“How to start birding in Singapore?”. An article by Eldon Ng.

How to start birding in Singapore? 

ELDON NG speaks to bird photographers and members of the Singapore Birds Project to identify birding tips and tricks.

By Eldon Ng How Wei 

Buffy Fish Owl photographed at Hampstead Wetlands Park by Mr Adrian Silas Tay, who has been spotting and photographing birds for over 11 years.

You hear chirping noises all around you. You see something darting around. Before you know it, it’s gone. You look up and about. However, you just can’t seem to spot these birds. 

You wonder to yourself, “What does it take to spot birds in Singapore?” 

To get you started in birding, here are three species of birds recommended by Ms Clarice Yan Pei Ling and Mr Zachary Chong Zhe Kai, members of the Singapore Birds Project. These unique and uncommon birds can be found in Singapore year-round, making them great choices to kickstart one’s birding journey! 

  1. Buffy Fish Owl (Ketupa ketupu)
Buffy Fish Owl. Photo credit: Dillen Ng
  1. Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela)
Crested Serpent Eagle. Photo credit: Dillen Ng.
  1. Short-tailed Babbler (Pellorneum malaccense)
Short-tailed Babbler. Photo credit: Keita Sin.

Here are some tips to follow so that you can spot these birds easily! 

  1. Do ample research 

Read up all about the bird. Knowing the type of habitat the bird resides in, past sightings of it and where it has been seen recently will increase your chances of spotting the bird.

Here are some locations where the Buffy Fish Owl, Crested Serpent Eagle and Short-tailed Babbler are commonly sighted. 

Buffy Fish Owl: Hampstead Wetlands Park, Jurong Lake Gardens, Nanyang Technological University, Pasir Ris Park, Singapore Botanic Gardens, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Ulu Pandan Park Connector.

Crested Serpent Eagle: Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Goldhill Avenue, Ketam Quarry, Kranji Marshes and Southern Ridges.

Short-tailed Babbler: Central Catchment Nature Reserve and Rifle Range.

Additional information can be found from this bird list curated by the Singapore Birds Project. 

Another key thing to note is the call of a bird. Familiarising yourself with the sound of the bird will make birding much easier when you are out in the field. 

“The [Short-tailed] Babblers are quite hard to spot because they usually duck around the undergrowth, but you can listen out for the call and locate it by the call,” says Ms Yan. Some calls can be relatively distinct and easy to pick up, like that of the Short-tailed babbler.

[Recording of the Short-tailed Babbler. Sound recording: Keita Sin].

A place you can visit to learn such information is xeno-canto, a website that shares recordings of birds across the globe to familiarise yourself with bird calls. 

  1. Join the birding community

Facebook is a common platform used by birders in Singapore. Bird Sightings is one of the Facebook groups that provides a platform for birders to share their sightings openly. To date, the group consists of 10,400 members. 

“[Bird Sightings] is a community of sharing where we try and promote bird watching by providing everybody with an equal chance to access the birds,” says Mr Adrian Silas Tay, 41, one of the admins of the Facebook group, “if you are new to [birding], you may not have a lot of contacts or networks to help you in your journey. The Facebook group would then help you.” 

The community of birders in Singapore is very open in sharing about birding. So don’t be afraid to ask questions! This also applies to Mr Tay himself. 

When he doesn’t recognise the species of a bird, he posts a picture of it on the Facebook group, where other birders will assist in identifying the bird. 

  1. Equipment and attire 

After doing research and getting to know the community of birders around you, you are almost set to go out in the field and spot these birds. However, you will need the right attire and equipment to do so. 

Here are some essentials that you’ll need to bring along with you:

  1. Binoculars/Spotting scope
  2. Water bottle 

Binoculars are extremely important. Birds are usually up in the trees far away or darting around. Additionally, most birds are skittish. 

“They do not like people to come too close to them. When you get too close to them, their behaviour would change and they might not be as natural as before,” says Mr William Tan, 57, a wildlife photographer who has mainly been photographing birds these two years due to the pandemic.

A birder observes birds from a distance through his binoculars. Photo credit: Joy Wong

There is no set attire for birding, but here are some recommendations: 

  1. Dark colours
  2. Long pants
  3. Sports shoes/Boots 
  4. Hat

Wear darker colours so birds do not spot you easily. Wearing long pants is also recommended to avoid getting bitten by bugs. Covered shoes like sports shoes are a must. However, if you are visiting a forest area that can get muddy, boots are recommended. 

  1. Go out and have fun 

Now, you are all set to go out in the field and spot these birds! Just remember to observe the birds from a distance to avoid stressing them out and lastly, go out there and have fun spotting! 

“Don’t stress over bird watching. It’s supposed to be a cathartic, relaxing experience,” says Mr Chong.

Why you should start using eBird!

Imagine a world where you could predict the arrival of your favourite migratory bird, get immediate identification help for an unfamiliar bird, and contribute to science and conservation just by being out in the field. I have some fantastic news for you…that’s the world we live in now!

BirdCast is a forecast map that utilises weather forecast maps to model bird migration. Scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are able to track data on how birds travel, allowing myriads of research ranging from the effects of climate change, to single events such as the influences of hurricanes on bird movements to be projected. One of the key components that makes BirdCast functional is data from eBird. The most rudimentary form of data – actual bird encounters from the birdwatchers in the field – are combined with highly intricate weather surveillance infrastructure, to make fairly accurate predictions of bird migration. A well-known example of how eBird data has transformed the birding experience of beginners is the Merlin platform which uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify birds. Users simply need to upload a photograph or sound recording of the bird and the AI will suggest several potential candidates. This complex AI did not magically appear, though – it was made possible through feeding tons of photographs and sound recordings to the computing system, once again with the help of eBird data. These platforms allow birding to be much more targeted, focused, and friendly, both for beginners and the most hardcore of birdwatchers. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Now here’s the catch: at present, BirdCast is only available in the United States. The platform was first launched in 2018, and research is still concentrated in the area where eBird data is most abundant. On the other hand, although Merlin started out being only available in United States initially, there is now a package for Singapore, though it still struggles with similar looking birds such as Phylloscopus warblers. With enough contribution from the regional birding community, other platforms such as BirdCast will hopefully be made available to us as well. A massive way you could contribute to improving the precision of these tools is by contributing to eBird.

eBird is a citizen-science platform that was first launched over 10 years ago (Sullivan et al., 2009) and anybody is able to create an account for free. Through the platform, bird sighting information, along with their photographs and sound recordings, can be uploaded. A highly user-friendly mobile phone application is available and all you need to do when you are out birding is to start a list, select a location, and just tap a button that corresponds to a species you encounter in the field. Detailed information such as sex, behaviour, and other observations can be optionally added. A web platform is also available where you can later upload the photographs and sound recordings you took.

A simple example of how the eBird mobile app works. All you need to do is tap some simple buttons!

In your eBird account, not only will you be able to check your daily sightings, but you can also track your birding statistics by generating monthly or yearly summaries. Furthermore, there is a particular function that you would definitely love as a birder – the needs and rarities alert. These alerts will send you emails when other eBirders find a bird that you need (i.e. not recorded in your eBird account) or are locally significant. In these alerts, you can even set multiple filters to suit your needs: for example, if you have seen a Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha elsewhere before, you might not necessarily find the need to see one in Singapore so you can filter it out from your personalised eBird alert list. On the other hand, if you are doing a big year, you might want to search for relatively common birds such as the Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica the moment one is locally seen.

The eBird settings page where you can subscribe to your preferred alerts.

Some might have reservations regarding immediate sharing of sightings – certain sites such as housing estates might be sensitive, or some birds might be nesting when you find them. In such cases, you can also upload your data post-hoc through an easily formattable excel sheet once you are comfortable with making the data public. Likewise, if you prefer to be private, there are options to upload your sightings anonymously or hide your lists (you will still need an account, but your name/list will not be displayed publicly). Additionally, concerns about the dangers of publicising locations for species such as the Critically Endangered Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus due to the presence of poaching activities can be eased: there is a “sensitive species” filter set by regional reviewers that hides specific sites.

You might also be thinking: “I’m not a bird expert, what if I make mistakes?” – don’t worry! eBird data is constantly curated by regional reviewers that will ensure that the information is as accurate as possible. When potential mistakes are noticed, you will be notified via email. Moreover, when you are submitting data via the eBird application, the platform will flag out potential rarities that will allow you to enter specifics of your sightings. These filters are constantly reviewed and updated by the local expert (the eBird reviewer) to ensures that the flags do not appear irrelevantly. Uploading photographs and sound recordings will also be helpful, as not only is the reviewer able to check the data, any eBird user is able to report incorrect identifications. Similarly, you might be apprehensive about the perceived “quality” of the data you are contributing: “what if all the birds are common and boring? Won’t such data be useless?” – the answer is no! Data of all species – however common they are – are very valuable when conducting scientific research and consequently conservation planning. For example, if there is a site with 100 checklists per month, mostly filled with common species such as Yellow-vented Bulbuls P. goiavier and Brown-throated Sunbirds Anthreptes malacensis, we can be quite sure that conclusions we make based on information from the area is fairly accurate. Conversely, if checklists at such sites are not created because the species assemblage is “mundane”, the area will end up becoming a big question mark – could there be an undetected population of Greater Green Leafbirds Chloropsis sonnerati hiding there? Could there be huge numbers of introduced waxbills colonising the place? Furthermore, species that we think as “common” today might not continue to be in the future and vice versa. For example, the Red-wattled Lapwing Vanellus indicus, ubiquitous in most grassfields in Singapore today, was actually a locally rare bird just 20 years ago (Lok & Subaraj, 2009; Wang & Hails, 2007)! A steady stream of checklist will tremendously improve the data quality.

In Singapore, many of us share our sightings through social media sites such as Facebook groups or Telegram/WhatsApp groups; the eBird patronship fraction in our community is still relatively low. However, the number of eBirders has been rapidly picking up since ~2015, and the impacts of this increased usership have been tremendous. For example, Singapore’s first Siberian House Martin Delichon lagopodum and Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus were only discovered months after the birds were gone by A/P Frank Rheindt from the NUS Avian lab when he was scrolling through eBird photographs of the similar looking Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus and Crow-billed Drongo Dicrurus annectans. Similarly, counts from eBird were very useful in quantifying the sheer oddity of the 2019/2020 migration season we enjoyed two years back, especially for species including the Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica and Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida (Sin, Ng, & Kennewell, 2020). Data are not just restricted to members from the Cornell lab, but can be downloaded by any citizen-scientist or researcher upon request. These database, unlike information that are stored in notebooks, scattered pdfs, or people’s memory, are easily searchable and accessible. Both scientific and conservation action can be achieved with fine scale information, to which you can be a part of.

eBird data confirmed that the Red-rumped Swallow occurred in very high numbers during the 2019/2020 migratory season. This photograph was taken in Japan. Photo credit: Keita Sin

With all that said, I hope this article has broadened your perspective on how you can be an important contributor to bird science as well as improve the birding experience in our local scene!

Acknowledgements

A massive, massive thanks to Martin Kennewell (Singapore’s eBird reviewer) for the constant efforts in promoting the platform locally as well as taking on the tremendous task of moderating the data throughout the past few years. I also thank my team members from the Singapore Bird Project (Dillen, Francis, Movin, Raghav, Sandra), as well as Tan Hui Zhen and Geraldine Lee for comments on this article. Last but not least, a huge thanks to all eBird users out there, and if you are not one, I hope this article has convinced you to be one!

Disclaimer: Cornell is not paying me to write this article and I am also not presently involved in any research with them at the moment (I wish they did, and I wish I were!). I am an ardent eBird user and believe in the importance of data sharing and accurate data curation by the appropriate reviewer.

Literature cited

Sin, Y. C. K., Ng, D., & Kennewell, M. (2020). An unprecedented influx of vagrants into Malaysia and Singapore during the 2019–2020 winter period. BirdingASIA, 33, 142-147. Link: https://avianevonusdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2020/09/sin-et-al-2020_unprecedented-influx-of-vagrants-into-malaysia-and-singapore-2019-2020-1.pdf

Sullivan, B. L., Wood, C. L., Iliff, M. J., Bonney, R. E., Fink, D., & Kelling, S. (2009). eBird: A citizen-based bird observation network in the biological sciences. Biological Conservation, 142(10), 2282-2292. Link: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rick-Bonney/publication/248200195_eBird_A_citizen-based_bird_observation_network_in_the_biological_sciences/links/5747432808ae14040e28cf96/eBird-A-citizen-based-bird-observation-network-in-the-biological-sciences.pdf

Lok, A., & Subaraj, R. (2009). Lapwings (Charadriidae: Vanellinae) of Singapore. Nature in Singapore, 2, 125-134. Link: https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/app/uploads/2017/06/2009nis125-134.pdf

Wang, L. K., & Hails, C. J. (2007). An annotated checklist of the birds of Singapore. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement, 15, 1-179. Link: https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/publications/raffles-bulletin-of-zoology/supplements/supplement-no-15/

What bird is this, and why?

TLDR;

When posting a photo on social media to ask for ID help

    1. Crop and brighten/darken the photos sufficiently so that the bird can be properly seen
    2. Edit the colours accurately to reflect what you saw in the field
    3. Post multiple angles so that different features of the bird can be seen
    4. Provide information about where and when the photo was taken
    5. Make a guess!

When helping someone with ID

    1. 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!

    1. 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.

White-throated Needletail_31-10-17_Singapore_SMALL
Dot-in-the-sky Bird?
    1. 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.

White-throated Needletail_31-10-17_Singapore_DARK
Looks like a Needletail, but still can’t tell what it is…
White-throated Needletail_31-10-17_Singapore
Ah, this is a White-throated Needletail! (Henderson Waves, 31 October 2017)
    1. 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.

Brown-Streaked Flycatcher 2_15-08-17_Singapore_GREY
What happened to the picture? What colour is this?
Brown-Streaked Flycatcher 2_15-08-17_Singapore_CORRECTED
The colours seem much warmer than the Asian Brown Flycatcher. Looks like a potential Brown-streaked! But I’d like to look at the upperparts to be 100% sure…
    1. 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.

Brown-Streaked Flycatcher_15-08-17_Singapore
Same bird as before. Brownish fringes to the wings and coverts rules out the Asian Brown Flycatcher – this is a Brown-streaked!
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”

Grey-cheeked Green Pigeon_02-08-19_Indonesia_Bali
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.

Blue-winged Pitta_19-07-20_Singapore
Blue-winged or Mangrove Pitta?

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.

Asian Glossy Starling_29-01-14_Singapore
One of my first few photographs as a birder. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo or Asian Glossy Starling?

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.

Acknowledgements

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.

Happy birding!

A quick way to organize bird pictures

One of the pitfalls in nature photography in the digital age is that we take way too many pictures to manage and somehow, when asked to retrieve something we took 3-4 years back, we’re stumped as to where we put the picture files. Thankfully if we are using Adobe Lightroom, there are many ways to organise the files. Using a combination of Lightroom and simple storage in Google Drive, I have manage to save significant photos of the birds organised by their English names and quickly retrievable and shared with those who want them.

filenaming-write-1

Today’s example is the processed Greater Sand Plover pictures stored as above in Google Drive, named in a logical way, bird_name-date-rawfilename-folder.jpg together with the rest of the other bird species (see above). This means at a quick glance I can sort out quickly my processed photo library by the bird name, when it was taken and which folder the original RAW file is kept. How to go about doing it without significant effort and with other added benefits?

filenaming-write-2

The above is the original file being processed. You can see that the RAW file name and folder at the bottom left. Since I want to keep a processed copy of this file, I go to the Library tab, and put in the bird name as the Title in the Metadata section, and the description I want for this bird at the Caption box (see white box above).

filenaming-write-3

Then when we want to export, we go to File > Export menu and a Export One File dialog box appear. You noticed that I rename the file with a custom name. This is a preset created by clicking on the rename combo box.

filenaming-write-4

This will open up the Filename Template Editor. You will see the various options displayed and you can customise to your heart’s content. Since this preset can be saved, the next time around, you can just reuse it without doing anything at all. So it’s just a one time effort.

What’s the benefit of this way? Perhaps a simple renaming manually will be easier than tinkering? For one, by doing all these steps, you are basically able to filter out the bird name in the Lightroom catalog in the future. Also, if you were to upload to Flickr, or your own Facebook Photo Album, the Title and the Caption will appear automatically. The same thing happens in WordPress and other sites that can read the metadata. So if you were to share your file with these things tagged, you will have an easier time filling in details of something you took ages ago and probably cannot remember fully any more.

Hope this helps you in organising your picture library. Please pardon the atrocious writing style. This was meant as a quick and dirty write-up.