The Singapore Birds Project held our first raptor watching booth across three Sundays: 23 October, 30 October and 6 November at Henderson Waves Bridge. We would like to thank all who dropped by and participated in our raptor count – we hope you picked up a tip or two on raptor identification or raptor spotting!
Lastly, we would like to thank Max Khoo for giving us permission to use his raptor identification poster as a resource, the National Parks Board for their support and logistical help, Hui Zhen and Jing Ying for designing the migratory movement poster and our booth guides, Adrian, Cheng Teng, Dillen, Francis, Geraldine, Jing Ying, Keita, Movin, Raghav, Sandra and Zachary for the tireless work across the three weekends. See you all at the next event!
Ask any experienced birder in Singapore about what’s the best and busiest month for birding and you’ll hear either October or November mentioned. After all, migratory birds are coming in fast and furious during this period. One must therefore ask the question, “Are there any studies done to establish whether these two months are indeed the best month for birding?” And if such a study exist, is it October, November or some other months? Now is as good a time as any to have find out.
Before that, let’s have two other interesting questions that are often asked. “Where are the best places for birding?”, “What’s the best time to photograph/observe birds?”. Almost everyone has thoughtful answers for them, based on their own experience and what have been passed on as common wisdom from more experienced birders. It’ll be good if we can get some hard data to confirm these as well.
Birding observation platforms like eBird or iNaturalist may provide some answers to these questions through the sheer amount of data they accumulate from birders over the years. I expect Raghav (our resident data wrangler) to provide some answers and more to these questions sooner or later, using his amazing number crunching skill.
In the meantime, playing the role of a citizen scientist, I am presenting another method here. Not as good, but simpler and tailored for photographers willing to undertake similar projects.
Most photos these days are taken with additional data (metadata) that reveals for example where and when the photo was taken. They also include what sort of camera settings that used to take these photos. When a smartphone is used to take photos, companies like Google and Apple make use of these metadata to customize and remind users of life events like past birthdays and anniversary photos for example (based on date and time encoded in photos), or maybe organize all photos taken on an overseas trip (based on location data encoded in photos) on their virtual album for the users to peruse through.
Using the same type of metadata on bird photos taken using camera gear specialized for that purpose, accumulating enough of them, and cataloging these photos and supplementing these with additional data (when necessary), one can build a mini database of information that allows more definite answers to the questions that were posed at the start of this article.
The album contains representative photos of all the Singapore bird species I have photographed and curated over 12 years of bird photography. At the time of analysis, there are 1248 photos over 368 species. To be clear, these are non-random photo selections based on my preferences and birding habits. Photo aesthetics and other technical considerations influenced the final photo set as well.
The program/app called EXIFTool (https://exiftool.org/) is used to extract metadata of all the photos mentioned above and subsequently written to one XML file. The resulting XML file is imported into a database and through some SQL queries, tables and charts are prepared for presentation. The second step can be done in different ways. I am just outlining my general approach. Time and date-centred queries to the raw data from the photos were pared down to 11 full years starting from October 1, 2011 to September 30, 2022. The first year or so of birding wasn’t the most productive nor the most insightful, as lack of experience and a lot of trial and error on the author’s part probably distorted the data in that earlier timeframe.
Full disclosure: There are 5 photos with the wrong EXIF data information due to new camera misconfiguration. These were taken in November 2014 but the EXIF information showed October 2014. Those have been manually reassigned for the graph. The possibility always exist that human error can result in wrong interpretation of data. Luckily these errors were known ahead of time.
Results and analysis (with apologies to serious data scientist)
Best months for birding
Let’s start with the assumption that bird and birding activity is correlated with the number of bird photographs posted in the album. Extracting and compiling the data on the date in which each photo was taken, we have the chart above.
Mid-year seems to have the least amount of activity locally, as migrant bird species are absent. It is a good time for birders to consider going overseas for birding. Activity start picking up during autumn migration from the north starting from July/August and reach its peak in the month of October. Hence the answer to the first question posed is October.
November and December are still active months for birding, but action tend to slow down in the new year. A modest rise in activity in March can be attributed to peak spring migration. where the migrant birds from the south return up north for their breeding season, passing briefly through Singapore.
Best time of the day for birding
From the analysis of the time where each photo in the album was taken, we can deduce which hour is the most productive or unproductive for bird photography, and as a proxy, the best time of the day for birding.
The answer, which is from 8am up to 10am is in line with expectation or conventional wisdom. Likewise, there is a distinct lack of birding activity in the afternoon and a slight upturn in activity in the evening from 4pm to 6pm peaking at 5pm.
Due to the restriction in place for access to the nature reserves, nighttime birding is not easy nor productive, and save for some owl species, not worth the effort.
Best sites for birding
This is a screenshot of a web page generated using the same dataset used in the previous two analysis, with the help of a plugin for the photo website called Piwigo-openstreetmap. The URL https://fyap.net/photos/osmmap?/category/singapore-birds&v=1 contain the GPS location of all the bird photos in the album.
Let’s talk about the photos and their GPS coordinates. Some of these photos were encoded with built-in GPS capability in the camera (Canon EOS 7D Mk II, Canon EOS 1DX Mk II), some were from external GPS device attached to the camera (Nikon D500), some were encoded via GPS sent through the camera from the smartphone through connecting app (Sony Alpha 1, Sony Alpha 9, Canon EOS R5). Lastly, for photos taken with older camera models, i.e. photos prior to 2014, manual GPS encoding were done through memory of the places, sometimes with the help of old maps using Google Earth. This does alter the selection of photos, as I may have forgotten the precise location of some older photos and cannot put in the corresponding GPS coordinates. Hence some ‘worthy’ older photos were excluded from the photo album.
From the screenshot, the best site for birding is at the Central Catchment/Bukit Timah/Dairy Farm area. There is a particular bias in the data towards a location at Jelutong Tower, as I spent a lot of time photographing forest birds and migratory raptors at that particular location.
Pulau Ubin, Sungei Buloh/Kranji, Seletar/Punggol/Lorong Halus and Marina East/Southern Ridges areas are also noteworthy hotspots for birding.
Since the dataset is navigable through the website, it is best for those interested in specific data to explore the URL listed above for more information.
Most commonly used shutter speed
For most parts, the photoset on the website consist of photos taken handheld. Most static photos of birds are taken at the most optimal handheld shutter speed that maximises the chance of good quality photo yet remain as noise-free as possible. A shutter speed between 1/125-1/200s is my preferred option. Hence the peak at that range.
Anything below until 1/30s probably meant the birds were obliging enough, and lower lighting conditions that necessitate a lower shutter speed and consequently less odds of getting sharp photos. At 1/15s and below, shots were taken on a tripod which shutter release cable for low light conditions. Shots taken between approximately 1/250-1/1000s meant a higher probability of active birds, or action shots. The shots taken at 1/2000s and beyond are mainly flight shots.
Most commonly used ISO settings
A website that tries to showcase the best representation of local birds would naturally emphasise quality photos over ones that are sub-optimal. Hence the dominance of lower ISO shots especially ISO 100 which is the base ISO for most cameras.
A slight increase at ISO 400-ISO 640 can be explained by the prominence of properly exposed flight shots on sunny days with that ISO range being used.
Although modern camera can give good photos up to ISO 6400 in some cases, bird photography is a special case. This is because while an ISO 6400 shot is acceptable if the bird subject fills the frame with no cropping, the reality is that even at 600mm full frame, most wild birds in Singapore do not fill the frame. In fact, many photos in the album are 100% crop, meaning they are cropped all the way. At such distance and at such extreme crop, high ISO photos are not the best looking. Hence the preference for lower ISO shots.
Context matters in the type of photos selected. Wild bird photos in Singapore are not taken in managed environment (like hides or feeding stations). And in many cases of uncommon or rare birds (which is a focus on the website photos), sometimes there are only a few chances given to photograph the subject. They may be very distant, taken under lower light in uncommon habitat, in the case of rare birds, with many birders squeezed in tight space with limited views, or other sub-optimal conditions.
Camera brands and models used in the photo album
Canon EOS 5DS
Canon EOS 70D
Canon EOS 7D
Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Canon EOS R5
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV
Canon EOS-1D X
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II
One may be tempted to imagine that there are great insights to be had in looking at a table like the above. One may argue that the Canon brand is pretty dominant in bird photography due to the sheer number of models represented, or that the Sony Alpha 1 is excellent for bird photography due to the fact that on a model basis, it has the highest number of photos on the website.
Such conclusion cannot be justified by this table, because context matters. All cameras are used by only one photographer. Canon is overrepresented because in the past the author used camera for that brand exclusively for the longest time (and still does occasionally). The Sony A1 has the most entries because pre-2014 camera did not have GPS data, and some good photos cannot be posted from those models because the precise location cannot be ascertained. Camera technology have also advanced greatly, hence photos taken in recent years regardless of brands and models are overrepresented because the success rate for ‘good’ photos have greatly increased.
So what else can actually be interpreted from the above table? Well for one, there are too many cameras bought for the relatively small number of photos posted!
It has been fun to dig into the metadata provided by the website/photo album. Most of the results presented here are broadly in line with expectations. A larger dataset would have been helpful to get finer grained results. But we’ll leave that to another day. Hopefully what’s been presented has been insightful to others especially newer birders. Happy birding everyone!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Thanks to the team for their comments on the article.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to the team and Jin Rong for their comments on the article.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Click to reveal where the bird is hiding!
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)!
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.
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.