Six years of birding

The blog is still pretty much dormant since the last time I wrote. I’m still birding but more and more, the pictures and stories are shared in Facebook or Instagram. There are still stories to be told, birds behaviour to note down in longer format, and in more details, but I’ll leave that for another day.

I’ve just completed my 6th year of birding today. Travelled overseas a bit more this year and saw a few more local birds. Pretty happy with the hobby and hope I can continue further.

Below is a collage of all the bird species I have photographed locally in Singapore so far. All 310 species of them. All taken in tiny Singapore. Larger photos with description at my Google Photo album.

Singapore birds shot between April 2010 to April 2016.

Singapore birds shot between April 2010 to April 2016.

The quest for 300 Singapore birds

When I first purchased a telephoto lens and camera in April 2010, the main goal was to have a walk around set up in the neighbourhood and documenting the wildlife that inhabit it. Soon my focus turned specifically to birds.

Years ago, when I bought a DSLR to photograph my growing child, I had started learning about photographic techniques in a local photographic forum. I must have browsed through many photos in the forum looking for inspiration. Among them were truly well taken photos of birds from a small group of local wildlife photographers that travelled around the entire island looking for our feathered friends. I wished then that I had that luxury of time to pursue such a hobby.

Once I started focussing on birds myself, it was not long before I started doing the same chase. Neighbourhood walks turned to long car drives and then long treks. A handful of birds turned into 50 and then 100 birds within a few months. Months soon turned to years and my photo collection grew. Five and a half years later, I have photographed 303 wild bird species.

That’s not a big number. In Peru, a team of committed and well prepared birders saw a total of 354 species in a day! Nonetheless, I am pleased to break the 300 species mark in Singapore itself. There is no big celebration or announcement. I have participated in two Big Year competition against other birders in 2012 and in 2014, but this one was different. It’s a quiet personal journey with no definite time frame. I hope to and will work on seeing more birds in the future, one new species at a time.

If you are interested in the bird species I have photographed, the latest photos (one photo per species) arranged alphabetically is posted in my Google Photo album. The ones posted below are randomly placed.

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The Red-crowned Cranes of Hokkaido

The Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis) is an endangered crane species that is found in northern Asia. One of the places where it can be more easily seen is in Hokkaido, Japan where they are a resident species, unlike the migratory ones elsewhere. In Japan, they are called tanchōzuru or shortened tanchō (red-head). They are considered sacred and seen as a symbol of fidelity, love and longevity. But they were on the brink of extinction due to hunting, mainly for their plumage.

Although hunting them is a thing of the past and conservation work is ongoing, currently there are only around 2,750 birds left in the wild, including about 1,000 birds in Hokkaido. In fact in 1926, there were only about 20 birds left in Hokkaido, but urgent conservation work increased their numbers substantially. One of the measures they did was to set up feeding grounds for the cranes during wintertime.

At the end of 2014, I brought my family to Hokkaido for a vacation. It was not a birding trip, but since my wife arranged for one where we had an opportunity to see the Red-crowned Cranes feeding, I brought along my long lens for the trip. Arriving on a cold and snowy day, I was delighted to see so many of these cranes at the feeding site next to Akan International Crane Centre at Kushiro.


Red-crowned Cranes together with other birds at the feeding centre

Although snowing and frankly having too long a lens, I managed to take some photos of the cranes and even a sequence of their famous courtship ritual.


Start of the courtship dance


First, a bow. The browned headed crane on the left of the frame is a juvenile


I must admit I don’t know which is the male and the female


Intertwining necks, close to the highlight of the dance


They are now considered ‘one’. This would have been a great shot, if only there were no other cranes in the frame. But it is a busy feeding lot and I did not have time for a re-do.


Coming apart. This was not the end of their courtship ritual, but the couple continued on. But it was hard to pick them apart in heavy snow and with the lack of contrast, so I lost track soon after.

As most of the tour group were not nature lovers, and coupled with the fact that it was cold and snowing heavily, we spent less than an hour at that place. I so dearly wished we had more time to see these enchanting cranes. Perhaps a return journey one day to see them, the Stellar Sea Eagles and Blakiston’s Fish Owls.

A pile of otters. The young otters are nursing. Papa is on the left and Mama is on the right.

An evening with the Bishan otter family

I had been eagerly following the news of the Smooth-coated Otter family from Bishan for some time, but did not have the opportunity to see them in person sooner due to other commitments.

To recap, there is now a family of Smooth-coated Otters that has made their home at Bishan Park. To understand the circumstances of how they came about and to enjoy really great commentary and pictures about them, please head to these two Exposure stories and pictorial by Shirley Ng (LINK) and Jeff Tan (LINK). They have been following these otters and documenting them from the very beginning.

My experience was just one overcast and rainy evening on 21 April 2015, so just a tiny snapshot of the family. Thanks to Shirley for informing me of their whereabouts. I knew what angle I wanted to concentrate on, even before the encounter, so out came the seldom used tripod! Thankfully the otters put up a good show as well. Below are the photos and the video

To ensure sane load time, I have separated the article and the rest of the photos. Please click on the respective photos in the photo gallery for more commentary.

Photo Gallery


Sometimes, photos alone don’t do enough justice in conveying animal behaviour. That’s when videos come in handy. Hope you enjoy the snippets obtained. These were prepared in full HD format. I have embedded them in the article, but click on the title of the video to launch it in full resolution at YouTube to have a better experience.

1. The otter family preparing their resting place by smearing and rolling on the grass and soft earth that was wet due to the slight drizzle. They were having a rollicking good time as well. As this stage I was positioned rather far despite my long lens system as I was unsure about their temperament.

2. I found a better position to observe their frolicking and the subsequent nursing of the young otters. You can see how wary the parents were by their constant checking of their surrounding. Out of the camera view, a middle-aged man got very near to take photos presumably using his camera phone. I tried in vain to beckon him to move further earlier and you can see him at the 3:44 mark and the subsequent reaction of the family.

3. Having decided that we were of no threat, Shirley, Jeff and I inched closer. I had the longest lens, so I was good for a full frame video.

4. I think this is about the best video of the lot. Loving family with a beautiful backdrop, with the sound of the urban surroundings.

5. Bonus video. It started raining and the otters had to leave and the photographers had to temporarily scramble. It’s a wrap then!

Lastly, it looks like the otters are making a comeback in Singapore over the past few years. There are now otter families regularly sighted at Gardens by the Bay, Sungei Buloh, Lorong Halus and Pasir Ris Park. I have seen grownups squeal in delight seeing them for the first time. There is much to be said about our local charismatic megafauna and its effect on us. If we do want them to stay around, at the minimum please let them have their personal space and tolerate the things that they do. They are not pets, cuddly as they may seem. Wildlife deserve a place in Singapore, and we should do our part to conserve whatever is left. The tigers are long gone, but at least we should keep our otters.

Indian Pond Heron at Bidadari

The Indian Pond Heron (Ardeola grayii) is a common heron that is found breeding in the Indian subcontinent ranging to Iran. Its alternate name is paddybird, which is derived probably from its preferred habitat, marshy wetlands or in cases where these have been cultivated by human, paddy fields.

Indian Pond Heron
(The Indian Pond Heron standing still looking for its prey. Taken on 18 April 2015)

In the official checklist of the Nature Society (Singapore) Bird Group, there are two species of pond herons found in Singapore. The more common Chinese Pond Heron (Ardeola bacchus) and the rarer Javan Pond Heron (Ardeola speciosa) both which are closely related to the Indian Pond Heron. In fact, in non-breeding season, all three pond herons are indistinguishable from each other. It is only when they change into their breeding plumage that each of these species are easily separated visually. However this changeover into breeding plumage also signal their return to their breeding grounds away from Singapore. So there is only a small window in the season when they are around for us to ascertain their identity locally. In the case of the Indian Pond Heron, there have only been two prior records of their sightings in Singapore, one in Senoko and another in Pasir Ris Farmway 1. For some reasons, these sightings have not resulted in the Indian Pond Heron being included in the checklist yet.

So it came as a shock to me that I recognise this bird species while perusing through my friend Er Bong Siong’s pictures taken at Bidadari on 17 April 2015. As it was late in the evening when I first came upon them, I only managed to go to Bidadari the next morning after running some family errands. By that time, there was a already a group of avid birders and photographers searching for the bird and they managed to locate it before my arrival.

I managed to see the bird first resting on a tree, and subsequently perched on a bare branch before coming down to hunt for food on a grass patch below. Unfortunately it only stayed around until the early afternoon. The noise from tree cutting nearby and the presence of more people probably resulted in its early departure.

Indian Pond Heron
(Perching on a bare tree branch just next to the carpark at Bidadari)

Indian Pond Heron
(Stalking a prey on a grassy patch at Bidadari)

All in all, I managed to get some pretty clear photos and video of the pond heron. Hopefully this sighting and the previous ones will result in the acceptance of this species into our checklist. My opinion is that although rarer than the other two species of pond herons, part of the reason for the lack of records is due to the fact that most people overlook this species. The non-breeding and breeding plumages of these three ponds herons are confusing unless a birder knows what field marks to look out for.

Lastly, I just want to note that Bidadari, a place slated for development soon seems to continue to surprise everyone with the constant appearances of locally rare migrant bird species, underlining once again its importance as a stopover/refuelling point for many bird species in this region.

Photo Gallery


The Short-tailed Babbler in Singapore

The Short-tailed Babbler (Malacocincla malaccensis) is one of the resident ground babblers (Family Pellorneidae) in Thailand, Peninsula Malaysia including Singapore, Sumatra and Borneo. As the description implies, it tends to stay on the ground or perched very low in the undergrowth of the forest. In Singapore, is found in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and its plaintive call is often part of the dawn chorus in these places.

Short-tailed Babbler
(A Short-tailed Babbler along Golf Link trail at Macritchie Reservoir. Calling loudly for a mate)

More often heard than seen, it is not exactly very skulky, but it’s most active before 9am. If one were to trek through Rifle Range Link in the early mornings, there is a good chance of encountering this bird either by the side of the trail or even in the middle of the trail if there is no one else around. Its tall leg is suited for hopping on the ground, and when it tries to perch on vertical stalks of plants, it has a rather distinctive gait.

Short-tailed Babbler
(A different Short-tailed Babbler perching on a vertical stalk at Rifle Range Link)

While still common in Singapore, it is listed as a Near Threatened species elsewhere. Even in Singapore, habitat fragmentation and low genetic diversity are of great concern as the long-term viability of this species locally is questionable. In fact we have in the recent years lost the population in Singapore Botanic Gardens. More needs to be done to conserve this and other forest species before time runs out.

Please view the Youtube video below for a presentation of the topic.

Photo Gallery