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!

Thank you everyone for supporting the Singapore Birds Project throughout 2021! 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 also enjoyed at least 11 new species to Singapore and we interviewed a few birdwatchers who discovered these significant finds!

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.

Ong Kiem Sian – A Passion for Birds

With the explosive growth of bird photography as a hobby in Singapore in recent years, it is hard to imagine a time when the number of local bird photographers can be counted with the fingers of one hand. That was the case in the 1990s, in the days before the Internet, social media and pervasive connectivity. There was no one to tell you about the latest birds sightings. You have to just get out there (often alone) and master your fieldcraft and if lady luck smiled on you as well, you get your reward. It was also the age of film and slide photography, and no instant gratification in photo playback or rapid firing of successive shots of digital cameras that we take for granted these days.

Looking around at the bird photography community these days is to see a predominantly male pursuit with heavy, long supertelephoto lenses and the latest expensive professional camera system. So it comes as a surprise that one of the few bird photographers back then was a petite middle-aged woman with modest equipment. Her name was Ong Kiem Sian. An optometrist by profession, she started bird photography at a late age, prompted by the call of adventure in 1990.

And adventure was what she pursued, with vigour, persistence and patience. In the course of her hobby, she waded in thigh deep waters, trekked for hours in the wild, endured leeches in tropical rainforests, all for the perfect shots. Something that most serious bird photographers can relate to all too well! Many of her friends have described her as a tireless, curious and enthusiastic nature lover that went well beyond just getting a photo of a bird.

I came across her photo book “A Passion for Birds” a few years back. Flipping through the pages, one could see her mastery of the craft, with beautiful bird pictures, some very rare species and even rarer moments captured, many of which have stood the test of time. Technology may have greatly advanced since then, but between the pages of that book, are images that other photographers can only hope to emulate.

In doing research for this website, I was looking at some of her published photos, and was amazed that her local owl photo collection included the Short-eared Owl, a very rare winter visitor to the island and she managed to get a beautiful picture. Next to that owl was another species of owl. In those days, it was referred to as a Brown Hawk Owl. Just last year, based on latest research, that particular owl could be a Northern Boobook instead, a new bird to the Singapore checklist. So indeed she was a lady way ahead of her time.

I have elected not to write too long a story, but to let the lady and her photos speak for themselves. At the end of this article are links for further reading. Her book is sadly out of print, but I have asked and obtained permission from Morten Strange of Draco Publishing to reproduce some pages to share. In the Gallery, click on the “View Full Size” link on the bottom right hand corner to get a bigger scan image.

Gallery:

References:
1. Tributes to the First Lady of Bird Photography Ong Kiem Sian, NSS NatureNews ↗
2. A Passion for Birds, Lady of the birds (Wildsingapore – originally published by Straits Times) ↗

Ong Kiem Sian passed away on 14 June 2009 at the age of 63. She is fondly remembered and regarded as the first lady of bird photography in Southeast Asia.

Updates for January 2016

Although on the surface it seems that we have slowed down somewhat the completion of the write-up for the various species, the truth is that there have been a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

For example, we have now included where possible, the link to the IUCN Red List assessment page for each species. There are of course a few species without any such link. The simplest reason is that IUCN list is derived from the BirdLife International checklist, whereas our Singapore list is derived from IOC. There are differences in what constitute a species and their range between these two lists. The most apparent example is the Javan Myna in our Singapore checklist which is our most common introduced bird species. There is no Javan Myna in the BirdLife/IUCN species checklist because it’s lumped with the White-vented Myna that is very abundant in Indochina. So it is listed as Least Concern. Yet, the Javan Myna is a rare bird in Java (personal communications), its home ground. So linking it to the White-vented Myna IUCN page ↗ is not the correct solution, as that misses out the story of its decline in numbers.

On the bird photos front, we have as of today covered about 100 species, or approximately 25% of the bird species in our list. It’s slow work as uploading and checking each photo takes time, but we are getting there. Our back of the paper calculation shows that collectively there are 346 species in which photos exist of the species taken in Singapore. So a further 50 species were sight records only. That means we have to supplement these with photos taken elsewhere. This is especially true of the migratory waterfowls that no longer have suitable habitat to winter in our region. So our head writer See Toh is now in Tokyo looking hard for ducks to photograph!

In the meantime, the IOC checklist version 6.1 just came out. Our cursory checks shows no further taxonomic updates that affect Singapore birds. If there are any changes, we’ll hopefully be the first to cover it.

Beach Stone-curlew at Bali. Photo Credit: Francis Yap
A Beach Stone-curlew from Bali. There exist a pre-digital distant photo of this species by Alan OwYong, and that is the only photo record of this very rare resident species in Singapore. So it’s necessary to supplement it with bird photos from overseas.

How the website began – Part 1 (the checklist)

When I started taking birding seriously in 2010, information about birds whereabouts and what sort of wild birds there were in Singapore was hard to get. At first I relied on Wikipedia which list out all the birds that have been seen, and where they are likely to be found. Forums like Naturepixels and NPSS where bird pictures were shared were also sources of information about the latest birds found. Soon after, Facebook groups started sprouting up and I joined a few. That took the interest to another level with latest sighting discussed in closed group free from prying eyes. Whatsapp chat groups soon replaced SMS and one can instantly know what’s the latest news about any new birds.

Social media and technology have totally changed the way one approach birding in Singapore. While fieldcraft and technique matters to the serious birders, one can do birding quite well with just knowledge of which Facebook group or Whatsapp group chat to join.For the lists of birds found in Singapore, the choices was rather limited for the longest time. There is Wikipedia and there is Nature Society’s bird checklist. The latter being more authoritative yet the nomenclature used was strange. Both were available in format incompatible with how I kept track of my own burgeoning bird count. I had mine in a relational database with easy sorting of birds and all the benefit that comes with it. Wikipedia format made it difficult to transfer all the birds into the database easily, and the NSS one was in PDF which was also needlessly difficult. Nonetheless one day I managed to write a script to convert the NSS checklist into my database format.

With that came the ability to easily find out which birds I do not have, their relative abundance, and the start of my picture database. More importantly, I started to do a Singapore Big Year in 2012, and it was important to keep a separate Big Year list to help me track my progress in that competition. With the help of the database, the newly incorporated NSS checklist, and a list of possible location for each species, data analysis became much easier and more powerful than the pen and pencil approach that others were taking.

All was good, except Javan Myna was a White-vented Myna, and an Intermediate Egret was a Yellow-billed Egret in the NSS checklist and a whole other list of strange names, and keeping track of these difference took up my time. So one day I decided the best way forward was to stick to IOC nomenclature as they publish an updatable world bird list, and painstakingly go through every entry in NSS checklist and convert them into IOC names.

With that completed, I joined Singapore Big Year 2014. Armed with a revised Singapore checklist, I was constantly updating the database with my bird count that year and my guesstimate of my rival’s species count. A running species comparison between my 2012 effort and the 2014 also let me pace myself better since my work load had increased since 2012. I was also able to track everyone’s progress easily once I keyed in their data. That’s what a database is meant for; to query out useful information. So much so that by mid-November that year, I already knew I was 5 birds ahead of my nearest rival and that was enough to win the competition.

My Singapore checklist proved very useful to me, and so I published it in Excel format since 2013 for others to use. Since then, the checklist had been continually updated with new features and capabilities. It seemed to me the basic usage for a checklist have changed over time. For example, I have never physically printed out the checklist because I don’t do data entry by pen and pencil. Therefore a checklist in PDF format did not make sense to me. At least in Excel format, one can cut and paste the bird name to search for more information elsewhere. I thought wouldn’t it be good if we can do automatic links to those those websites for each species? With that realization, I started providing those links. The rationale for putting in names in other languages was very simple, there were requests for them and it made sense.

With all these information already incorporated into the database, it seems logical that when we started the Singapore Bird Project, the database and the checklist it produced would form the foundation for the new website. I’ll talk more about the database in a later article.

Our first milestone

The team in the Singapore Bird Project had been busy posting bird species update for the past week and we now have a total of 10 pages worth of detailed description of the various birds. We have completed the Paradise Flycatchers and in the midst of completing the swifts and swiftlets family.

Today, we’ll like to show you the new additions to the website. Firstly we have an online Singapore Bird List now, with brief description of every birds in our checklist (396 so far) and appropriate links to the various resources to help the birders in identifying and understanding the bird species.

We’re also issuing a new checklist in Excel format that is easier to understand and provide linkages back to this website so that you can keep current with the latest updates and changes.

Last but not least, we now have a Contributors page that list down the various people helping out. It’s still a short list, but we hope to change that soon.

Since the website has just begun, it’s good to remind everyone that we will strive for accuracy and completeness. Nonetheless we realise that with every project, there are bound to be mistakes and inaccuracies. Please do leave a a message and we’ll correct those promptly.

How this site is organized

The Singapore Bird Project main aim is to document all the wild birds in Singapore. Every species will have its own page. For example the Grey Wagtail page is http://singaporebirds.com/grey-wagtail. For now they are not organized, but there will be a landing page where all these species pages are plotted out.

The other section is the blog which is located at singaporebirds.com/blog and is accessible using the main menu. The blog itself contain the more general postings. These may include project status updates, special posts about bird behaviour, round-up of bird news etc. Whatever that is related to birds in Singapore.

The last menu item is the Singapore Bird Checklist where the latest checklist is available for download in Excel format. There will be more content coming soon at that section, as this website is developed.