This year, the pandemic has generally been a restrictive affair for birding. During spring migration, our pelagic trips were cancelled as tighter restrictions meant most of us were working from home, and recreational activities were generally prohibited.
Since then, as the COVID-19 pandemic has been somewhat under control in Singapore, certain restrictions were eased. It is now possible to go out for recreational activities in a group of five, if proper precautions are taken. Cross border travel is still generally not possible without significant penalty.
On 20 September, 2020, a group of five bird photographers decided to take a boat trip along the Singapore Strait without sailing through international waters. As usual we chartered our boat from Alex of Summit Marine System.
The plan was to travel towards Pulau Tekong from Sentosa and then make a loop back. We thought it’ll be good to have a closer look at Pulau Tekong as we have not seen it up close from the sea before. The journey started just before 8am and lasted six and a half hours.
Birding was generally quieter closer to the coast compared to our normal pelagic route. We noticed generally less commercial shipping activities. Some recreational fishing boats were sighted along the Changi-Pulau Ubin stretch. The sea was generally calm and cloud cover over the majority of the trip made for easier birding , especially in the late morning and early afternoon.
More importantly birding wise, to our relief, we did see some migratory seabirds along the way. Chief among them were good numbers of Aleutian Terns that seems to make the Singapore Strait one of their minor wintering ground.
Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels also made their appearances although we probably missed their main group this time around, or perhaps they were mainly flying further outwards towards international waters.
Another significant migratory bird species seen were a few White-winged Terns seen inland at Pulau Tekong and at the buoys situated between Pulau Tekong and mainland Singapore.
Other terns species seen include the usual Little Terns, Black-naped Terns and Greater Crested Terns.
Since it’s a new route, we’re still figuring out how best to optimise future trips. The restriction on the number of people per boat also meant the charges are more expensive, requiring more commitment to participate in such trips.
On 5 May 2018, a boat with 10 birders/bird photographers boarded from Marina Cove, Sentosa and headed towards the eastern part of the Singapore Strait up until closer to coast of Pengerang, Malaysia.
The weather was fine, and we expected we should see a mixture of the usual resident seabirds as well as some spring migrants on passage. Early May should bring us some Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels and Short-tailed Shearwaters. Our hunch proved correct.
The Short-tailed Shearwater is listed as a rare passage migrant for Singapore, and we were glad to see 3 of them in this trip, with a close view of a pair quickly flying past our boat.
The Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel is a reliable and common passage migrant at the Singapore Strait. We expected bigger numbers to show up, but we did manage to see at least 6 birds.
What was unexpected was an appearance of a faraway Gull-billed Tern, which was a bonus bird. Unfortunately, it was only seen by a few people on board.
Other terns seen were the usual Black-naped Terns, Lesser Crested Terns, Greater cRested Terns, Little Terns and Bridled Terns.
In the early morning of 29 April 2017, 2 boats with 10 birders/bird photographers on board each set off from Marina Cove headed towards Horsburgh Lighthouse. The lead boat “Boon Teik” was followed closely by its sister boat “Popeye“. This is the second trip organised by See Toh Yew Wai with mainly contributors to the Singapore Bird Project. The first trip was documented previously in this blog here.
Here is the summary of the bird count for both boats.
>16 excluding Horsburgh birds
many at Horsburgh
many at Horsburgh
As you can see, the count for both boats differ rather significantly due to the presence or absence of some star birds. This despite the fact that the boats were hardly 50 meters apart most of the time. As we have discovered previously, the scanning ability of the participants greatly affect the outcome of what was seen or missed. For instance the Long-tailed Jaegers were seen only on Popeye and the Parasitic Jaegers seen by both boats were reported at different location. Likewise the Bulwer’s Petrel was mainly noticed by the Boon Teik’s participants and only glanced through by most of the Popeye’s photographers.
The star bird of the trip was of course the Bulwer’s Petrel, the second sighting of the season. It is likely the same bird seen previously in November 2016. The Short-tailed Shearwater numbers were very encouraging too. A yet to be identified shearwater also proved to be exciting, but it was quite a distance away and the photos proved rather inconclusive to ID so far. The sightings of the Long-tailed Jaegers and Parasitic Jaegers were also of significance and they were in their breeding plumage with their tail projections seen.
The biggest stars to most of the participants were not birds though. A small pod of 3 Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphins swam around both the boats at Horsburgh Lighthouse delighting us all.
Lesser Crested Tern at Singapore Straits
Aleutian Tern at Singapore Strait
Bridled Tern at Singapore Strait
Short-tailed Shearwater at Singapore Strait
Long-tailed Jaeger at Singapore Strait. Photo Credit: Goh Cheng Teng
Bulwer’s Petrel at Singapore Strait. Photo credit: See Toh Yew Wai
Black-nest Swiftlets nests and birds, and Bridled Terns at Horsburgh Lighthouse
Bridled Tern at Singapore Strait
Pacific Swift at Singapore Strait
Black-naped Tern at Singapore Strait
Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin at Horsburgh Lighthouse
Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin at Horsburgh Lighthouse
A few of the regular contributors of the Singapore Birds Project organized and gathered together for a pelagic bird survey trip to the Singapore Strait. This time, we decided to head west of Sentosa (our starting point) towards the direction of Karimun Island and Kukup, Malaysia and heading back towards Singapore in a loop. This part of the straits is sadly much less explored birding wise and we wanted to find out what sort of bird life exist there.
We chartered two boats. “Boon Teik” the lead boat is our regular survey boat, while “Popeye” was a new boat by the same operator and was to follow the alongside the lead boat. The author was assigned to “Popeye” so all of the bird photographed and counted are taken from this boat.
Due to some unfortunate delay, the lead boat was late, so “Popeye’ went ahead slowly towards Pulau Sebarok, where we encountered our firsts seabirds. These were Little Terns hunting in a group together with at least one Black-naped Tern. As it was still early, lighting was bad. As we slowly sailed on, we met a resident subadult White-bellied Sea Eagle out early on a hunt. This particular bird was interesting as its head was black. We suspect perhaps it’s residual oil trapped from its previous hunt, but we have no way of knowing for sure.
Next we saw two adult Brahminy Kites perched on a yellow structure. It’s interesting to see how our bird life use man-made structures to perch out in the sea.
You can see that there are what look like giant “tubes” on the left hand side of the yellow structure. That was where we spotted the resident white-morph Pacific Reef Heron. That bought some joy to the bird photographers as it’s increasingly difficult to find this variant of the species in the mainland.
More Little Terns were seen at Pulau Semakau and leading to Raffles Lighthouse. By then, the lead boat caught up with the second boat and we started speeding up to head towards the open sea.
The first interesting (and almost impossible to find inland) is the Bridled Tern.
In our excitement and due to the choppy sea condition, one of our participant got slightly hurt knocking against the railings. Two others at “Popeye” soon succumbed to sea-sickness. Things got progressively worse, as the choppy seas coupled with our trailing boat attempt to keep up with the leading boat made for a poor birding experience especially for the first-timers.
We were somewhat cheered up when we saw our first of a few Aleutian Terns flying past around 9:30am. But they were quite far and challenging to photograph. It was only when we started our trip back and made our loop that the ride improved and it was then that we saw our first Aleutian Tern perched on wooden plank. We managed to get the boat nearer for closer shots, and as it flew off from the plank, some shot of it flying pass nicely as well.
The next tern to excite us was a Common Tern of the subspecies longipennis. It was a quick flyby, but good enough for a positive identification.
Journeying back, we also kept our eyes on bird species other than the usual seabirds. Not long after our Common Tern encounter, we noticed around 5 Pacific Swift flying low over the sea. These must be in the process of migrating over to Indonesia. We were to again see at least another 9 later at Sisters’ Islands.
The Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels did not make many appearances. In fact, for the trailing boat, we only saw two in the entire journey. The first was a very brief encounter, but the second permitted at least a closer look and photographs.
After the storm petrel, we encountered the second and last perched Aleutian Tern. Again it cheered up our participants, who by now have generally recovered from their previous sea-sickness. Many photographs were taken of this rarely seen species. We in Singapore should be thankful on the ease of seeing this species in our waters. Despite its name, the Aleutian Tern is not easily seen at the Aleutian islands.
We were to encounter a few more Aleutian Terns along the way. In total we estimate we saw 10-15 of these terns. Quite good numbers. In fact, we think that the western side of the strait holds more of these terns. We were also surprised by the lack of crested terns (Greater and Lesser) that seem to be common birds on the eastern side of the strait. For the Bridled Terns, the trailing boat photographed only 2 birds. Again their numbers seem low in comparison to the eastern side.
After our return and immigration clearance, we have enough time to head towards Pulau Jong for some photographs. It turned out that we saw a pair of nationally threatened Great-billed Herons in breeding plumage. It gives us hope that their numbers will increase soon. A fitting end to our journey!