most productive or unproductive for bird photography, and as a proxy, the best time of the day for birding.

The answer, which is from 8am up to 10am is in line with expectation or conventional wisdom. Likewise, there is a distinct lack of birding activity in the afternoon and a slight upturn in activity in the evening from 4pm to 6pm peaking at 5pm.

Due to the restriction in place for access to the nature reserves, nighttime birding is not easy nor productive, and save for some owl species, not worth the effort.


Best sites for birding

Screenshot of the number of photos taken overlayed on the map of Singapore. Click on the map to bring you to the live site.

This is a screenshot of a web page generated using the same dataset used in the previous two analysis, with the help of a plugin for the photo website called Piwigo-openstreetmap. The URL contain the GPS location of all the bird photos in the album.

Let’s talk about the photos and their GPS coordinates. Some of these photos were encoded with built-in GPS capability in the camera (Canon EOS 7D Mk II, Canon EOS 1DX Mk II), some were from external GPS device attached to the camera (Nikon D500), some were encoded via GPS sent through the camera from the smartphone through connecting app (Sony Alpha 1, Sony Alpha 9, Canon EOS R5). Lastly, for photos taken with older camera models, i.e. photos prior to 2014, manual GPS encoding were done through memory of the places, sometimes with the help of old maps using Google Earth. This does alter the selection of photos, as I may have forgotten the precise location of some older photos and cannot put in the corresponding GPS coordinates. Hence some ‘worthy’ older photos were excluded from the photo album.

From the screenshot, the best site for birding is at the Central Catchment/Bukit Timah/Dairy Farm area. There is a particular bias in the data towards a location at Jelutong Tower, as I spent a lot of time photographing forest birds and migratory raptors at that particular location.

Pulau Ubin, Sungei Buloh/Kranji, Seletar/Punggol/Lorong Halus and Marina East/Southern Ridges areas are also noteworthy hotspots for birding.

Since the dataset is navigable through the website, it is best for those interested in specific data to explore the URL listed above for more information.


Most commonly used shutter speed

Plot of shutter speed settings vs number of photos. Click to see larger chart.

For most parts, the photoset on the website consist of photos taken handheld. Most static photos of birds are taken at the most optimal handheld shutter speed that maximises the chance of good quality photo yet remain as noise-free as possible. A shutter speed between 1/125-1/200s is my preferred option. Hence the peak at that range.

Anything below until 1/30s probably meant the birds were obliging enough, and lower lighting conditions that necessitate a lower shutter speed and consequently less odds of getting sharp photos. At 1/15s and below, shots were taken on a tripod which shutter release cable for low light conditions. Shots taken between approximately 1/250-1/1000s meant a higher probability of active birds, or action shots. The shots taken at 1/2000s and beyond are mainly flight shots.


Most commonly used ISO settings

Plot of ISO settings vs number of photos. Click to see larger chart.

A website that tries to showcase the best representation of local birds would naturally emphasise quality photos over ones that are sub-optimal. Hence the dominance of lower ISO shots especially ISO 100 which is the base ISO for most cameras.

A slight increase at ISO 400-ISO 640 can be explained by the prominence of properly exposed flight shots on sunny days with that ISO range being used.

Although modern camera can give good photos up to ISO 6400 in some cases, bird photography is a special case. This is because while an ISO 6400 shot is acceptable if the bird subject fills the frame with no cropping, the reality is that even at 600mm full frame, most wild birds in Singapore do not fill the frame. In fact, many photos in the album are 100% crop, meaning they are cropped all the way. At such distance and at such extreme crop, high ISO photos are not the best looking. Hence the preference for lower ISO shots.

Context matters in the type of photos selected. Wild bird photos in Singapore are not taken in managed environment (like hides or feeding stations). And in many cases of uncommon or rare birds (which is a focus on the website photos), sometimes there are only a few chances given to photograph the subject. They may be very distant, taken under lower light in uncommon habitat, in the case of rare birds, with many birders squeezed in tight space with limited views, or other sub-optimal conditions.


Camera brands and models used in the photo album

Make/Brand Model Photo Count
Canon Canon EOS 5DS 23
Canon Canon EOS 70D 2
Canon Canon EOS 7D 67
Canon Canon EOS 7D Mark II 29
Canon Canon EOS R5 16
Canon Canon EOS-1D Mark IV 124
Canon Canon EOS-1D X 206
Canon Canon EOS-1D X Mark II 158
SONY ILCE-6400 2

One may be tempted to imagine that there are great insights to be had in looking at a table like the above. One may argue that the Canon brand is pretty dominant in bird photography due to the sheer number of models represented, or that the Sony Alpha 1 is excellent for bird photography due to the fact that on a model basis, it has the highest number of photos on the website.

Such conclusion cannot be justified by this table, because context matters. All cameras are used by only one photographer. Canon is overrepresented because in the past the author used camera for that brand exclusively for the longest time (and still does occasionally). The Sony A1 has the most entries because pre-2014 camera did not have GPS data, and some good photos cannot be posted from those models because the precise location cannot be ascertained. Camera technology have also advanced greatly, hence photos taken in recent years regardless of brands and models are overrepresented because the success rate for ‘good’ photos have greatly increased.

So what else can actually be interpreted from the above table? Well for one, there are too many cameras bought for the relatively small number of photos posted!


It has been fun to dig into the metadata provided by the website/photo album. Most of the results presented here are broadly in line with expectations. A larger dataset would have been helpful to get finer grained results. But we’ll leave that to another day. Hopefully what’s been presented has been insightful to others especially newer birders. Happy birding everyone!

Bird List Revision for January 2021

The latest revision of the Singapore Bird List is now derived from IOC World Bird List Version 11.1. The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.

The following are the major changes:

  1. Addition: Common Swift – First record of a single bird on 9 October 2020 at Jelutong Tower, Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Second record of a single bird on 27 October 2020 at Henderson Waves.
  2. Addition: Hair-crested Drongo: – First record of a single bird seen at Changi Business Park on 26 November 2019.
  3. Taxonomic change: Resequence Family Anatidae (Ducks, Geese, Swans) to come before Family Phasianidae (Pheasants & Allies) in accordance to standard sequencing protocol adopted elsewhere.

Pelagic Bird Trip at the Singapore Strait – 20 September 2020

This year, the pandemic has generally been a restrictive affair for birding. During spring migration, our pelagic trips were cancelled as tighter restrictions meant most of us were working from home, and recreational activities were generally prohibited.

Since then, as the COVID-19 pandemic has been somewhat under control in Singapore, certain restrictions were eased. It is now possible to go out for recreational activities in a group of five, if proper precautions are taken. Cross border travel is still generally not possible without significant penalty.

On 20 September, 2020, a group of five bird photographers decided to take a boat trip along the Singapore Strait without sailing through international waters. As usual we chartered our boat from Alex of Summit Marine System.

The plan was to travel towards Pulau Tekong from Sentosa and then make a loop back. We thought it’ll be good to have a closer look at Pulau Tekong as we have not seen it  up close from the sea before. The journey started just before 8am and lasted six and a half hours.

Pulau Tekong
Reclamation work on Pulau Tekong.

Birding was generally quieter closer to the coast compared to our normal pelagic route. We noticed generally less commercial shipping activities. Some recreational fishing boats were sighted along the Changi-Pulau Ubin stretch. The sea was generally calm and cloud cover over the majority of the trip made for easier birding , especially in the late morning and early afternoon.

Pulau Sekudu aka Frog Island off Pulau Ubin

More importantly birding wise, to our relief, we did see some migratory seabirds along the way. Chief among them were good numbers of Aleutian Terns that seems to make the Singapore Strait one of their minor wintering ground.

Aleutian Tern
Aleutian Tern at Singapore Strait.

Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels also made their appearances although we probably missed their main group this time around, or perhaps they were mainly flying further outwards towards international waters.

Swinhoe's Storm Petrel
Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel at Singapore Strait

Another significant migratory bird species seen were a few White-winged Terns seen inland at Pulau Tekong and at the buoys situated between Pulau Tekong and mainland Singapore.

White-winged Tern and Black-naped Terns
A single White-winged Tern on the right and two Black-naped Terns perched on a buoy.

Other terns species seen include the usual Little Terns, Black-naped Terns and Greater Crested Terns.

Little Tern
Little Tern at Singapore Strait. This is a more coastal species.
Black-naped Tern
Black-naped Tern at the waters between Singapore and Pulau Tekong.
Greater Crested Tern
A distant Greater Crested Tern at Singapore Strait.

Since it’s a new route, we’re still figuring out how best to optimise future trips. The restriction on the number of people per boat also meant the charges are more expensive, requiring more commitment to participate in such trips.

Brahminy KIte
A pair of Brahminy Kites at Sisters’ Islands. Last birds of the trip.

Checklist for the birds seen is available here:

Bird List Revision for August 2020

The latest revision of the Singapore Bird List is now derived from IOC World Bird List Version 10.2. The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.

The following are the major changes:

  1. Addition: Shikra: – A single juvenile bird reported flying pass at Jelutong Tower on 21 November 2019 represent the first confirmed record for this very rare vagrant in Singapore.
  2. Addition: White-bellied Erpornis – A single bird was seen at Bukit Timah summit on 16 June 2020. This is Singapore’s first confirmed sighting of this very rare non-breeding visitor.
  3. Addition: White-faced Plover – Subspecies dealbatus of Kentish Plover has been elevated to full species and named White-faced Plover in accordance to IOC Bird List version 10.2.
  4. English Name change: Red Collared Dove – Red Turtle Dove’s English Name has been changed to Red Collared Dove in accordance to IOC Bird List version 10.2.
  5. Taxonomic change: Slaty-breasted Rail‘s scientific name changed to Lewinia striata.
  6. Taxonomic change: Baillon’s Crake‘s scientific name changed to Zapornia pusilla.
  7. Taxonomic change: Ruddy-breasted Crake‘s scientific name changed to Zapornia fusca.
  8. Taxonomic change: Band-bellied Crake‘s scientific name changed to Zapornia paykullii.
  9. Taxonomic change: White-browed Crake‘s scientific name changed to Poliolimnas cinereus.
  10. Taxonomic change: Black-and-white Bulbul‘s scientific name changed to Microtarsus melanoleucos.
  11. Taxonomic change: Black-headed Bulbul‘s scientific name changed to Brachypodius melanocephalos.
  12. Taxonomic change: Black-crested Bulbul‘s scientific name changed to Rubigula flaviventris.
  13. Taxonomic change: Chestnut-winged Babbler‘s scientific name changed to Cyanoderma erythropterum.
  14. Taxonomic change: Pin-striped Tit-Babbler‘s scientific name changed to Mixornis gularis.
  15. Taxonomic change: Short-tailed Babbler‘s scientific name changed to Pellorneum malaccense.
  16. Taxonomic change: White-chested Babbler‘s scientific name changed to Pellorneum rostratum.

Bird List Revision for March 2020

This is the latest revision of the Singapore Bird List dated 14 March 2020. The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.

The following are the major changes:

  1. Addition: White-cheeked Starling: – A single bird first reported at Picadilly, Seletar on 16 January 2020, which represent the first confirmed record for this very rare vagrant in Singapore.
  2. Addition: Brahminy Starling – Six past records of this species have been recorded in Singapore; on February 2008 (Marina East), October 2008 (Marina East), December 2003 (Bidadari), February 2016 (Punggol Barat), September 2016 (Gardens by the Bay) and January 2020 (Jurong Lake Gardens). A recently published paper (Soe Naing et al 2016) has indicated that this species is now a somewhat regular winter vagrant to Southeast Asia.
  3. Addition: Chinese Blackbird – A single Chinese Blackbird was seen and photographed at Jurong Lake Gardens on 11 February 2020. This is the most southernly sighting of this migratory bird.
  4. Addition: Oriental Turtle Dove – A single Oriental Turtle Dove was seen and photographed at Sisters’ Island on 28 November 2018 during an island survey. Details of this sighting only emerged recently.
  5. Deletion: Richard’s Pipit has now been deleted from the checklist. Upon further investigation and request for identification from pipit bird experts, the photos taken for that sighting is insufficient to positively identify the  bird as this species. However it is possible that it may be a very rare vagrant. The chase continues for this species.
  6. Other changes: The Malay names of many species have been updated in accordance to the latest revision by Mr Tou Jing Yi.

Bird List Revision for January 2020

The latest revision of the Singapore Bird List is now derived from IOC World Bird List Version 10.1. The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.

The following are the major changes:

  1. Addition: Taiga Flycatcher: – A single bird first reported at Singapore Botanical Gardens on 1 December 2019 represent the first confirmed record for this very rare vagrant.
  2. Replacement: Japanese Tit – The Japanese Tit replaces the misidentified Cinereous Tit from the previous record and sighting at Tuas South. Further sightings of 2 birds at Pasir Ris Park also on 1 December 2019, together with past sighting of this species at Chinese Garden on October 2011 further support its inclusion into the list.
  3. Taxonomic change: Eurasian Whimbrel – Whimbrel is now split into Eurasian Whimbrel and Hudsonian Whimbrel, and Eurasian Whimbrel is the expected species in the region.
  4. Taxonomic change: Black Bittern‘s scientific name changed to Ixobrychus flavicollis.
  5. Taxonomic change: Green Broadbill‘s family name changed to Calyptomenidae.

The sightings of the Blue Whistling Thrush at Fort Canning Park on 7 December 2019, and the White-cheeked Starling at Picadilly, Seletar on 16 January 2020 has been noted. No decision has been made on their inclusion into the list at present.

Bird List revision for November 2019

The third revision of the Singapore Bird List for 2019 is now available at our website. There are now 408 birds recorded in our list. The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.

There are four new species added in this revision.

Pied Stilt
2 stilts were first observed on 16 July 2019 at Pulau Tekong. Subsequent observations revealed a total of 4 adult Pied Stilts, together with 4 immatures. Nesting was observed with subsequent hatching of a further 3 chicks. Birds were observed at the location until 23 August 2019 when they subsequently disappeared. The closest location to Singapore for Pied Stilts prior to the discovery is in southern Sumatra.

Cinereous Tit
A single bird was seen at Tuas South on 5 November 2019 in the morning. The nearest population is in Kuala Selangor, Malaysia and Sumatra, Indonesia.

Fairy Pitta
A juvenile was seen and photographed near Dillenia Hut on 8 November 2019. Wintering population has been reported in Borneo.

Daurian Redstart
A male was photographed twice at Singapore Botanical Gardens’ Eco Lake area on 12 November 2019. This represent the third record for the species. Previous record of a female at Satay by the Bay in 2013 and a male at a private residence along Cashew Rd in 2014 were taken into consideration in accepting this record into the list.

The other change in this revision is a major revamp of Malay bird names as per communication with Mr. Tou Jing Yi.

Update 21 November 2019: Minor corrections for Malay bird names

Bird List Revision for May 2019

A minor revision to the checklist to cover changes and corrections to the Malay names of bird species. The changes are as follows (new Malay names in bracket):

Red Junglefowl (Ayam-Hutan Biasa)
Malaysian Plover (Rapang Pantai Melayu)
Oriental Plover (Rapang Padang Asia Timur)
Whimbrel (Kendi Gajah)
Little Curlew (Kendi Kerdil Asia)
Far Eastern Curlew (Kendi Besar Timur)
Eurasian Curlew (Kendi Besar Biasa)
Bar-tailed Godwit (Kedidi-Raja Ekor Belang)
Black-tailed Godwit (Kedidi-Raja Ekor Hitam)
Temminck’s Stint (Kedidi-Kerdil Ekor Panjang)
Sanderling (Kedidi Tiga Jari)
Little Stint (Kedidi-Kerdil Perang)
Eurasian Woodcock (Berkik-Besar Erasia)
Common Snipe (Berkik Kipas Erasia)
Swinhoe’s Snipe (Berkik Siberia Selatan)
Spotted Redshank (Kedidi Kaki Merah Hitam)
Common Redshank (Kedidi Kaki Merah Biasa)
Grey-rumped Treeswift (Layang-layang Berjambul Pinggul Pudar)
Whiskered Treeswift (Layang-layang Berjambul Kecil)
Beach Stone-curlew (Kedidi-Malam Besar Pantai)
Parasitic Jaeger (Camar-Lanun Paruh Lampai)
Malayan Night Heron (Pucung-Harimau Ubun Hitam)
Jerdon’s Baza (Helang-Gerigi Perang)
Black Baza (Helang-Gerigi Hitam)
Short-toed Snake-Eagle (Helang-Ular Utara)
Grey-faced Buzzard (Helang-Rintik Utara)
Eastern Marsh Harrier (Helang-Sawah Biasa)
Brahminy Kite (Helang-Tembikar Merah)
Booted Eagle (Helang Junam Kecil)
Imperial Eagle (Helang Tengkuk Kuning Biasa)
Amur Falcon (Rajawali Kaki Merah Timur)
Eurasian Hobby (Rajawali Tongkeng Merah Utara)
Oriental Hobby (Rajawali Api Asia)
Pheasant-tailed Jacana (Burung-Teratai Ekor Panjang)
Lesser Adjutant (Burung-Botak Kecil)

We will like to thank Mr Tou Jing Yi for the updated list.

The link below is for the Excel version of the Singapore Bird List
Singapore Bird List 2019 Revision 2

Bird List Revision for March 2019

The latest revision of the Singapore Bird List is now derived from IOC World Bird List Version 9.1.

Changes are as follow:

  1. Addition: Black-headed Bunting – A single bird seen at Kranji Marsh/Neo Tiew Harvest Lane on 18th November 2018 (Martin Kennewell and friends). There are doubts about the condition of tail feathers, but the occurrence of other Black-headed Buntings during the same period including at least four on Mantanani Island off Sabah, Malaysia, one in Itbayat Island, Philippines and a couple in Thailand – makes for a compelling case that it’s a genuine vagrant. A search in the various bird shops did not yield any bunting species for sale.
  2. Replacement: Swinhoe’s White-eye takes the place of Oriental White-eye due to new revision on white-eyes taxonomy. (Lim, B.T.M., Sadanandan, K.R., Dingle, C. et al. J Ornithol (2019) 160: 1. Molecular evidence suggests radical revision of species limits in the great speciator white-eye genus Zosterops)
  3. Taxonomic change: Spoon-billed Sandpiper‘s scientific name changed to Calidris pygmaea
  4. Language revision: Chinese names of the following birds have been revised: Common Moorhen, Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, Eastern Barn Owl, Plume-toed Swiftlet, Blue-winged Pitta, Buff-vented Bulbul and Black-crested Bulbul

The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.

Bird List Revision for November 2018

The fourth revision of the Singapore Bird List for 2018 is now available at our website. The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.

There are two new species added in this revision.

Large Woodshrike
A female Large Woodshrike was seen at Jelutong Tower on the morning of 22 October 2018. This species was reported as a former resident of Singapore until at least the 1940s in the Bukit Timah area. There were additional unconfirmed records in 1970 from Changi, unfortunately without supporting evidence. It is highly likely the species have been extirpated in Singapore for a long time, and the newly recorded bird is a non-breeding visitor to the island. Perhaps it is a post-breeding dispersant or a wandering bird.

Large Woodshrike at Jelutong Tower. Photo credit: Francis Yap

Eurasian Skylark
A lone juvenile Eurasian Skylark was seen along the bund of Pandan Reservoir on 3 November 2018. Just a day before, a similar juvenile was recorded at Mantatani Island in Sabah, Malaysia.

Its inclusion to the Singapore list is not a given though. Various species of larks are sold and bought in Singapore. Although there is currently no evidence of juvenile Eurasian Skylarks being offered for sale, the possibility cannot be ruled out. However, the concurrent sighting in Mantatani does strengthen the case of the bird being a genuine vagrant. Furthermore, the seen bird’s feathers seemed to exhibit no abnormal wear which would indicate captivity. On balance, the evidence suggest that particular skylark is a good candidate for inclusion to the list.

Eurasian Skylark at Pandan Reservoir. Photo credit: Francis Yap

Other changes in the Singapore Bird List in accordance with IOC World Bird List version 8.2 are as follows:

  1. Lesser Cuckooshrike has been reassigned to genus Lalage following Jønsson et al, 2010.
  2. Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler has been reassigned to genus Helopsaltes following Alström et al, 2018.
  3. Moved Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike and Large Woodshrike to Family Vangidae.
  4. Resequenced Campephagidae (Cuckooshrikes) and Phylloscopidae (Leaf Warblers and allies) families.