Migrant bar charts – Sep 23 update

We have added 26 species to our new migrant bar charts in the last two weeks, which can be accessed HERE. They will continue to be released in batches over the coming months. To learn more about these, you can read our summary blog post.

Some of the species added in this update:

Migrant bar charts – Sep 9 update

We have added 31 species to our new migrant bar charts in the last two weeks, which can be accessed HERE. They will continue to be released in batches over the coming months. To learn more about these, you can read our summary blog post.

Some of the species added in this update:

Migrant bar charts – Aug 28 update

We have added 21 species to our new migrant bar charts, which can be accessed HERE. They will continue to be released in batches over the coming months. To learn more about these, you can read our summary blog post.

Some of the species added in this update:

Our second guided walk with the Biodiversity Friends Forum!

A Malaysian Pied Fantail. Photo: Zachary Chong

Back in Bishan-AMK Park, the Singapore Birds Project held a second guided walk for members of the Biodiversity Friends Forum (BFF).  As part of the Biodiversity Roundtable, BFF aims to provide opportunities for members of the nature community to take action and learn about Singapore’s biodiversity. 

On 22 May 2022, led by Movin, Sandra and Zachary, our group of eager birdwatchers set off. While the walk was not conducted during the migratory season, it provided us with an opportunity to focus on resident birds that we often overlook. Here are some noteworthy sightings on our walk!

The walk started with a flash of colour. A Stork-billed Kingfisher flew past gracefully, before perching out of sight. As Singapore’s largest resident kingfisher, this charismatic bird was an excellent introduction to the wealth of avifauna found in Singapore.

As the Red-breasted and Rose-ringed Parakeets chattered up in the sky, a female Common Flameback flew across our path while uttering its distinctive and rapid call. This woodpecker is commonly seen in parkland habitat, like that of Bishan-AMK Park! Nearer to the waterway, a Purple Heron perched atop a tree. While many may associate the Purple Heron with the consumption of fish, herons are able to swallow small mammals – up to the size of a rabbit – whole. 

The ever-present Black-naped Orioles and Common Ioras impressed participants with their repertoire of vocalisations. Not to be left out,  pairs of Brown-throated Sunbirds and Ashy Tailorbirds chased each other in the trees.

An Ashy Tailorbird. Photo: Zachary Chong

Blue-throated Bee-eaters and Pacific Swallows sallied from their perches to catch unsuspecting insects while a grumpy-looking Pacific Swallow juvenile sat and eagerly awaited its food. When the parent flew close, the juvenile took off, initiating food transfer in mid-air. Acrobatics!

A Malaysian Pied Fantail harassing an Asian Koel. Photo: Sandra Chia

Wrapping up the walk, we observed a Asian Koel as it sat stoically, before getting ferociously attacked by a pair of territorial Malaysian Pied Fantails. Numbers proved to be too much for the koel to handle and it made a tactical retreat. A fantastic spectacle for us, not so much for the poor koel though.

Zachary wrapping up the walk with a quick debrief. Photo: Sandra Chia

We would like to extend a huge thank you to all the participants for joining our guided walk and 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

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the team for their comments on the article.

Exploring birds on this day in history

Ever wondered what rare gems were found in Singapore on this day in past years? With the Singapore Birds Project’s new On this day page, you can do just that.

Drawing on our collection of nearly 1,500 records and counting, this page highlights past records on this day in history. As always, every record is accompanied by details and photos where possible.

We hope this will be a valuable resource for birders keen to find megas not seen lately (like this White-throated Rock Thrush, recorded at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve on this day 11 years ago).

And as always, we’re working to develop more similarly useful tools for the community, so stay tuned, and happy birding!

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.  

More ways to interact with Singapore’s rare bird data

Struggling to come up with your next birding destination or your next target bird? Want to find out the best time of year to look for a certain species?

Using past records as a guide is often the best way to make more productive birding journeys, so the team at the Singapore Birds Project has been working on what we hope will be a useful resource to help inform our readers.

Introducing the new, improved Rarities List page, in which we document locally rare species – now with added tables and bar charts which summarize past records. For an example, see the image below.

Clicking the bar chart icon brings up the species chart for Northern Boobook – most records are in early November but a sizable number occur in the spring too… so keep an eye out in the weeks ahead! Clicking on each bar brings up a summary of all the records during that time of the year, and you can click on those rows in the table to view more details on each sighting.

You can also click the table icon next to the species name to show all the records of that species in a tabular format.

Our database now contains over 1400 records and counting – and all this wouldn’t be possible without your support. Thank you, and keep those submissions coming!

Happy Lunar New Year to all those celebrating, and here’s to more megas in the Year of the Tiger!

[UPDATE 10/2/2022] The computational technique used to place individual records in different weeks was modified slightly and the screenshot above was replaced with the newer format.

My Accidental Sprint Year

Written by Max Khoo

If you asked me a year ago in November 2020, I would have told you that I’m a photographer and not so much a birder. Well, I could identify the common garden birds, but saying I could confidently identify anything beyond that would be a stretch. 

I know many who got into birding as a hobby (or obsession) because they were first mesmerised by a particular colourful bird or an interesting behaviour of a bird. However, what really got me started birding seriously in 2021 wasn’t really about the birds. It was about the sense of exploration, the wondrous feeling of being outdoors and surrounded by nature, and the need to escape somewhere during my free time due to an especially stressful start to the year at work. I give all credit to the transient ponds of the now-gone Neo Tiew Harvest Lane that ignited that spark in me. That place was magical at sunrise: Chilly air filled with the dawn chorus of birds, with not a single building or soul in sight, and the birds just happened to be there and I really wanted to know what they were. Whenever I was there, I felt like I was transported overseas and free from any worries.

20 Dec 2020 – Neo Tiew Harvest Lane. These ponds were created as part of the land preparation works before the agricultural farm that now sits atop them were built.

Since I was already spending my weekends outdoors exploring places like Neo Tiew Harvest Lane, I decided to take birding a bit more seriously, with a methodical approach. The eBird app helped me do just that, allowing me to diligently record all my trips and sightings. The species write-up pages of the Singapore Birds Project were also like my bible, where I constantly referred to them to check if I was identifying a bird accurately.  

Heatmap of the birding sites I visited in 2021. As I recorded most of my birding trips on the eBird App this year, I could extract the information and see which sites I visited the most. No surprise that Marina East, my current favourite birding site, came out on top.

In the first half of the year, I was birding at my own pace. I went birding alone, and visited where I felt like rather than twitching (exceptions: when the extremely rare Green Broadbill and Black-thighed Falconet were sighted) or heading to sites where I could see some birds that could only be seen during a particular time of the year. Towards the second half of the year, my good friends, seeing that I have seen a good number of species so far, began seeding the idea that I should do a ‘big year’ (this involves the ‘simple’ task of seeing as many species as possible in a year). As generational talent Albert Low puts it, I resolutely refused this idea for various reasons. I never felt like I was good enough and ready to do it since I just started my first proper year of birding, and I’ve already missed many rare birds early in the year (e.g. rarer resident birds that are easier to see during the breeding season; seabirds along the Singapore Straits on pelagic trips). But perhaps it was my love for challenges (challenging myself to become a better birder, as well as to see if I could claw my way up and catch up to Jen Wei (fellow big year birder) who was leading by leaps and bounds at that point) and the pandemic (when else would I be stuck in Singapore for almost the whole year?!?) that I decided to commit to this mammoth task starting September 2021. From here on, my accidental sprint year was born, with an initial target of trying to reach 220 species.

There are too many stories of this accidental sprint year to tell. However, one of the most memorable would definitely be making more than 5 trips at the start of September, trying to see the lone Greater Sand Plover amongst the rest of the Lesser Sand Plovers at Yishun Dam, and finally deciding to give up (and be at peace with it mentally) after I walked away from Yishun Dam on the fifth trip. In the end, I managed to see the bird atop floating solar panels in the reservoir beside where my car was parked, away from where it would normally be, and this was what really gave me the push and confidence I needed for the sprint. The remaining of the four months was a whirlwind of trying to chase every passage migrant, twitch every rare bird like a crazy headless chicken, and visit many new places in Singapore that I never knew existed. Along the way, some birds were easier seen than others where oftentimes I got really lucky, while some eluded me even after I tried my best. 

Can you spot the Greater Sand Plover (my 191th bird of the year) amongst the Lesser Sand Plovers? Check below for the answer! I dedicate this species as my bird of the year not only due to the time I spent trying to find it, but how it was a technical challenge for me to identify it in the field: I could not sit around and wait for the bird to appear as it could be right in front of me amongst the tens/hundreds of tiny Lesser Sand Plovers that frequent the mudflats, and I had to know the features well enough to be able to distinguish the species in the field.
Click to reveal where the bird is hiding!
Greater Sand Plover!


Fast forward to the last week of December, I managed to tick 4 new species by 30th December to reach my 266th bird, way beyond my initial target. However, I was determined to see if I could give it a final push to hit 270 species, and drew up an elaborate plan for new year’s eve. I was joined by the esteemed Albert Low, where we tried and failed to see the
Pheasant-tailed Jacana at Marina East at dawn, before successfully seeing the skulking Lanceolated Warbler in the fields of Central Boulevard at mid-morning. The unforgiving north-east monsoon rain then came storming in, but we still managed to find the Plaintive Cuckoo at Jurong Lake Gardens by early noon. We then tried for the Orange-headed and Eyebrowed Thrush at Hindhede Nature Park, Greater Coucal at Bukit Brown, and the Phylloscopus warblers at MacRitchie, but the weather did not hold up. We were just out of luck, and were almost ready to give up at 6pm. Somehow, the skies cleared with the last hour of daylight remaining, and we decided on a last minute attempt to return to Bukit Brown for a second try for the Greater Coucal (also a bogey bird that I missed all year). Upon reaching the site at 6.55pm, there it was, atop a roadside tree, singing at the top of its lungs for a few seconds, before flying off into the distance. That was my 269th bird of the year, and a great end to my accidental sprint year (click here to see a breakdown of my list)!

Left: My 267th bird of the year, a skulking Lanceolated Warbler which appeared for a few seconds. Right: My 268th bird of the year, an adult Plaintive Cuckoo in the rain.

To be able to evaluate my report card of 269 bird species seen in a year, I was curious to know how many species were recorded by the whole of Singapore’s birding community in 2021 (or even other years for comparison). All I knew was that 2021 has been an exceptionally good year for birding in Singapore, with eleven new species being recorded for the first time. However, no such data was available, and so I took it upon myself to figure this out. With the help of eBird, I was able to find the records of every species. What made it even easier was Martin Kennewell’s immense effort to log every rare sighting that appeared on other social media platforms into eBird as well. Thank you Martin! The Singapore tally for the year was a total of 326 bird species recorded (see here for the complete list)! This meant that Jen Wei saw 89.6% of all bird species that were in Singapore this year with his record-breaking big year run of 292 species! Truly impressive (and superb)! A score of 269 meant I saw 82.5% of all species recorded, not too bad I think. 

In most years, many of the rarer birds will appear in Singapore after September as the temperatures in the northern hemisphere begin to fall, triggering the start of the southward migration of many bird species to or through Singapore. This got me thinking as to how many bird species were recorded in the 8 months of January to August 2021 vis-a-vis September to December 2021 alone. What would the number of species I would have been able to see if I saw all of them since September, given my big year truly only started then? Can the next person give it a shot for a big year by having only to sprint for the last 4 months? Again, after dabbling with the data, the last 4 months of 2021 saw an impressive 303 species recorded, 18 more than the first 8 months combined! The numbers would possibly have been even higher if trips out to Singapore Straits to observe pelagic birds were not cancelled due to the Covid-19 restrictions.      

Total number of bird species recorded in Singapore in 2021, and a breakdown of it from January to August and September to December. Birds featured in the illustration, clockwise from top left: Siberian House Martin, Cinereous Vulture, and Black Redstart. Reference images used for illustration by: Francis Yap
Blue: The total number of species that I saw at the end of each month in 2021. Dark grey area shows the progress from September to December when the sprint was on! Green: Total number of species that I saw at the end of each month counting only the birds I saw from September.

2021 has been an incredibly enjoyable year of birding for me, and I’d like to think that I’ve improved quite a bit and can now call myself a birder. I hope my journey and this article can inspire many others to start their own big year journey, even if it means not having a lot of birding experience or sprinting for just 4 months. Remember, a big year is not about the competition, but more about the challenge to better yourself!

Thank you to everyone who helped me along the way this year. They include my “well-intentioned” friends Albert Low, Dillen Ng, Bryan Lim, Sandra Chia, and Benjamin Lee, who have been patiently guiding, correcting my IDs, showing me spots, and supplying me with real-time updates of sightings and megas; the Singapore Birds Project team for running an excellent resource page and Facebook group and helping me with the birds in the field (Francis, Keita, etc.); birders who use eBird (thereby allowing me to closely follow the ‘recent visits’ and ‘rare bird alert’ pages) especially Martin, Jen Wei, Raghav, Subha and helping with the exact locations as well as in the field; and everyone in the community who were so willing to share bird sighting locations and spotting the birds (Oliver, Frank, Ramesh, Jacky, Alan, Movin, Kim Chuah, See Toh, Li Si, Clarice, Tuck Loong, Lester, Rovena, and many more that I’ve missed). 2021 was a great year that will be etched deeply in my memory, and it would have been nothing without the company and guidance along the way.

Year in Review – 2021!

Here we are on the last day of 2021!

We’ve seen huge changes in the local birding community this year. Many – and really, MANY – new birders picking up this magnificent hobby. From young to old, a large number of people have slowly turned birdwatching into a lifestyle choice. Our partner Facebook group, Bird Sightings, has reached a milestone of 10,000 members, and our website was visited by over 130,000 people.

Our community has been blessed by a large number of national firsts – 11 in the whole year. The second half of the 2020/2021 season brought us specialties such as Asian Emerald Cuckoo and Cotton Pygmy Goose, and the first half of the 2021/2022 season brought us marvellous views of unexpected vagrants including Tree Pipit, Spotted Flycatcher and Black Redstart. The single female Amur Falcon hunted around Lorong Halus for weeks and enriched both the memories and memory cards of many.

Amidst the busy chasing of birds, the Singapore Birds Project has also accomplished a lot this year. Our website was launched in 2016 and we’ve finally completed all of our species write-ups: 428 in total – one detailed page for every species in the Singapore Bird Checklist. We also successfully launched our Singapore Birds Database on 11 November 2021 and our project has gained attention from the Straits Times and highly renowned journals such as Ibis, which is maintained by the British Ornithological Union. Not only that, our Singapore Bird Records Committee has received an astounding 93 submissions in a mere six weeks since the launch of our database. Our Records Committee is also in the midst of busily preparing our operating guidelines which will be made available online as soon as possible. 11 quality articles have been published on our blog, and we’ve expanded our team of members who are committed to serve the birdwatching community.

The 2021/2022 season is not over yet – more rarities might still be coming our way!

Happy New Year, Happy Birding, and thank you all for supporting the Singapore Birds Project.

Loke Wan Tho – A Company of Birds

Published in 1959, the book “A Company of Birds” is a collection of bird photographs, ornithological notes and a semi-autobiography by Loke Wan Tho. These days, not many people recognise the name. Cathay Organization is perhaps better known in Singapore and Malaysia as a cinema chain, and in the past as a film studio as well. Loke Wan Tho was the founder of Cathay Organization and a business tycoon with other business interest in hotels, restaurants, tin mines and rubber plantation. He was also the Chairman of Malaysian Airways, Malayan Banking, Singapore’s National Library Board.

With such a busy life, one can imagine there’ll not be much time for other pursuits. In the words of Malcolm MacDonald (then Commissioner-General for the United Kingdom in South-East Asia) in the preface for the book, “Mr Loke Wan Tho is one of the the finest bird photographers in the world, and perhaps the finest in Asia, so the appearance of a volume of his pictures of Asian birds is a welcome event“. Yet, the man himself humbly note “The photographs which appears in the following pages represent the product of the holiday and leisure hours of a businessman“.

For this book, the photos, observations and accompanying notes are organized mainly by the locality in which they were photographed, namely India, Papua New Guinea and Malaya. His collection spanned many years between 1940s to 1950s and his trips outside of Malaya were organized to suit his busy work schedule. Most of the photos are in black and white and taken mainly with his quarter-plate film camera with flash.

Contemporary bird photographers may at first dismiss the now antiquated and limited equipment used then, yet a cursory look at his bird photos will reveal a technical mastery and artistic expression that will rival the best photos taken today. Birders who are interested in bird behaviour will also be delighted by his keen observations of various species that he managed to photograph, especially so when describing the nesting behaviour of many inaccessible and now seldom observed species.

It is interesting to note that one of his photo of the Black-naped Tern that is featured in this book was used as the basis for the drawing in Singapore’s old One Dollar banknote. According to Singapore Mint, there were 698.75 million pieces printed, probably making his photograph the most reproduced Singapore bird photo in existence.

Although I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in birds and photography, the one catch is that it is now out of print. Thankfully there are many second hand book dealers that have copies of it for sale. I bought mine from AbeBooks a few years back.

Lastly, the legacy for Loke Wan Tho in the field of Asian ornithology is not just confined to his own bird photographs, notes and observations published in this book. His enduring friendship and support for Salim Ali (the famous “Birdman of India”) surely influenced the outcome of Indian ornithology for the better as well. But that is a story for another time.

Below are some scanned page to give you an idea about the book’s content.