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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other terns species seen include the usual Little Terns, Black-naped Terns and Greater Crested Terns.
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.
There are several records of Barn Swallows with rufous underparts in Singapore
Relationships between the different Barn Swallow subspecies are still being explored – we are uncertain of which subspecies the rufous birds seen in Singapore belong to
In the meantime, please share your sightings if you come across any of these rarer migrants!
Migratory birds are slowly streaming into Singapore as the Northern Hemisphere winter sets in. One of the commonest species that share the local aerospace with the resident swiftlets and Pacific Swallows Hirundo tahitica is the Barn Swallow H. rustica. The Barn Swallows are easily identifiable from their distinct clean white underparts but did you know that rufous Barn Swallows have been seen in Singapore before?
The usual Barn Swallows that visit Singapore during the wintering months are of the subspecies gutturalis (Chasen, 1923; Gibson-Hill, 1950) with clean white underparts along with a distinct black breast band (Figure 1). It is currently still unclear which subspecies these rufous Barn Swallows belong to, but what the local community can do in the meantime is to make sure that these records are properly documented while researchers continue to study their relationships!
This article will become slightly technical from here onwards, but for those who have an interest in the biology of birds, read on!
Barn Swallow subspecies taxonomy is tricky; different authors have differing opinions on which subspecies are valid and the boundaries of their breeding ranges (Figure 2, Table 1). With regards to the subspecies that occur in Southeast Asia (and consequently Singapore), the International Ornithological Committee (IOC) recognises four subspecies, namely gutturalis, tytleri, mandschurica and saturata, while Birds of the World (BOTW) recognises gutturalis,tytleri and mandschurica too, but treats saturata as part of gutturalis instead. On the other hand, Dor et al. (2010) who has worked on Barn Swallow phylogeny lists two relevant subspecies, gutturalis and tytleri.
Of the supposed four subspecies that might occur in Singapore, only one is described to have creamy white underparts (gutturalis), with the other three (tytleri, mandschurica and saturata) have some degree of rufous on the underparts (Table 2).
However, on top of the difficulty in distinguishing underpart colours (what is the difference between ochre, rufous and chestnut?), plumage can also vary with individuals and wear (Dickinson and Dekker, 2001). More significantly, there is likely to be interbreeding between different subspecies in intergrade zones within their breeding range (Dickinson and Dekker, 2001; Nazarenko, 2016; Turner, 2006). For instance, there are some interesting swallows that are within range of tytleri and/or where tytleri overlaps with other populations (such as gutturalis) that are not entirely white or rufous, and some examples are listed here: a) western Mongolia, mostly white underparts with rufous tinge; b) central Mongolia, underparts with faint rufous tinge; c) central Mongolia, pale rufous underparts d) northern Mongolia, white underparts with rufous vent. Compare these with birds found further north (that are presumably tytleri based on range) such as this and this that are clearly much more rufous in colour.
As the ornithological community continues to explore the answers to the relationships of the various Asian populations of Barn Swallows in their breeding ranges, the verdict on the “rufous” individuals in Singapore is still open to interpretation. However this doesn’t change the fact that they are quite rare locally, so please do share your sightings if you manage to spot or photograph any!
Disclaimer: The authors of this short article (Dillen and Keita) have not been involved in any of the Barn Swallow studies. We dove into this topic confused and emerged out of it even more confused – please let us know if there are any errors!
Chasen, F. N. (1923). An introduction to the birds of Singapore island. Singapore Naturalist, 2, 87-111.
Dickinson, E. C., & Dekker, R. W. R. J. (2001). Systematic notes on Asian birds. 13. Preliminary review of the Hirundinidae. Zoologische Verhandelingen, 25, 127-144.
Dor, R., Safran, R. J., Sheldon, F. H., Winkler, D. W., & Lovette, I. J. (2010). Phylogeny of the genus Hirundo and the Barn Swallow subspecies complex. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 56, 409-418.
Gibson-Hill, C.A. (1950). A checklist of the birds of Singapore island. Bulletin of the Raffles Museum, 21, 132-183.
Nazarenko A.A., Pavlenko M.V., Kryukov A.P. (2016). Introgressija genov populjacii Hirundo rustica tytleri v populjaciju H. r. gutturalis na jugo-zapade Ussuriĭskogo kraja (na primere Vladivostoka): otgoloski bylyh i tekushhih istoriko-biogeograficheskih sobytiĭ[Introgression of the genes of the Hirundo rustica tytleri population in the H. r. gutturalis population in the south-west of the Ussuri region (upon the example of Vladivostok): echoes of past and current historical-biogeographical events]. Russkiĭ ornitologicheskiĭ zhurnal, 25, 523-536.
When posting a photo on social media to ask for ID help
Crop and brighten/darken the photos sufficiently so that the bird can be properly seen
Edit the colours accurately to reflect what you saw in the field
Post multiple angles so that different features of the bird can be seen
Provide information about where and when the photo was taken
Make a guess!
When helping someone with ID
Instead of just saying a species name, elaborate on why you identified it as such – provide key distinguishing features or comparisons with (or to rule out) similar looking birds.
There are more than 10,000 species of birds worldwide, and of which more than 400 can potentially be found within the political boundaries of Singapore. Some species look more or less the same throughout the year, while others can look very different depending on their sex, age and whether or not they are in their breeding plumage. With so many possible combinations of shapes and colours, it can be a seemingly daunting process, especially for new birders, to learn how to identify the feathered animals in the field. The rapid increase in photography and social media usage among the local birding community has made this learning process much easier, and this post aims to improve everyone’s birding journey by providing some tips on how to ask for and help with species identification. These tips are applicable both on social media and in the field, as well as beyond Singapore.
Asking for help with identification
Editing photographs for identification purposes
Everyone has their own style and preferences when pursuing the art of photography. However, when it comes to using photos to identify birds, you should edit your photos to show as much of the key features of the bird as possible, as accurately as possible. Leave your artistic license behind for after the bird is identified!
Crop the photos to show the key features
Social media platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp tend to reduce the quality of the uploaded images, which makes zooming into a photo a difficult and sometimes futile process when attempting to identify a small bird in a big picture. Crop your images sufficiently so that the key features of the birds can be seen.
Brighten the photos sufficiently
Pictures taken in backlit conditions often suffer from underexposure such that the features of the birds cannot be seen properly. In such cases, try to increase the exposure and shadows to (attempt to) salvage the images. If available, edit from RAW files for better results.
Keep the colours accurate
Some species are much easier to identify in the field than in pictures because of the subtle colour differences in their plumages. Try your best to edit your photos so that they reflect the information your eyes captured in real life. Having a properly calibrated monitor helps with this.
Provide several angles if possible
The key identification features of some birds might not always be visible in a single photo, so having multiple photos from different angles would be helpful. Sometimes, seemingly trivial features such as the rump and primary projection (the length of the birds’ wings when folded) can be important characteristics as well.
Where and when did you see it?
The local birding community has seen a lot of drama and politics unfold regarding who told who, who did not tell who, why did you not tell me immediately, and so on. THIS SECTION IS NOT REFERRING TO THAT!!
When identifying a bird, it makes most sense to start from the most probable candidate and slowly eliminate the possible options before considering the rarest case (and not the other way round). The location and month that a bird was photographed can make a big difference in this mental process, and in some cases, providing such information can reveal some important ornithological records.
Let’s say I post this photograph on a birding group focusing on Singapore’s birds to ask for the identification, with no information at all except “ID pls”
Most people would probably identify it as a Thick-billed Green Pigeon, which is wrong! The photograph was actually taken in August 2019 in Bali, Indonesia, where there are no wild Thick-billed Green Pigeons. This bird is in fact a Grey-cheeked Green Pigeon (distinguished from Thick-billed by, among other features, the bluish bill base instead of red). There have been cases of people asking for identification with no information – not even country – which can make it very difficult to narrow down the possible species.
Now let’s consider this Pitta instead.
This photograph was taken In Pulau Ubin in the month of July, which is outside of the migration season, so the most likely candidate is the Mangrove Pitta. But wait, something is odd…the bill seems small and more importantly the chin is black instead of white. This is actually a Blue-winged Pitta! The fact that this bird was seen in July suggests that they might be breeding on Pulau Ubin again and that helps improve our understanding on the breeding ecology of these birds.
Make a guess!
“ID pls” is a super convenient phrase that takes less than a second to type, but you can do much better than that! There are many field guides and online platforms (*cough* singaporebirds.com) where you can try to identify the birds first. It’s perfectly alright to be wrong, but you will be able to learn more if you post your picture with a guess, and if possible, with reasons why you think so.
Helping with identification
Don’t just give a name, provide reasons when giving IDs!
When I just started birding, I was unable to tell the difference between Asian Glossy Starlings and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos. Both birds have red eyes and glossy bluish-green plumage. To make things even more confusing, some Greater Racket-tailed Drongos lack the long tail streamers. I stared at many pictures online but was still unable to tell the birds apart.
I did not have social media back then, but suppose I posted this image on Facebook.
Even if everyone who bothered to help out a newbie replied “obviously an Asian Glossy Starling lol”, I would still have felt uneasy accepting the identification because a much bigger aspect of my question – why? – would still have been left unanswered.
When giving ID help, try to provide reasons for why you think the bird is species A instead of species B. Again, it’s perfectly alright to be wrong! Our brains are so accustomed to identifying the birds instantaneously that it sometimes becomes difficult to pin-point the exact reasons why we think the way we do. Finding out a little bit more about the field marks of the birds, both when perched and in flight, can help improve description skills and make you a better birder.
I was heavily inspired by this article by Tony Leukering in writing this short piece and am also extremely grateful to Elize Ng, Dillen Ng and Goh Cheng Teng for helping to improve the work.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other changes: The Malay names of many species have been updated in accordance to the latest revision by Mr Tou Jing Yi.
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:
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.
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.
Taxonomic change: Eurasian Whimbrel – Whimbrel is now split into Eurasian Whimbrel and Hudsonian Whimbrel, and Eurasian Whimbrel is the expected species in the region.
Taxonomic change: Black Bittern‘s scientific name changed to Ixobrychus flavicollis.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A juvenile was seen and photographed near Dillenia Hut on 8 November 2019. Wintering population has been reported in Borneo.
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
The latest revision of the Singapore Bird List is now derived from IOC World Bird List Version 9.1.
Changes are as follow:
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.
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)