The Singapore Birds Project checklist is updated regularly according to taxonomic updates by the International Ornithological Committee (IOC). Our team recently conducted a thorough review to vote on additional species to be added to or removed from the checklist. In the spirit of ensuring that accurate information is provided in a timely fashion, we decided to release a Special Edition prior to the next IOC update. The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.
Along with this update, we would like to welcome Raghav to the team. Our growing Singapore Birds Project main team consists of Keita Sin (chair), Sandra Chia (vice-chair), Dillen Ng, Francis Yap (site admin), Movin Nyanasengeran and Raghav Narayanswamy. Many of you have provided us generous comments for our work which we are very grateful for. Suggestions and constructive criticisms, as always, are strongly welcome! Please feel free to reach out to us via the Contact Us section.
A write-up of how our checklist operates will be released soon. In the mean time, here are the details for the changes to the checklist.
Crimson-winged Woodpecker at Johor. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch at Johor. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Masked Lapwing at Marina East Drive. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Milky Stork at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Painted Stork at Thailand. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Pied Kingfisher at Sri Lanka. Photo Credit: Dillen Ng
Golden-backed Weaver at Lorong Halus Wetland. Photo credit: Francis Yap
Orange-breasted Green Pigeon: A vagrant to Singapore with a single record of a male from Japanese Garden on 22 December 2007.
Masked Lapwing: This species native to Australia has breeding records dating back to at least 2004. The growing population seems to be sustainable and recent sightings include a flock of ~50 birds along a canal in Bedok.
Javan Plover: A single, very likely breeding record from Pulau Tekong in mid-2021. More records of this expanding species might be expected in the near future.
Milky Stork and Painted Stork: Both species of storks have been introduced to Singapore since at least 1987. Their breeding is indicated by ever-present juveniles at multiple sites in Singapore coupled with the numerous nests around Mandai. A recent genomic analysis by Baveja et al (2019) revealed an alarming result that many of the storks in Singapore are hybrids at some level. However, some genetically pure Milky Stork still exists. The Painted Storks sampled in the study were at best backcrosses between first generation hybrids and pure ones, but this species is also added to the checklist on balance that evidence suggest the presence of pure individuals.
Pied Kingfisher: A single record from Punggol on 18 September 1995. The same species was recorded at Southern Johor in early 2016 as well.
Crimson-winged Woodpecker: Sightings from Bukit Timah in 2001, at least one of which was accompanied by sketches. Several other reports continuing up to 2008 are unsubstantiated thus far.
Monk Parakeet: This species is native to South America and has been present since at least 2009, with nesting records dating back to 2012. The presence of multiple breeding records coupled with the recent westward expansion is indicative of an alarming population growth.
Velvet-fronted Nuthatch: Multiple sightings of a single individual in Bukit Timah from 1996 to 1999. A non-breeding visitor to Singapore.
Red-billed Starling: A total of four records in Singapore. While the provenance of each specific record remains to be assessed, increasing evidence of vagrancy from Indochina and the Philippines are indicative that wild birds occur in Singapore.
Golden-backed Weaver: The proliferation of this species in suitable habitats has been highly visible. Strongholds at Kranji Marshes and Lorong Halus show that this species is clearly well-established. The obvious displacement of native Baya Weavers is worrying.
Yellow-crested Cockatoo: This introduced species only occurs in small numbers in Singapore, indicative that there is a lack of a self-sustaining population. Multiple reports of hybridising Yellow/Sulphur x Tanimbar Cockatoos are also strongly suggestive that individuals are struggling to find mates from their own species. Moreover, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos are more numerous than this species.
The following species were deleted from our checklist on the basis that there have not been any conclusive records in the nation for over 30 years.
This category houses species that have been recorded in the vicinity of Singaporean waters in the past 30 years. One should keep a lookout as there is a chance that these birds can be encountered within our national boundaries during pelagic trips. We keep an open mind about pelagic species and consider both quantitative (GPS coordinates) and qualitative evidences (descriptions of the sighting and ecological background of the species) when assessing such birds.
Lesser Black-backed Gull: A record from 20 November 2011 along the Singapore Straits with an unfortunate lack of GPS coordinates nor detailed descriptions.
Christmas Frigatebird: A single record outside Singapore waters from 4 May 2013.
Baveja, P., Tang, Q., Lee, J. G., & Rheindt, F. E. (2019). Impact of genomic leakage on the conservation of the endangered Milky Stork. Biological Conservation, 229, 59-66.
The recent sighting of the Javan Plover Charadrius javanicus at a reclaimed site northeast of Singapore island was exciting yet unsurprising. Exciting because it was a first for Singapore and continental Southeast Asia that caught everyone off guard (then again, none of us are really prepared for megas!) and unsurprising because this is a species whose range has been slowly expanding over the years (Iqbal et al., 2011; Eaton et al., 2021). The appearance, and likely breeding of this species is highly relevant to recent changes in regional avifauna, especially when taking into account the first breeding records for the Pied Stilt Himantopus leucocephalus and Black-winged Stilt H. himantopus that were documented at the same site in 2019 and again this year, respectively.
The first image of the Javan Plover taken in Singapore that was shared. Photo credit: Frankie Cheong
A pair of Javan Plovers, with the bird behind being slightly younger. Singapore. Photo credit: Frankie Cheong
The crown scaling and white fringes to the wing coverts is indicative that this bird – still too young to undertake post-breeding dispersal – was likely born in Singapore. Photo credit: Frankie Cheong
Apart from the Javan Plover, several other species traditionally known to be from the Indonesian Archipelago (that comprises Sumatra, Borneo, Java and other Indonesian islands west of the Wallace Line) could potentially be found in Singapore and the neighbouring regions. Here are the distinguishing features of the Javan Plover and seven other species readers can keep an eye out for!
Javan Plover Charadrius javanicus
This species closely resembles the Kentish Plover, a locally uncommon migrant. Features including warm buff ear-coverts and relatively heavier bill and longer legs point to the Javan Plover. For those keen to learn more, detailed distinguishing features are described in Iqbal et al. (2013). Other regular plovers in Singapore can be distinguished by a combination of several other features. Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers have incomplete white-bands on their neck, Malaysian Plover have more “sandy-looking” upperparts, and White-faced Plover has a plain looking face as its name suggests.
Comparisons of the Kentish Plover (left two) and Javan Plover (right two). All pictures taken in Java. While sunlight and white balance can influence apparent colour, the structural differences of the two species can be seen here. The Javan Plover generally has a more buffish impression. Photo credit: Khaleb Yordan
Lesser Sand, Greater Sand, Malaysian and White-faced Plover. Sizes are also not to scale, but Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers are bigger than Javan Plovers, while Kentish and White-faced Plovers have comparable sizes. Photo credit: Greater Sand Plover and White-faced Plover, Goh Cheng Teng. Lesser Sand Plover and Malaysian Plover, Keita Sin
Wandering Whistling Duck Dendrocygna arcuata
Although this species used to be an uncommon introduced species (Wang & Hails, 2007), the last local sighting was in 2016 (eBird) and the feral population has likely crashed for good. Being highly dispersive, wild birds could possibly wander here in due time. In fact, there is a record from Perak, Malaysia, that may conceivably be of wild provenance (but note that the current status of this species in Peninsula Malaysia is also introduced). It can be distinguished from the locally uncommon Lesser Whistling Duck by its lack of yellow eye ring and distinct white flanks.
Wandering Whistling Duck, Singapore. One of the last few birds from the introduced population. Photo credit: Goh Cheng Teng
Lesser Whistling Duck, Singapore. Photo credit: Goh Cheng Teng
Sunda Teal Anas gibberifrons
A species that seems to be undergoing a rapid range expansion across Borneo, Sulawesi and Sumatra (Eaton et al., 2016; 2021; Iqbal, 2016; MNSBCC Records Committee, 2016). With records in Sumatra not too far from Singapore, this funny looking duck might make its way here in the near future. It is much darker and browner than the local Whistling Ducks, with a distinct bulge on the male’s forehead. It prefers brackish water although other wetland habitats are also possible sites to look out for this species. Although various breeds of domestic ducks have been released in Singapore, these typically look more Mallard-like, with variable amount of colouration on their heads and wingpanels. Having said that, most if not all wild ducks in Singapore are typically worth celebration, so if in doubt of identification, it’s best to share the sighting for confirmation.
Sunda Teal, Bali. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Black-backed Swamphen Porphyrioindicus
Swamphen taxonomy is rather incongruent, with much left to be discovered (Garcia-R & Trewick, 2015; Callaghan et al., 2020; Eaton et al., 2021; Gill et al., 2021). Records from Singapore are thought to be the Grey-headed Swamphen viridis (Wang & Hails, 2007; Callaghan et al., 2020), but possible integrades have been recorded before locally (Wells, 1990). The distribution of the Black-backed Swamphen is also contentious especially on Sumatra, with the two forms likely mixing (Wells, 1999; Taylor, 2020; Eaton et al., 2021). The Grey-headed Swamphen is another species struggling to survive in Singapore – a common theme for local waterbirds – and was last seen in 2018 (eBird). But if you do happen to see one, be sure to check its back colour. Black-backed Swamphen can be distinguished by having darker upperparts and face.
Grey-headed Swamphen, Thailand. Photo credit: Lim Hong Yao
Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus novaehollandiae
The Australasian Grebe is capable of undertaking overwater dispersals (Llimona et al., 2020). Recent new records from Sulawesi and southern Sumatra (Eaton et al., 2016; Eaton et al., 2021) suggest a possible range expansion underway. Its habitat requirements are similar to the locally rare Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis from which it can be distinguished by its darker neck and ear coverts. Given that the Little Grebe is already struggling to survive in Singapore at the moment, the chances of the Australasian Grebe breeding here like the plovers did are probably low, but they’re certainly worth looking out for.
Australasian Grebe, Australia. Photo credit: Geraldine Lee
Little Grebe, Singapore. Photo credit: Goh Cheng Teng
Little Black Cormorant Phalacrocorax sulcirostris
Another species that seems to be experiencing a spread across the Sumatran coast (Eaton et al., 2021). Waterbodies – both coastal and inland – are potential locations to find this species. Locally, escaped individuals of the Great Cormorant and Little Cormorant have been documented (Wang & Hails, 2007). There were apparently two local records of the Little Black Cormorant as well in August and September 1993 (Oriental Bird Club, 1994; Lim, 2009). Assessing the provenance of cormorants can be a challenge in Singapore so do try to obtain high quality images of them (especially the legs) if you find one.
Little Black Cormorant, Australia. Photo credit: Dillen Ng
Little Egret Egretta garzetta nigripes
Knowledge on the distribution of this taxon in our region is far from ideal. Present from Indonesia through eastern Australia, it seems to be spreading across Sumatra (Iqbal, 2012; del Hoyo et al., 2020; Eaton et al., 2021). Their local status varies from “uncommon”, “sparing” to “probable” (Wang & Hails, 2007; Robson, 2014; Puan et al., 2020) and there is still much for us to document. Possible integrades have been seen in Singapore too. Various bare part colouration distinguishes this taxon apart from the locally common migrant Little Egret garzetta (Bakewell, 2019), perhaps most distinct among them being their toe colour – black in nigripes, yellow in garzetta in breeding plumage (images 14 & 15). However, caution should be taken during identification as juveniles and non-breeding garzetta can have duller feet and mud can affect feet colour (Robson, 2014).
Little Egret nigripes, Bali. Note that all black feet. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Little Egret garzetta, Singapore. Note the all yellow feet. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus
This species breeds in Australia and is a highly likely contender for showing up on Singapore given that it is an Austral migrant to Borneo and Indonesia, similar to the Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckooChrysococcyx basalis. Multiple people have claimed an encounter with this species in Singapore and it is also listed to be present in Robson (2014). However, none of the records have been adequately substantiated and a record from Thailand in February 2019 (Round et al., 2020) is the only formal record in our region thus far. The Sacred Kingfisher can be distinguished from the Collared Kingfisher T. chloris by its turquoise upperparts (as opposed to blue), smaller overall size and bill, and buff wash on its lores and flanks. Care is required in distinguishing this species from immature Collared Kingfishers as they can show some buff wash as well, but typically with scalloped plumage on their breast.
Sacred Kingfisher, Java. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Collared Kingfisher, Singapore. Photo credit: Keita Sin
Bakewell, D. (2019). The Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes: identification revisited. BirdingAsia, 31, 14-23.
Callaghan, C. T., Pranty, B., Pyle, P., & Patten, M. A. (2020). Gray-headed Swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus), version 1.0. In Rodewald, P. G. & Billerman, S. M. (Eds.), Birds of the World. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.purswa3.01
del Hoyo, J., Martínez-Vilalta, A., Motis, A., Collar, N., Kirwan, G. M., & Christie, D. A. (2020). Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), version 1.0. In Billerman, S.M., Keeney, B.K., Rodewald, P.G. & Schulenberg, T.S. (Eds.), Birds of the World. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.litegr.01
Eaton, J. A., van Balen, S., Brickle, N. W., & Rheindt, F. E. (2016). Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Eaton, J. A., van Balen, S., Brickle, N. W., & Rheindt, F. E. (2021). Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea (Second Edition). Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Lim, K.S. (2009). The Avifauna of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore), Singapore.
Llimona, F., del Hoyo, J., Christie, D. A., Jutglar, F., Garcia, E. F. J., & Kirwan, G. M. (2020). Australasian Grebe (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae), 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.ausgre1.01
Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Robson, C. (2014). Field guide to the birds of South-East Asia (Second Edition). Bloomsbury Publishing, London.
Round, P D., Jahan, I., Thompson, P. & James, D. J. (2020). Mainland Asia’s first record of Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus. BirdingAsia, 34, 123-127.
Taylor, B. (2020). Black-backed Swamphen (Porphyrio indicus), version 1.0. In Rodewald, P.G. (Eds.), Birds of the World. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.purswa4.01
By Goh Cheng Teng Edited by Keita Sin & Lester Tan
The Malaysian Plover Charadrius peronii is a small shorebird that inhabits coastal sandy areas and rocky shores. It is the only resident breeding plover in Singapore island and can be reliably found along the man-made seawall at Marina East. They are classified globally as Near Threatened (BirdLife International, 2017) and locally as Threatened (Lim, 2009).
On the morning of Sunday 27 June 2021, Lester Tan and I were walking along the Marina East seawall when we were halted by a soft twik from a male Malaysian Plover to our front. This was highly unusual as the Malaysian Plovers at Marina East do not typically vocalise, preferring instead to scurry away in silence.
With this thought at the back of our minds, we started scanning the area, locating a female Malaysian Plover slightly behind and below us in short order. We soon spotted movement from the female’s direction, which turned out to be an extra set of legs belonging to a very new Malaysian Plover!
As we approached slowly for better photographs, the female Malaysian Plover brooded the chick for a while (image 1) before running off, presumably to distract us from the chick. We kept our distance and the chick waited a while before getting up to follow the parent (image 2).
Over the next three Sundays, we revisited Marina East to document the chick’s progress (image 3). Each time, we were first greeted by the soft twik of the male Malaysian Plover a distance away from where we would eventually find the female and the chick.
On 4 and 11 July, the weather over Singapore was rainy and the chick was regularly brooded by an adult, probably to aid in regulating body temperature (image 4). By 18 July, the chick had grown discernibly larger. While we did not witness brooding, it still sought cover from threats. Chicks of the Malaysian Plover are precocial and are never fed by parents (Yasué & Dearden, 2008) but we also could not observe any feeding behaviour.
Camouflage and Chick Defense
When disturbed, the chick tucked itself into the nooks and crannies of the seawall. Its mottled brown, white and black plumage provided camouflage while it nestled itself against pieces of marine debris (image 5). We also observed it hiding in grass adjacent to the seawall.
As long as we remained stationary at distance, one of the adults, typically the female, would eventually approach the chick while vocalising a series of soft twiks. The chick would then get up and follow the adult. We did observe brooding by the male as well, though less frequently.
While plovers are among the group of birds known for using the “broken-wing display” in response to disturbances (Gómez-Serrano & López-López, 2017), we did not observe this behaviour. We only observed them vocalising and attempting to lead us away from the chick whenever we ventured too close. Sometimes, an adult approached us while vocalising.
On one occasion when a flock of crows roosted nearby, the chick went into hiding while the adults kept watch from a distance. We observed an adult flying out to sea when dived on by individual crows although it returned to the site shortly after. However, when disturbed by humans, the adults did not fly off and always stayed within visible distance.
On Sunday 25 July 2021, we made our way to Marina East again. This time however, there was no twik greeting from the male Malaysian Plover. The female was nearby bathing and preening in one of the puddles atop the seawall. The pair of Malaysian Plovers had seemingly reverted to their typical non-vocalizing and more confiding selves, and the chick was nowhere to be found. The absence of the chick had been noted the day before, with adults reportedly being skittish (Francis Yap, pers. comms.).
The chick was independently discovered by Max Khoo a day before us on 26 June (pers. comms.), and would have been at least 28 days old, within the fledging window of 27-33 days after hatching (Wiersma et al., 2020). Unfortunately, we later found out that the plovers were preyed upon by a House Crow Corvus splendens, putting the journey of the young bird to an end.
Nest Habitat and Conservation
Malaysian Plovers nest in coastal locations that typically include an intertidal mudflat for foraging, a sandy beach for nesting, and a shrubby vegetated area that can provide cover for chicks during disturbances (Yasué & Dearden, 2008). Natural habitats suitable for the nesting of the Malaysian Plover are declining locally due to developments. However, many local nesting records have been on reclaimed land and coastal defense structures – they have previously been documented laying their eggs on the seawall (image 6; Nicholas Lim, pers. comms.).
The diet of the Malaysian Plover is poorly known (Wiersma et al., 2020) but we have observed them foraging on algal cover on the seawall where they appear to feed on invertebrates, or perhaps even microorganisms. Interestingly, they are rarely observed feeding on the adjoining mudflat where other waders have been observed.
Across five weekends of observations, this was the only family of Malaysian Plovers sighted along the entire stretch of the Marina East seawall. During the migratory season, presumably a non-breeding period, there would typically be more Malaysian Plovers scattered along the seawall, including multiple male and female birds. Their highly territorial behaviour (Yasué & Dearden, 2008) likely makes it difficult for multiple pairs to share the territory when nesting.
Our observations suggest that the plovers might be adaptable to nesting on artificial structures, provided that areas necessary for food, egg-laying and cover are present. Locally, breeding has been recorded in March-April (Lim, 2009) and July-September (BESG, 2006; Goh, 2016), as well as in June this year (Raghav Narayanswamy, pers. comms.).
The presence of these pockets of breeding habitat are crucial to the continued presence of the Malaysian Plover in Singapore. Protection and management of such areas from human intrusion during the breeding season where the birds are most sensitive to disturbances can be considered.
Warm thanks to Francis, Max and Raghav for insights about their breeding, to Nicholas for sharing his photo and to the SBP team (Dillen, Movin, Sandra) for comments.
Lim, K.S. (2009). The Avifauna of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore). Singapore.
Wiersma, P., Kirwan, G. M., & Boesman, P. F. D. (2020). Malaysian Plover (Charadrius peronii), version 1.0. In J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana (Eds.), Birds of the World. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.malplo1.01
The latest revision of the Singapore Bird List is now derived from IOC World Bird List Version 11.2. The downloadable list (in Excel format) is available HERE.
The following are the major changes:
Addition: Wedge-tailed Shearwater – First record of a single bird at Woodlands on 22 June 1998, second record of a single bird at Bishan Ang Mo Kio Park on 23 June 2021. Addition:Malayan Black Magpie – First record of a single bird at Hindhede Nature Park on 9 June 2021. Addition:Siberian House Martin – First record of a single bird at Neo Tiew Harvest Lane on 3 January 2021.
Along with the checklist update we are happy to introduce new members to the Singapore Birds Project team. Dillen, Keita, Movin and Sandra will be contributing ideas through articles and the checklist management. We take pride in ensuring that the checklist is regularly, accurately and transparently updated. Please feel free to drop any of us a message if you have any queries or suggestions!
Pelagic birds are rather scarce in Singapore, so news of the grounded Shearwater found at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park on 23 June must have caught everybody by surprise. The bird was originally found by a passer-by below a HDB block in the area and then transported to the park. It was later spotted by William Khaw, who alerted the birdwatching community and ACRES. Many others contacted ACRES as well but despite being rescued, the bird did not survive. I was fortunate enough to take a look at the bird’s carcass with my colleagues and managed to get some measurements that are reproduced below. While photographs of the bird are aplenty online, I hope that these numbers will help serve as primary documentation for future birders as well as help those still wavering on the identification.
Measurements of the Bishan bird (mm)
Measurements (mm) of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters (WT) and Short-tailed Shearwaters (ST)
WT: 292.99±9.99 ST: 267.11±13.06 (Bull et al., 2005)
Mid-toe (including claw)
Mid-toe (without claw)
The Wedge-tailed Shearwater Ardenna pacifica can be distinguished from the more locally expected (though still rare) Short-tailed Shearwater A. tenuirostris from a number of features. These include the bill shape (comparatively long bill to head ratio) and the tail extension (long in Wedge-tailed Shearwater, shorter in Short-tailed Shearwater). For those who are less familiar, comparison of the measurements against other sources unequivocally confirm the identification as a Wedge-tailed Shearwater; the similar looking Short-tailed Shearwater measures much smaller.
Of the three species of Shearwaters that have been recorded regionally so far, the Short-tailed Shearwater is the most expected around the nation. Although a rare bird locally, it has been reported semi-regularly in recent years along the Singapore Straits during pelagic trips (https://ebird.org/species/shtshe). Instead, there is only one record of the Wedge-tailed Shearwater so far, yet another grounded bird that was photographed at Woodlands on 22 June 1998 (Wang & Hails, 2007). Coincidentally just 1 day apart, although 23 years ago! The third species, Streaked Shearwater Calonectris leucomelas is expected, though no verifiable records are present as of yet.
If you find any wild animal that needs help, please contact ACRES at 97837782 and/or the NParks hotline at 18004761600.
Massive thanks to the staffs at ACRES, especially Kalai and Ava, who helped keep and pass the carcass to the NUS Avian Evolution Lab, to all who assisted in the rescue process, and to William Khaw for sharing the sighting with the community. I would also like to express my gratitude to Art Toh, Dillen Ng, Martin Kennewell, Movin Nyanasengeran and Tan Hui Zhen for the help in preparing this short piece.
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.
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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.