Our first guided walk!

Left: Javan Pond Heron. Right: Jen Wei showing participants some cool birds. Photos: Adrian Silas Tay

The first of many Singapore Birds Project Guided Walks was held at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park (BAMK Park) on 13 and 19 March 2022. Here are some highlights from the walk!

Soon after we set off at 8am, our safely distanced groups came across the most widely-recognized category of feathered friends – chickens! Most chickens found in Singapore are domestic chicken/Red Junglefowl hybrids, and their level of domestic introgression can be estimated by observing traits highlighted in Wu et al. (2020).

Just a few minutes later, a group spotted a Common Flameback up in one of the trees lining the path. As its name suggests, Common Flamebacks are one of the more common woodpeckers found in Singapore and are often heard before they’re seen. Listen out for their raucous ‘kik-kik-kik’ call as they swoop from tree trunk to tree trunk.

The cacophony of loud screams also brought our groups’ attention to the introduced Rose-ringed and Red-breasted Parakeets that have both comfortably made Singapore their additional home. As we were observing them, a White-throated Kingfisher swooped past us in hunt of prey, to the delight of our 6 and 9 year old participants.

Keita sharing with participants about the various introduced birds that fly around Singapore. Photo: Kee Jing Ying

The wetland that replaced old concrete canals during the development of BAMK Park has provided some habitat for waterbirds. As we neared one of the main streams running along the length of BAMK Park, our keen-eyed participants spotted some Grey Herons, Purple Herons, a Chinese Pond Heron and two Javan Pond Herons. Herons are frequently found wading in longkangs and wetlands, and use their long, pointy beaks to expertly swipe fish from shallow bodies of water. 

As we continued with our walk, spring was in the air, and we observed many pairs of residents such as the Common Ioras, Black-naped Orioles, Pied Trillers and Yellow-vented Bulbuls moving around in pairs at times, displaying courtship behaviour. 

Common Iora and Pied Triller seen during the walk. Photos: Adrian Silas Tay

Not to be outdone, the winter migrants like the Pallas’ Grasshopper Warblers were practicing their songs all along the meandering river in preparation to breed when they return to breeding grounds. Close to the end of our walk, we noted a group of fellow birders staking out a section of the river bank hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive warbler.

Just before we ended our walk, Adrian’s group was treated to an awesome observation up close. A Black-naped Oriole flew onto a tree trunk to pick off a huge caterpillar. The family of 4 were awed by the action happening 1.5 metres in front of them. The Oriole put up an excellent show as it flew up and perched just above the family. It started bashing the caterpillar and before gobbling it up all in view of our young participants and their parents. What a way to conclude an amazing morning!

Black-naped Oriole eating a caterpillar. Video: Adrian Silas Tay

Thank you to all the participants for joining our guided walk and we hope that you had a great morning birding with us. If you missed out on this walk, no worries! Do keep an eye out for future walks on our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

All smiles with Adrian, Jing Ying and Sandra after two sunny, successful walks! Photos: Adrian Silas Tay, Kee Jing Ying and Sandra Chia

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the team and Jin Rong for their comments on the article.

References

Wu, M. Y., Low, G. W., Forcina, G., van Grouw, H., Lee, B. P. Y-H., Oh, R. R. Y. & Rheindt, F. E. (2020). Historic and modern genomes unveil a domestic introgression gradient in a wild red junglefowl population. Evolutionary Applications, 13, 9. Link.  

RAP201: How to Identify Uncommon Raptors

Your handy raptor identification guide is back with a second installment – RAP201: How to Identify Uncommon Raptors! This article will cover seven species that migrate through Singapore in relatively low numbers: Grey-faced Buzzard (Butastur indicus), Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo), Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus), Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus), Black Kite (Milvis migrans), Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga) and Besra (Accipiter virgatus).

Do check out RAP101: How to Identify Common Raptors to pick up tips on identifying common raptors and some background on raptor migration. As usual, we will be using the most mediocre of photos to show you do not need amazing gear for identification (though they undoubtedly come in handy for the trickier ones).

Grey-faced Buzzard (Butastur indicus)

Identifying features marked out on a Grey-faced Buzzard vs Oriental Honey Buzzard silhouette. Taken at St John’s Island, Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia

The Grey-faced Buzzard is a medium-sized migratory raptor. It has longer, slimmer wings than the Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus) when fully extended, with a white throat and dark mesial stripe. It also has five ‘fingers’ as opposed to the Oriental Honey Buzzard’s six ‘fingers’. In juveniles, that are similar in shape to adults, the mesial stripe are not as pronounced and they have streaks on their underparts instead of barrings.

Buzzards sp. (Buteo sp.)

Identifying features marked out on pictures of a Common Buzzard vs Eastern Buzzard vs Grey-faced Buzzard. Taken in Singapore. Photo Credit: Keita Sin

Buteo sp. refers to buzzards, that are stocky, medium-sized raptors with long wings ending in five ‘fingers’. They can be differentiated from Grey-faced Buzzards, which also have five ‘fingers’, by the lack of a mesial stripe, shorter tail, shorter and more rounded wings. Taxonomy of the Buzzards are contentious, with different ornithological authorities treating them differently – some consider the Common and Eastern Buzzards separate species while some recognize them as subspecies (Gill et al., 2021; Billerman et al., 2020; McClure et al., 2020). Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo) are browner overall compared to Eastern Buzzards (Buteo japonicus). Given the messy taxonomy it is currently unclear where exactly the Eastern Buzzards in Singapore arrive from.

Identifying features marked out on pictures of Booted Eagle vs Black Kite vs Oriental Honey Buzzard vs juvenile Brahminy Kite. Taken in Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia (Booted Eagle and Oriental Honey Buzzard), Keita Sin (Black Kite) and Yip Jen Wei (Brahminy Kite).

Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus)

The Booted Eagle has wings that are somewhat similar in shape to the locally common Brahminy Kites, with six ‘fingers’. It has pale shoulder spots on the upperwing, resembling ‘headlights’. Compared to the Oriental Honey Buzzard that also has six ‘fingers’, the Booted Eagle has a more compact, stockier giss and a squarish tail. The Booted Eagle can also be differentiated from juvenile Brahminy Kites and Black Kites by their lack of distinct ‘M’ shape in the wings and lack of white primary patches. This species has two morphs – dark and pale, and more information can be found on our species page.

Black Kite (Milvus migrans)

The Black Kite also has six ‘fingers’, but differs from the Brahminy Kite, Oriental Honey Buzzard and Booted Eagle by having a distinctly forked tail. It can also be told from Oriental Honey Buzzard and Booted Eagle by distinct ‘M’ shape in flight, resembling Brahminy Kites. However, the white wing patches in the Black Kite are restricted to the base of their primaries unlike juvenile Brahminy Kites that have a larger patch of white.

Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga)

Identifying features marked out on a Greater Spotted Eagle vs Changeable Hawk Eagle. Taken in Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia

The Greater Spotted Eagle has an overall dark plumage, with broad wings ending in seven ‘fingers’. It can be told apart from the Changeable Hawk Eagle by less rounded wings, resulting in less of an ‘armpit’ and the presence of a light vent. It is also much bigger. It also has white fringing on underwing coverts, with a whitish patch at base of outer primaries. More information on this can be found on our species page.

Besra (Accipiter virgatus)

Identifying features marked out on pictures of a Besra vs Japanese Sparrowhawk vs Shikra. Taken in Singapore. Photo Credit: Keita Sin (Besra and Shikra from Thailand) and Sandra Chia (Japanese Sparrowhawk).

The Besra is a sparrowhawk (typically referred to by their genus name Accipiter), and is hence small and closer in size to Japanese and Chinese Sparrowhawks. Like the Japanese Sparrowhawk and Shikra (also an accipiter – a very rare bird with only two local records), it has five ‘fingers’ but differs by having a strong mesial stripe, with its tail showing alternating dark and light tail bands of equal width. The Japanese Sparrowhawk in comparison typically has wider white bands, while the Shikra can be told apart by their much longer looking tail. The Besra has only been recorded in Singapore a handful of times, making it quite the rarity.

We hope this has been useful in telling these uncommon raptors apart. As some species can be rather tricky to identify, do check in with helpful birders on social media and identification forums when in doubt!

Not to worry, we have not forgotten about the Harriers. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, where we will dive into identification of Harrier species that migrate through Singapore!

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the field buddies, especially Max Khoo, Low Bing Wen and Oliver Tan, for suggesting a sequel covering uncommon raptors be done up and the team for their comments on the article.

References

Billerman, S. M., Keeney, B. K., Rodewald, P. G., & Schulenberg, T. S. (Eds.). (2020). Birds of the World. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

DeCandido R., Nualsri C., Siponen, M., Sutasha, K., Pierce A., Murray, J. & Round, P. D. (2014). Flight identification and plumage descriptions of six Accipiter species on southbound migration at Khao Dinsor, Chumpon province, Thailand. BirdingASIA, 21(2014), 52-62. Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303712756_Flight_identification_and_plumage_descriptions_of_six_Accipiter_species_on_southbound_migration_at_Khao_Dinsor_Chumphon_province_Thailand

del Hoyo, J., Collar, N., Marks, J. S. & Kirwan, G. M. (2020). Eastern Buzzard (Buteo japonicus), version 1.0. In del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D. A., & de Juana, E. (Eds). Birds of the World. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.combuz6.01

Eaton, J. A., Balen, B., Brickle, N. W. & Rheindt, F. E. (2021). Birds of the Indonesian archipelago, Greater Sundas and Wallacea. Lynx Editions.

Gill, F., Donsker, D., & Rasmussen, P. (Eds). (2021). IOC World Bird List (v11.2). Link: https://www.worldbirdnames.org/new/ 

Lindhom, A. & Forsten A. (2013). “Common”  Buzzards of South China and South-East Asia. Caluta, 4, 1-11. Link: http://www.caluta.liitin.net/Caluta/caluta4.html

McClure C. J. W., Lepage D., Dunn L., Anderson D. L., Schulwitz S. E., Camacho L., Robinson B. W., Les Christidis, Schulenberg T. S., Iliff M. J., Rasmussen P. C. & Johnson J. (2020). Towards reconciliation of the four world bird lists: hotspots of disagreement in taxonomy of raptors. Proc. R. Soc. B, 287. Link: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rspb.2020.0683

Robson, C. (2008). A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia. New Holland Publishers.

RAP101: How to Identify Common Raptors

The peak of Singapore’s raptor migration will soon be upon us. From October to December, large numbers of migratory raptors will pass through Singapore, as they move from their breeding grounds in temperate northeast Asia to tropical southeast Asia (Bildstein, 2006). This constitutes autumn migration, where birds migrate southwards to avoid frigid winters in their home grounds. Around March to May, the birds will head back north to breed, but fewer species seem to pass through Singapore and in smaller numbers. Different species of raptors have been observed to peak in their passage through Singapore in different months.

During this period, you’ll find birders heading to popular raptor watching spots such as Henderson Waves, Telok Blangah Hill Park and Tuas to try their luck at snagging rarer ticks, or to enjoy viewing the large number of raptors migrating overhead. At the same time, you’ll find posts popping up on local Facebook pages requesting for raptor identification. While raptor plates in field guides are handy for identification, good guides can be costly and those short on cash or new to the hobby may not be keen on making such purchases yet. Even so, while guides have detailed illustrations of the raptors in full colour with all identification features clearly indicated, migrating raptors often thermal high in the sky and our grainy, backlit pictures may look like this:

Large flock of migratory raptors at Henderson Waves, Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia

So how do we tell what’s what?

Equipped with my trusty but outdated Nikon 300mm F4 (no teleconverter!), my photos of migrating raptors may be the worst of the lot. Thankfully, you do not need amazing photos to identify the dots passing overhead. This article will feature five common raptors: Changeable Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus), Crested Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus), Chinese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis), Japanese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter gularis) and Black Baza (Aviceda leuphotes), and we’ll go through some general pointers on how to differentiate what’s what.

Changeable Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus)

Identifying features marked out on a Changeable Hawk Eagle silhouette. Taken at Henderson Waves, Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia

The Changeable Hawk Eagle is a medium sized raptor with seven ‘fingers’. Some individuals undergoing moult may have less than seven ‘fingers’, but can still be differentiated by its round wings, which result in a silhouette with pronounced ‘armpits’. This species can come in a dark or pale morph. This is an uncommon resident species that may often be seen while observing migratory raptors.

Crested Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus)

Identifying features marked out on a Crested Honey Buzzard silhouette. Taken at Henderson Waves, Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia

The Crested Honey Buzzard is another medium sized raptor with six ‘fingers’. The migratory subspecies, Pernis ptilorhynchus orientalis, is commonly referred to as Oriental Honey Buzzard. If moulting, individuals may also have fewer than six ‘fingers’. It can be differentiated from other medium sized raptors by its relatively small head and less rounded wings. The Crested Honey Buzzard also comes in various morphs such as light, dark, and an array of intermediate morphs (DeCandido et al., 2015). If you would like to take a deep dive into Crested Honey Buzzard identification, you can check out DeCandido et al. (2015).

Chinese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis)

Identifying features marked out on a Chinese Sparrowhawk silhouette. Taken at Henderson Waves, Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia

The Chinese Sparrowhawk is an Accipiter, a globally distributed genus typically known as hawks.  Accipiters are generally smaller than the two raptors discussed above, resulting in a very different general impression of their size and shape. This species has four ‘fingers’, tipped black. More information on how to identify males, females and juveniles of the species can be found on our species page here.

Japanese Sparrowhawk (Accipiter gularis)

Identifying features marked out on a Japanese Sparrowhawk silhouette. Taken at Henderson Waves, Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia

The Japanese Sparrowhawk is of similar size to the Chinese Sparrowhawk but can be told apart as it has five ‘fingers’ instead of four. More information on identification of males, females and juveniles can also be found on the species page, here. More information on telling apart Accipiter species can be found in DeCandido et al. (2014).

Black Baza (Aviceda leuphotes)

Identifying features marked out on a Black Baza silhouette. Taken at Henderson Waves, Singapore. Photo Credit: Sandra Chia

The Black Baza is of similar size to the sparrowhawks discussed above but differs by its wing shape, which is more rounded than that of the sparrowhawks, resembling paddles. It is also distinctly coloured, with a prominent band of white across the upper breast and thinner black, white, and chestnut stripes across the lower breast and belly. This species is mostly seen from late November onwards (eBird, n.d.).

We hope this article has served as a useful crash course on identification of common raptors we might encounter while raptoring in the coming months. Leave a comment below if you’d like us to cover other species!

Happy raptoring and hope to see everyone’s lists on eBird!

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Jin Rong and the team (Dillen, Francis, Keita, Movin and Raghav) for their comments on the article and to the experienced birders who taught me how to identify raptors over the years.

References

Bildstein, K. L. (2006). Migrating raptors of the world: their ecology & conservation. Cornell University Press.

DeCandido R., Nualsri C., Siponen, M., Sutasha, K., Pierce A., Murray, J. & Round, P. D. (2014). Flight identification and plumage descriptions of six Accipiter species on southbound migration at Khao Dinsor, Chumpon province, Thailand. BirdingASIA, 21(2014), 52-62. Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303712756_Flight_identification_and_plumage_descriptions_of_six_Accipiter_species_on_southbound_migration_at_Khao_Dinsor_Chumphon_province_Thailand

DeCandido, R., Siponen, M., Smit, H., Pierce, A. & Allen, D. (2015). Flight identification and migration pattern of the Oriental Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus orientalis in southern Thailand, 2007-2014. BirdingASIA, 23(2015), 27-33. Link: https://www.theflywayfoundation.or.th/download/Oriental%20Honey%20Buzzard%20in%20southern%20Thailand%202007%E2%80%932014.pdf

eBird. (n.d.). Black Baza. https://ebird.org/species/blabaz1/SG