2022 was perhaps an improved year from a Singapore birding perspective – we could enjoy our feathered friends with more comfort compared to the previous two years thanks to the still ongoing incredible efforts to combat the global pandemic. The was a year filled with excitement ranging from the many Himalayan Vultures spilling over from last year, irruption of rarities at Chek Jawa, and a raptor watching season with an abundance of Pied Harriers (including one long staying that offered great photo opportunities) and a more than average numbers of Short-toed Snake-eagles and Besra/Shikra sparrowhawks. Three new species were added to Singapore’s checklist: Black-backed Swamphen (that prompted a review of an older record), Black-headed Ibis and Brown-breasted Flycatcher.
All these records of local rarities are properly documented and curated in our database, and we’re thankful to all of you who have submitted your records. By combining these with other citizen science efforts, this year we’ve also started preparing monthly roundups, accurate bar charts, and various tools to guide everyone’s birding journey. While keeping up with the busy birding scene we’re also glad to have started organising guided walks and booths. Three walks at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, as well as three weeks worth of raptor watching at the Henderson Waves bridge.
More people are showing an interest in biodiversity and many have joined our birding community this year, a trend we’re happy to see. We believe that this energy can be channelled into improving our knowledge on birds as well as into conservation. We hope that the Singapore Birds Project’s works have come in handy and thank all of you for the overwhelming support. See you in the field next year and happy birding!
On 1 November 2022, excitement spread through our local birding community when Art Toh shared his sighting from Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve of a white ibis donning a black head. Birders headed down to get a glimpse of the bird which thankfully stayed for several days, allowing many to observe it. The Singapore Bird Records Committee took some time to evaluate the record and we assessed that this individual is likely to be Singapore’s first documented individual of a wild Black-headed IbisThreskiornis aethiopicus.
How was the bird identified?
There are several species similar to the Black-headed Ibis such as the African Sacred Ibis T. aethiopicus, Australian Ibis T. molucca and Malagasy Sacred Ibis T. bernieri. These four species were previously all thought to be one species, then called the Sacred Ibis, until works including the evaluation of their plumage differences established that they were distinct from one another (Lowe & Richards, 1991).
The range restricted Malagasy Sacred Ibis can be differentiated from the other three by its white iris among other features. However, the Australian Ibis and African Sacred Ibis look quite similar to the Black-headed Ibis. Differences between them include their bill size, which can sometimes be difficult to assess in the field. How should we identify the Sungei Buloh bird then?
The magic is in the small details: one of the key features to look out for is the primary pattern – the black markings are restricted to tips of the three outermost primaries in Black-headed Ibis, unlike that in the African and Australian Ibis that are more extensive. Additionally, the tertial feathers in Black-headed Ibis is grey, as opposed to black in African and Australian Ibis.
Comparing the “Sungei Buloh Ibis” with photographs of known Black-headed Ibises shows that the features fit this species perfectly instead.
Is the Sungei Buloh Black-headed Ibis a wild bird or an escapee?
Now that we’ve identified the bird, then comes the question of its provenance. Interestingly, the Sungei Buloh bird is actually not the first Black-headed Ibis seen in Singapore! This species used to be sighted locally back in the ~80s but were then thought to be escapees from the Jurong Bird Park (Wang & Hails, 2007). Today, the Mandai Wildlife Reserve makes an effort to ring all birds, and there are no free-flying Black-headed Ibises as far as we understand. Sungei Buloh’s Black-headed Ibis had no rings on its leg, making it unlikely that it originated from the Jurong Bird Park.
Where could the bird have come from, then? The Black-headed Ibis has a patchy range and inhabits wetlands from South Asia all the way to Indonesia. In Thailand, they are resident in the southern parts and disperse in the winter months (Treesucon & Limparungpatthanakij). Slightly closer in Peninsula Malaysia, there might have been wild breeding populations in the past, but if any were extirpated nearly a century ago (Wells, 1999; Puan et al., 2020). There are now only very occasional sightings along the landmass (such as this record). Meanwhile in Sumatra and Java, the populations used to be very robust but have declined dramatically in the past few decades (Iqbal & Hasudungan, 2012). The birds there are, however, thankfully still present (Muhammad Iqbal, personal communications).
It is still difficult for us to establish whether the bird came from the north or from the Indonesian population. Several waterbirds like the Pied Stilt and Javan Plover have made their way from the Indonesian Archipelago. At the same time, there was, interestingly, yet another sighting of a Black-headed Ibis near Malacca just 3.5 weeks after the Sungei Buloh bird. This sighting bolsters our decision that the Sungei Buloh bird was likely from a wild origin, and might provide hints to where it could have arrived from.
Wherever the bird flew over from, we hope that it’ll successfully find some friends and return to a colony to breed safely. And who knows, we might get more of them visiting us in the future!
We would like to express our gratitude to Art for sharing the sighting very promptly, and also thank Adrian, Bao Shen and Cheng Teng for photo contributions.
Lowe, K. W., & Richards, G. C. (1991). Morphological Variation in the Sacred Ibis Threskironis aethiopicus Superspecies Complex. Emu, 91(1), 41-45.
Puan, C. L., Davison, G., & Lim, K. C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia: Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Treesucon, U., & Limparungpatthanakij, W. (2018). Birds of Thailand. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Wang, L. K., & Hails, C. J. (2007). An annotated checklist of the birds of Singapore. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement, 15, 1–179. Link
A recent publication in the Journal of Ornithology has some interesting new data on the breeding seasons of Singapore’s birds, and if you are an avid contributor to eBird, your observations might be a part of it.
Singapore has an incredibly dedicated birding community, and many birders share their observations of nests, baby birds, and fledglings. All those observations were taken together with half a decade of mist-netting data collected by the Avian Evolution Lab at NUS and the National Parks Board to outline the breeding season in Singapore.
If you look hard enough you can find birds building nests in Singapore just about any month of the year, but you’re much more likely to succeed if you go looking in March – that’s when most insectivores like Malaysian Pied Fantails and frugivores like Coppersmith Barbets and Black-naped Orioles are constructing nests. Granivores like Baya Weavers nest a bit later in the year, the best chance to catch them constructing their charismatic hanging nests is in June. You’re most likely to come across active nests with unhatched eggs if you go looking in April or May. June to July is the best time to see parents feeding their fledglings, and very young birds still chasing their parents begging for food. By the time August comes around the breeding season is over, but if your field ID is particularly good you might be able to recognise juvenile birds still in their first set of flight feathers.
It’s always exciting to see nests and baby birds but remember not to get too close. Its stressful enough being a parent.
Another example of a very widespread frugivorous species, the Black-naped Oriole. They are very common in Singapore, but finding their nest takes a bit of effort! Photo credit: Goh Cheng Teng
Granivorous species like the Baya Weaver , known for their intricate nests, tend to breed later in the year. Photo credit: Keita Sin, taken in Malaysia
Insectivorous birds like the Malaysian Pied Fantail that likes to nest near waterbodies often nest around March. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Frugivorous birds like the Coppersmith Barbet tend to nest around March too. Photo credit: Goh Cheng Teng
And so it’s been a year since we launched the Singapore Bird Database. Time really flies. This time a year ago, the Fairy Pitta at Hindhede Nature Park that we queued for was already gone, and many of us were busy chasing Singapore’s first proper documentation of the Grey-streaked Flycatcher.
Nostalgia feels good, but for now, let me share some updates on our database.
Our database was launched to provide a platform where anybody can easily find relevant information regarding rare bird species in Singapore. Since then, we’ve received over 25,000 views on our database website, and we’re glad that many of you have found our work useful. For those who are keen to find out how our platform came to life, you can check out our blog post or detailed write-up.
Information available in our database has almost doubled over the past year, and it now contains over 2000 records from more than 180 species. While many were compiled from social media archives, publications, and past eBird records, nearly 300 were submitted by none other than all of you – birders in the field – to which we would like to express our huge thanks to. 300 submissions, only for rare birds! All of these submitted records were evaluated by our Singapore Bird Records Committee team, whose latest works are constantly updated in our Recent RC Decisions page. We’ve been very busy – a happy problem because it means that our community has been finding a lot of good birds!
Moving on to how the Singapore Bird Records Committee has evolved since then, first, we have developed an operational guideline that can be viewed in a Q&A format here. Second, we are renaming the term “Rarity” to “Review Species” in our checklist. It might sound like a matter of semantics, so allow us to explain. Our Records Committee makes a concerted effort to properly evaluate and document records of birds that one might not necessarily think is that rare. Say, Pied Harrier. This is an annually recorded raptor, but in numbers small enough that warrants celebration. This season, we seem to be witnessing a strange spike in their numbers for reasons unknown, and patterns like this will be missed if not for proper efforts. Another good example is the form of Barn Swallows with rufous underparts. we occasionally observe At present, we don’t even know which subspecies actually arrive here, but what we do know is that they are rare in Singapore, and that records keeping would be essential for future generations to have a point of reference when the ornithological community one day have a better understanding of these birds. In principle our workflow stays the same, and so we’d greatly appreciate it if you could submit your encounters. This terminology change will be reflected in our Species Pages as well in due time.
Our database has changed in more ways than one, and here is a comparison of how it looked 1 year ago versus today. Besides new features and useful tools, the layout now emphasises images and is more colourful and easy to use. An archived version of our website from Nov 2021 is available here.
Last, our database works have extended beyond collating records, and we’ve designed useful tools for everybody’s birding activity. Our Monthly Roundups provide accurate information on interesting species documented each month, and our bar charts can help you plan your birding itinerary to best target the species that you really want to see. If you’re hungry to find the next Mega in Singapore, you can also refer to our On This Day page to find gems from the past.
Moving forward, we aim to revisit all of our Species Pages for further improvements, and also plan to expand our database and website to include more species. If you have ideas for collaboration or are keen to help out with our work, don’t feel shy to get in touch with us!
I’d wrap up this update with the most important bit, the acknowledgements.
See all those Monthly Roundups and Bar Charts? They didn’t just fall out of the sky (though the birds did) – they were possible thanks to the tech-wizardry of Raghav, to whom we extend our utmost gratitude.
See those crazy numbers of historical records newly compiled in our database? They were collated and scrutinised by our amazing Singapore Bird Project teammates Clarice, Geraldine, Jenwei, Jing Ying, Hong Yao, Hui Zhen, Raghav, and Zachary. Massive, massive thank you for the hard work – checking through all those records is really not easy.
And lastly, to all the birders for your all-rounded support and for sharing and submitting your sightings – the Singapore Bird Records Committee thanks all of you.
See you all in the field and happy birding!
PS, IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
We were invited by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum to give a talk about our database in March 2022. Check it out too if you couldn’t join us!
Regardless of where you come from, you’re missing out on the Singaporean experience if have you never queued long long for food before. And it seems that our locally found parrots know that too! Here are some intriguing observations on the feeding behaviour of three parrot species – Tanimbar Corella, Coconut Lorikeet and Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot.
By Muhammad Nasry
Earlier this year, an alert that a stretch of mango trees around the Alexandra Village area was fruiting and attracting Coconut Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus began circulating online, featuring eye-level shots of this colourful parrot happily munching away at the fruit. Naturally, this attracted a whole horde of birders, myself included. Having lived near the area since birth but blithely unaware of the existence of these mango trees, I was a little embarrassed for not realising sooner, but excited by the discovery of a new birding spot just minutes from my doorstep.
And so I visited. Again. And again. And again.
Over the course of several visits I began to notice an odd pattern in terms of the foraging behaviour of some of the birds there. Consistently, this feeding pattern repeated itself over and over.
The first to arrive was usually the Tanimbar Corellas Cacatua goffiniana. These parrots seemed to prefer feeding on the outermost bits of the mango fruit, only occasionally reaching deeper into the mango for more of the pulp.
Second on the scene was typically the star attraction: the Coconut Lorikeets. They would pick up where the corellas had left off, peeling off what remained of the fruit skin. They would then proceed to rip apart the rest of the fruit (as parrots do) while eating, with the bits of fruit either being scattered on the surrounding foliage or dropping straight to the ground.
The lorikeets were often seen foraging in pairs, with the occasional dispute breaking out between pairs over mangoes. There were up to three pairs seen at the same area at any one time. In one instance, one of the pair was feeding while the other stood guard, screaming its head off to ward off any would-be usurpers of the coveted mangoes.
This feeding order was generally consistent – each parrot species usually came to feed only after the previous one had left. Competition due to size differences may explain this pecking order (pardon the pun), given that the corellas are the largest, and hanging parrots the smallest. The issue with this theory is that there were plenty of mangoes to go around, many of them a similar shade of green as the ones being eaten (which presumably indicates they were equally edible) and therefore competition was not necessary. However, the hanging parrots seemed to pass up these seemingly fine mangoes in favour of those that had already been opened by the two introduced parrot species. Perhaps letting the bigger parrots do the hard work of opening up the unripe mangoes may be more convenient for them – they may have to use a lot more effort with their comparatively smaller beaks to open up the mangoes on their own.
The messy eating habits of the parrots did not go unnoticed by other animals; there were intermittent visits to the mangoes (or to the bits of mango strewn around on the branches) by other common urban species, which included:
It is interesting that the feeding behaviour of the introduced parrot species benefited other wildlife species (birds or otherwise). It may be possible that many more species may benefit from such interactions in other habitat types as well. Ground-dwelling fruit-eaters like the Asian Emerald Dove or Lesser Mousedeer may benefit from the bits of fruit scattered around the forest floor thanks to the parrots’ poor table manners. Of course, these interactions took place in a relatively urban habitat next to a busy road – generalisations to less developed habitats would not be wise without further study.
Nasry, M. (2022) Biodiversity Record: Observations of some urban birds feeding on mango fruit. Nature in Singapore, 15, e2022095. URL
The latest update of our checklist, version 2022-2, has been published. It can be accessed at our Downloads page.
Since our last checklist update in February 2022, the Records Committee has considered and voted on 80records of rare birds in Singapore. We would like to thank all the observers who submitted their records, and these votes are published on our Recent Decisions page with our Live Checklist tracking additions and deletions to the checklist on a live basis.
We have also launched monthly roundups, published every month, to update the community on the latest sightings every month. Many of these incorporate sightings from our database in addition to eBird sightings, so we would also like to thank those who have contributed by sharing their observations.
Nearly 200 historical records have also been added to our database since February. This is all thanks to the work of our Records Gathering team, comprising Clarice Yan, Geraldine Lee, Hong Yao Lim, Hui Zhen Tan, Kee Jing Ying, Yip Jen Wei, and Zachary Chong, who have meticulously trawled social media, eBird, and other publications for important historical records. This work is still under way, with a further 130 records on track to be uploaded within the next one week, and the updated compilation status for each species is always available in our Rarities List.
Our Records Committee’s operating guidelines have been formalised as well, and will be published on our site in the coming weeks.
This article includes the updates to our checklist since our last revision in February 2022. Our checklist is based on the International Ornithological Committee (IOC) taxonomy, and this version is based on IOC 12.2. This is the latest taxonomical version and was finalised this month.
This edition of the checklist is version 2022-2, and can be downloaded at our Downloads page. There are now 427 species in the Singapore Bird Checklist with the species additions in this update.
Masked Booby Sula dactylatra [Record 383]: The committee reevaluated one record of a bird rescued from the Pan Island Expressway in August 2018, and determined it was most likely a legitimate record. The species was added to Category A.
Black-backed Swamphen Pophyrio indicus[Record 10281]: One sighting of a bird at Changi Business Park was the first confirmed record of this species in Singapore. Features noted by the committee in accepting this record included the shape of the frontal shield as well as the dark head colour, which indicated this was not a Grey-headed Swamphen P. poliocephalus instead. We have identified some past sightings which may also pertain to this species and intend to review them as well in the coming months.
Removed from checklist
No species were removed.
Other minor changes
Western and Eastern Osprey are lumped, so Western Osprey in our checklist is changed to Osprey.
In the winter of 2014/2015, Singapore experienced a flood of Cinereous Bulbuls and Streaked Bulbuls. An influx of some sort, it seemed. These typically uncommon bulbuls appeared all over the country, with observations including a flock of nearly 200 Cinereous Bulbuls at Pulau Ubin. During that period, many other surprises showed up: two separate Green Broadbills, Yellow-eared Spiderhunter, Yellow-vented Flowerpecker, and Thick-billed Flowerpecker to name a few. Most of them were species that are rare visitors to Singapore (the Green Broadbill especially, being the first two records since their extirpation in 1941) though common in the lowlands of the region, such as the forest patches of Johor just an hour’s drive by car, or the islands in Riau a boat ride away.
The next few seasons were lacklustre with regards to these groups of birds despite the rapid spike of birdwatchers in the country. Both bulbuls only appeared sporadically and in much smaller numbers, and regional lowland rarities (?) continued to be found but at a rather slow pace. In the 2018/2019 season, a handful of Cinereous Bulbuls appeared and were once again accompanied by some Streaked Bulbuls. Their numbers dwindled through summer, and the 2019/2020 season was a similar case.
Then in the winter of 2021/2022, Singapore observed a familiar scene of mass Cinereous Bulbul arrivals. Streaked Bulbuls followed suit, and multiple rare regional species showed up in Singapore as if their calendars were synchronised: two Black-thighed Falconets (the first since 1990), Green Broadbill (first since 2014), Scarlet Minivet (first since 2001), Yellow-vented Flowerpecker, and Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker (first confirmed record for Singapore).
The peaks and troughs of Cinereous Bulbul (blue), Streaked Bulbul (red), and locally significant Sundaic visitors (green) sightings in Singapore. Sundaic visitors are considered “locally significant” for the purposes of this illustration if they have less than 10 records in the last 10 years. The table below this article lists all the records of these locally significant Sundaic species from this illustration. Note that a single record is defined as an individual or group of individuals present at one site for a period of time. So although there were hundreds of Cinereous Bulbuls across Singapore in both the 2014 and 2021 peaks, the number of records is far smaller.
These sightings are more than just déjà vu; they possibly hint towards some form of ecological force driving the birds southwards that we are yet to understand (assuming they primarily came from Johor). Indeed, unorthodox movements of birds – be it at a large or small scale – are periodically observed. In 2019/2020 we had a spate of Indochinese birds arriving in Singapore, and just last season we were kept busy with species that typically winter in the Indian and Middle-eastern region (remember the Cinereous Vulture, Amur Falcon, Black Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher?).
Very recently in May we also observed a rush of regional species to Pulau Ubin, with Black-and-red Broadbill, Black-and-white Bulbul, Lesser Green Leafbird and Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker showing up. Strangely, Cinereous and Streaked Bulbuls were absent from the rave, and the birds were concentrated to Chek Jawa but not elsewhere in Singapore – perhaps the cause for the latest event differs from the seemingly periodic influxes we get. Could it have been due to land-use change in the region? Was there a particular tree in Chek Jawa blocked from our views that provided a very attractive food source? We don’t know, and these are at best educated guesses. However, with proper housekeeping of local bird records, we might eventually be able to search for the answers to these questions. For example, reliable long-term data coupled with environmental modelling showed that the Indian Ocean Dipole event (a phenomena where the Indian Ocean’s western section becomes unusually warmer than the eastern section) led to an influx of Red-necked Phalaropes to the region around Kenya in 2019/2020). Our continued and collective efforts to document Singapore’s birds will surely play a key role in advancing our knowledge in the years to come.
We recently contributed an article to BirdingASIA to highlight these avifaunal records from our community during the 2020-2021 season and the possible implications behind them. As the national borders start opening up, many of you who picked up this obsession hobby of birding recently must be craving to, or might have already started to explore beyond Singapore. If you’re keen to read more about birding news from the Asian region, do consider subscribing to the Oriental Bird Club! You’ll receive two copies of BirdingASIA with more exciting articles from the region, as well as one copy of the Journal of Asian Ornithology where latest research on regional avifauna are highlighted. (Just for the record, the Singapore Birds Project is not affiliated in any way to the Oriental Bird Club. We do not get any commission or benefits from promoting them.).
Happy birding, and please do share your sightings if you happen to come across any of these rarities and submit your records to the Singapore Bird Database for proper archival!
Table of records of locally significant Sundaic species, as displayed in the chart above (2014-2021)
Nussbaumer, R., Gravey, M., Nussbaumer, A., & Jackson, C. (2021). Investigating the influence of the extreme Indian Ocean Dipole on the 2020 influx of Red-necked Phalaropes Phalaropus lobatus in Kenya. Ostrich, 92(4), 307-315.
Sin, Y.C.K., Narayanswamy, R., Ng, D., Chia, S., Ng, E., & Kennewell, M. (2022). Beyond the pandemic: gems from Singapore in 2020-2021. BirdingASIA, 37, 101-108.
Streaked Bulbul at Dairy Farm Nature Park. Photo Credit: Francis Yap
Cinereous Bulbul at Kent Ridge Park. Photo Credit: Francis Yap
Juvenile Green Broadbill at East Coast Park. Photo Credit: Francis Yap
Yellow-eared Spiderhunter at Dillenia Hut. Photo Credit: Francis Yap
Thick-billed Flowerpecker at Dairy Farm Nature Park. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Yellow-vented Flowerpecker from Panti Bird Sanctuary. Photo credit: Con Foley
Black-thighed Falconet at National Equestrian Centre. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Singapore’s urban landscape hosts various wildlife ranging from birds, butterflies, to otters. These animals are often appreciated visually, but one of the less-discussed aspects that make birds unique is their songs. The wide range of vocalisations that birds have fill up most of nature’s soundscape and are actually quite easy to learn! Knowing the sounds of different birds can also make you a better bird-spotter. Here are the calls of 8 common birds in Singapore’s parks with mnemonics (some are a little stretched, but we tried xD) that you’ll definitely be able to remember.
Black-naped Orioles have highly variable calls ranging from meows, shrieks to their namesake: the “O-RE-O”. The melody of their songs are quite variable but are typically characterised by having a fluty tone unique to them. Oftentimes you will see these bright yellow birds around the mid to high canopy, especially in fruiting trees.
The high-pitched “tsu-it!” of the Olive-backed Sunbird call can be frequently heard in gardens and parks, especially in the early mornings. They can often be seen enjoying nectar from flowers. Male Olive-backed Sunbirds are easily recognisable from their bright blue throat, yellow body and olive coloured back. During courtship, they display their orange pectoral tufts to attract females. Females lack the blue throat but can be distinguished from other sunbirds in Singapore by their white tail tips.
Oriental Magpie-Robins light up various urban parks in Singapore with their songs. They like to sing for prolonged periods of time from open perches especially in the mornings, and have melodious and joyful-sounding songs. Their songs sound less “rich” than Black-naped Orioles because of their generally higher pitch. The beautiful songs they possess are a double-edged sword as it makes them prominent to traders. In fact, this species once suffered a population crash due to heavy poaching and the current population are survivors from introduced birds.
The highly nasal song of this bright blue kingfisher can be heard in almost every corner of Singapore. Although they are named kingfishers, they eat insects too and can sometimes be found away from water. They can frequently be seen in parks and sometimes even along canals.
Every person in Singapore would know the Asian Koel. They are unfortunately disliked by many due to their loud and persistent “KO-EL!” songs. Despite being large and loud birds, they can be surprisingly hard to see as they like to perch on the top of tall dense trees! Try finding them next time they are calling – their bright red eyes are actually pretty cool looking.
The Large-tailed Nightjar is a nocturnal species that is typically most vocal during dawn and dusk. They have a unique “tiu? tiu? tiu?” that sounds like no other local bird. This species is commonly encountered in Singapore’s parks and is also sometimes found sleeping on the ground in the day.
The White-breasted Waterhen is common along the water bodies in Singapore and can often be found hiding amongst reeds or the edges of ponds. Their most frequently heard song is a croaking “chu-guoo chu-guoo” song. Males have red on the forehead while females don’t. This species, like other rails, can be heard singing at night time too during certain times of the year.
The Yellow-vented Bulbul is one of the most common parkland birds and their dawn chorus can be heard from almost everyone’s homes. Their song sounds like a bubblier version of R2-D2 (a Star Wars character for those unfamiliar).
Editing by Tan Hui Zhen, infographic by Kee Jing Ying
In the winter migration season of 2021/22, our community was graced by five appearances of Himalayan VulturesGyps himalayensis. These massive birds are rare but increasingly annual migrants to Singapore and never fail to spark huge hunts for a chance to see them perched or to witness their incredible wingspan in flight.
No other species seems to unite the entire community in a truly islandwide effort as much as a flock of Himalayan Vultures slowly soaring across the island. Their size and slow flight means that regardless of where you are at the time of sighting, if they pass by your general vicinity, there is a chance you will get to see them.
Here are the accepted records of Himalayan Griffons the 2021/2022 season, as per the Singapore Birds Database:
The next day, one bird – likely one of the two seen the previous day – at Pasir Ris Park by multiple observers.
Sighting 5: 18 to 19 Jan 2022 (Bukit Batok flock)
Seven birds seen over East Coast Park by Rachit in the afternoon, last seen roosting at Bukit Batok Nature Park by Francis Yap and JJ Brinkman. All 7 birds were seen flying off the next day.
The very unique result of all the excitement surrounding Himalayan Vulture sightings is that every aspect of their presence—how many of them, their behaviour, their flight path—is quite well tracked. Combine that with Singapore’s tiny country size and the recent massive increase in community size, we have an extremely high observer density: the movement of the birds across the island were particularly well-documented on 28th Dec 2021 (Novena flock) and 18 Dec 2022 (Bukit Batok flock). The Bukit Batok flock also allowed many who could not pop their heads out of the window during work to look for them later that evening and the next morning.
Annotated flight paths of sightings 2 and 5 starting from Novena and Bukit Batok respectively, recreated based on the collective information shared by birders of Singapore through various social media groups.
All sightings from this season were of immature birds, as are most records from the region. Young birds are typically known to wander around more so than adults, and in the cases for the birds that end up in Singapore, quite far off course from where they would usually be. Records show that there’s an increasing trend in their numbers arriving over the years too. Of course, we have to be careful about extrapolating too many conclusions from this: as the number of birdwatchers go up, so do the number of rare sightings, but could other factors have contributed to their increased sightings in Singapore? Climate and land use change are speculated to have increased their occurrence in the region over the past few decades. Additionally, a vulture restaurant has been set up in Phuket since 2019. Could this have allowed some birds to accumulate enough energy to make it further south than previously possible? There have been talks on introducing such a system in Singapore too—how could this potentially help or affect the birds? There are many more questions than answers for now, much of it requiring research and discussions beyond the scope of this article.
Another slightly easier question that comes to mind is: were this season’s sightings of the same flock flying around, or new birds arriving each time? Those birds that were seen on two consecutive days at sites they were known to roost are quite surely the same individuals, but what can we make of the separate sightings? We could attempt to answer this question by examining some photographs taken across the sightings.
As seen from the images, many of the birds have rather worn wings and tail feathers, making it quite difficult to ascertain individuals. However two birds did have comparatively “unique” wear.
Interestingly, it appears that one individual from the Novena flock photographed on 28 Dec 2021 had several matching features of wear and tear of plumage. This is strongly suggestive that at least one (if not all) of the 5 Vultures from the Novena flock reappeared in the SBG flock along with the Cinereous vulture. The case is even more compelling when we note that both sightings had 5 Vultures: perhaps the same flock left Singapore on the 28th at 1300h, only to return on the evening of the 29th at SBG?
Then we notice that one bird from the Novena flock with a somewhat unique missing secondary (giving it a very “long-looking” tear) could (??) have participated in the Bukit Batok flock.. If the two photographs taken were indeed of the same bird, it suggests that the bird could have hung around the region and returned to Singapore after three full weeks! As always, it is important to keep in mind that plumage wear is common in long distance migrants and that this singular feature is suggestive but not indicative.
It goes without saying that many of the above deductions are based on guesswork, but exercises like this could bring us one step further to learning more about their behaviour in Singapore. When the vultures next arrive, taking ample photographs of them from multiple angles, will help to pin-point traits unique to individuals (if any) to help us estimate how long the birds typically stay around for.
Using plumage wear to identify individual birds is helpful in determining the number of otherwise rare migrants. The same technique was applied on an interesting case study this season elsewhere: we are quite confident that there were two Common Kestrels on the same day at Seletar Aerospace Drive. On 14 Dec 2022, one bird with strongly marked underwing coverts was photographed there by Lim Ser Chai. The next day, this species was seen again by Woo Jia Wei twice, but once at 1340h involving a bird with faintly marked underwings and broken primaries, and later at 1500h a bird that looked like the previous day’s individual!
Finally, the question that we all hope to know the answer to: what’s the best strategy to search for them again next season?
Five sightings is far from a good sample size, but the observations from this season might provide hints when searching for them again. First, if the birds are seen soaring late in the afternoon, chances are that you might be able to head down to observe them later in the evening or the next morning if they roost somewhere visible. These birds seem to have a tendency to remain in Singapore island overnight when detected later in the day. Given their massive size, they are highly reliant on thermals (rising hot air) to engage in soaring flight, making water bodies a possible deterrence for them. Perhaps this could be part of why the seven birds from the Bukit Batok flock chose to fly along the coast rather than further south to Bintan/Batam? For those aiming for flight shots, their take-off time is also likely highly dependent on the weather, though typically not too early in the morning. The Novena flock took flight around 0900h, the SBG ones around 1020h, and the Bukit Batok flock, around 1145h. Again the presence of thermals is essential for their flight, though where they might head off afterwards remains unknown to us for now.
Becoming the first person to find the vultures requires a little more serendipity. Initial sightings of Vultures are fairly unpredictable and highly dependent on being at the right time at the right place. However, knowing when to pay attention helps: previously, scarce sightings were from late December and January, but the 8 Dec 2021 proved a new early date, and no birds were detected past January despite the many occurences. For now, December to January seems to be the prime time to keep our eyes glued to the skies, and you can refer to the bar charts from our Singapore Bird Database for more information on when to look for them (and other rarities too!)
As the summer months approach, it is quite unlikely that we will see any more vultures before next season (but who knows!?). We’re approaching the season to search for possible Austral migrants and dispersals from Malaysia, but come December some of these birds might head here again. With so many pairs of keen eyes and quick cameras around nowadays, it has become easier than ever to track the habits of these vultures. The small bits of information we are able to piece together through social media may not seem like much, but as we repeat the process year after year, new insights into the birds’ habits may reveal themselves. It doesn’t take much to help: just share your sightings and submit your record to our database!
We are grateful to Con Foley, Daryl Tan, Feroz, Herman Phua, Jared Tan, Justin Jing Liang, Lim Ser Chai, Marcel Finlay, Martin Kennewell, Siew Mun, Trevor Teo, Wee Aik Kiat, Wong Weng Fai and Woo Jia Wei for sharing excellent images of the birds. We also thank the community for sharing the sightings very promptly, allowing everyone to get exciting views of the birds. Last but not least we thank the Singapore Birds Project team for comments on this article.
Praveen, J., Nameer, P.O., Karuthedathu, D., Ramaiah, C., Balakrishnan, B., Rao, K. M., Shurpali, S., Puttaswamaiah, R., & Tavcar, I. (2014). On the vagrancy of the Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis to southern India. Indian BIRDS, 9(1), 19-22. pdf
Yong, D. L., & Kasorndorkbua, C. (2008). The status of the Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis in South-east Asia. Forktail, 24, 57-62. pdf and associated erratum
18 May 2022: We previously mislabelled the dates for the Pasir Ris Park and Bukit Batok Himalayan Vulture photos, the map, and the first Common Kestrel photo.
The latest update of our checklist, version 2022-1, has been published. It can be accessed at our Downloads page.
Since the last bird list revision in September 2021, our team has voted on over 100 records of rare species in Singapore. Although our latest votes are always available at our Recent Decisions page, we will continue to publish regular updates to keep our readers updated on the latest avifaunal developments, including recent advances in taxonomy.
Along with this update, we are also launching a live version of our checklist! For the past six years, the Singapore Birds Project has published checklists every half a year. However, with the growth in observer effort and information available, the combined knowledge of Singapore’s birding community is rapidly increasing. Within a short span of five months since our last checklist update, the checklist has seen a net gain of seven species. We will continue to release half-yearly checklist updates in Excel format, but latest developments can be tracked in the live checklist.
Ashy-headed Green Pigeon Treron phayrei [Record 10001]: The committee deliberated extensively on this bird recorded at Dillenia Hut from 9 to 11 Oct 2021. This species is not known to occur south of the Isthmus of Kra, with no records in Malaysia, but Treron pigeons are known to wander widely in search of fruit sources. The final decision was to accept the individual as a wild bird and place the species in Cat A (for species that have occurred naturally in the wild within the last 30 years), a thorough discussion of this record is available in this article and at the link above.
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata [Record 10002]: One record at Kent Ridge Park from 15-29 Oct 2021. While there are recent records in the Philippines and Taiwan, this is the first record for continental Southeast Asia. The committee voted unanimously to place this species in Cat A.
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis [Record 10005]: A single bird off Clementi Road, 19-31 Oct 2021. Like the Spotted Flycatcher, this species is a long-distance migrant with most of the population wintering in India and Africa. Regarded as a vagrant and placed unanimously in Cat A.
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris[Record 10082]: One record of a single bird at Marina East Drive from 13 to 15 Dec 2021. A known vagrant with records in Malaysia and further north, as well as Borneo, but this is the first national record. Placed in Cat A on a unanimous vote.
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros [Record 10069]: One record at Pasir Panjang, first seen on 28 Nov 2021 and subsequently by many observers; still present as of Feb 2022. Age, sex, and subspecies remain unclear as of writing, but further observation of the bird may provide more insight. Regarded as a vagrant and unanimously placed in Cat A.
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus [Record 10106]:A vagrant individual with Himalayan Griffons Gyps himalayensis at Singapore Botanic Gardens, 29-30 Dec 2021; subsequently found weak and unable to fly near Holland Road. Rescued, rehabilitated, and released early this year. Placed in Cat A on a unanimous vote.
Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes [Record 10030]: One record of a vagrant present from 12 Nov to at least 3 Dec 2021 at Macritchie Reservoir was unanimously accepted and the species placed in Cat A. This species is a regular winter visitor to Thailand but is believed to be rarer than the visually identical Sakhalin Leaf Warbler P. borealoides further south in the peninsula.
Previous records not accepted, but species maintained in checklist
Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta [Record 10032; Record 748]: A previous record in April 1991 was reviewed by the committee and not accepted as the descriptions provided do not conclusively rule out Dark-sided Flycatcher M. sibirica. However, a single bird present from 9-17 Nov 2021 was accepted as the first national record and the species was therefore retained in the checklist in Cat A.
Long-eared Owl Asio otus [Record 10042]: After much deliberation, the committee decided on a split vote that the single sighting of this bird at Marina East Drive on 20 Nov 2021 most likely pertained to a ship-assisted individual rather than a wild bird. For more detailed discussion of this record, see the record linked above. Removed from checklist
Temminck’s Stint Calidris temminckii [Past records]: As the last record of this species in Singapore was in Oct 1984, it exceeds the 30-year threshold for inclusion in the checklist. The committee placed this species in Cat B1 (for species which would appear in Cat A, but without records within the last 30 years).
Eurasian Coot Fulica atra [Past records]: Like Temminck’s Stint, this species has not been recorded locally in the last 30 years and was therefore assigned to Cat B1 and removed from the checklist.
Still pending review
Christmas Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi[Record 10163]: A record in May 2013 was outside Singapore’s territorial waters; the most recent confirmed record within Singapore’s geographical boundaries was in May 1986, which exceeds the 30-year threshold for inclusion in the checklist. If the record from Marina East Drive (see record linked above) is accepted, the species would be moved from the Annex to Cat A.
Other minor change
Stejneger’s Stonechat is renamed to Amur Stonechat following taxonomic updates by the IOC.