Monthly Archives: July 2014

Sashimi, wasabi and otter

The Smooth-coated Otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) are a perennial favourite of mine. From the early days of my wildlife photography journey, I have encountered and written about them here, here and here.

I continue to bump into them repeatedly in recent years, but unique photographic opportunities have been rarer.

On an early morning in April this year, I managed to track down a family of these otters at Sungei Serangoon near to the barrage. Lighting condition was still low, but these otters were happily frolicking by the bank of the river. One of them had a fish and seem more interested in eating than playing with the rest of the group. My long lens setup was ideal for some close-up shots, as it was unconcerned about my presence, while the rest went away soon after.

What’s with the mention of wasabi? Go to the photo gallery to find out.

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Oriental Plover in Singapore

The Oriental Plover (Charadrius veredus) also known as the Oriental Dotterel is a long-legged, medium-sized plover. Its breeding range covers southern Siberia, through northern and eastern Mongolia and into north-eastern China. Post breeding season, it migrates southwards to the Greater Sundas and Australia. En-route it may pass by Hong Kong, the Korean Peninsula, Japan, the Philippines and parts of Southeast Asia.

In Singapore, it is considered a rare winter visitor/passage migrant. Since 1985, there have only been 5 records of this species locally. The most recent one was from October 2012 at a small strip of beach with an area of mudflat next to Seletar Dam.

On the early evening of 1 October 2012, I stopped by this area, en-route to check out a migratory Black-backed Kingfisher that normally bathe in the late evening at Lower Peirce. I had some time to kill. As I was checking out the beach inhabitants, two birders that I did not recognise came over and told me they think they have seen the Oriental Plover and needed me to get some photo evidence. I asked them to show me where the bird was and through their scope I could see a very distant and tall plover. I rushed back to my car to get a longer lens. Standing beside them, I managed to get a few shots. Then I decided to climb down from the roadside to the beach proper to get a closer view. Unfortunately during my descent, the plover flew off. So I went back, reported the sighting with small record shots to show. The next day, many birders came to try their luck, but the plover did not show up. I chalked that up as a lucky lifer, being at the right place and at the right time.

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Great Cormorant in Singapore

The Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) is a very common and widespread member of the cormorant family of seabirds. It is found on every continent except South America and Antarctica.

The species breeds along rocky maritime coasts, nesting on cliff ledges or rocky islands free of predators, and feeding in sheltered inshore waters.

In the past, Great Cormorants migrate to Peninsular Malaysia an possibly Singapore, but now only rare vagrants occur in Malaysia. In Singapore, there is/was however a population of Great Cormorants, escapees or free ranging birds from the bird park. They have been found residing at Kranji Dam, Sungei Mandai and Mandai mudflats near the estuary of the river. In 2004, there was a record of 11 birds seen at Kranji Dam1. Breeding is suspected as there were juvenile birds along with the adults.

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Yellow-billed Blue Magpie in Bhutan

I have written before about the Red-billed Blue Magpies at my workplace here. Their close relatives are the Yellow-billed Blue Magpies (Urocissa flavirostris). The most prominent difference is the colour of their bills. They are also a bit smaller, the blue plumage a little duller, and a smaller white nape patch. They both belong to the crow and jays family, whose members are generally considered the most intelligent birds, and among the most intelligent animals.

The Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, also called the Gold-billed Magpie is a species commonly found throughout the Himalayas, and in some places, co-exist with the Red-billed Blue Magpies. However in Bhutan, only the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie can be found.

On the first day of my trip, I managed to hear and then see 2-3 of them flying up the trees at the hotel where I was staying. Throughout the entire trip, I would see them quite often mostly in a group, but opportunities to photograph them well was rarer. These birds are really intelligent. Once we sighted them on a low branch somewhere and stop our car, they will very soon just fly a little downhill, out of sight. Remember than Bhutan is really mountainous and the roads all go through them, so there is always a slope downhill everywhere we go. So just like the Blue Whistling Thrush (where one is present in every few turns of a road), these common birds were not so easy to photograph after all.

But of course there were one or two encounters that were more productive so below are some photos of them.


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Helping a dull bird shine – Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) is by no means a dull bird in character. In fact it is one of the liveliest bird around, with the ability to mimic and create a variety of calls and sounds. It has been suggested that it’s ability to mimic other birds, serves the function to create mix-species flocks. The purpose being to steal food (kleptoparasitism) from the member of the flock or to find insects disturbed by other foragers around.

In Singapore, they have been observed following macaques around, probably gathering food or insects disrupted by the activity of these primates. There are many other stories about this very interesting drongo, that I will leave for another time.

Today the attention is towards photography. And unfortunately for the drongo, it’s a rather neglected species photographically. Its plumage colour is a glossy bluish black. That alone is a turn-off for many photographers who would gladly choose more colourful birds. The other thing is that it has a distinctive, long outer tail shafts ending with twisted pendants. That is a very attractive feature, but is challenging composition wise to get a ‘balanced’ picture, without it being blocked or cut off.

So what are the so-called features of a good bird photo? The answers are varied and for every feature I say is good, someone is bound to disagree. But generally, a few things normally stand out.

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Grey thickheads at Ghost Island

Sometimes it is interesting to know how things are named. Most people with a passing familiarity with this blog knows that I writes mainly about birds, with occasional articles about the other wildlife that I encounter. But it will be a small minority that will know what I refer to as a grey thickhead unless they really know where is Ghost Island.

Ghost Island is the literal translation of Pulau Hantu (a Malay name), a small island (actually 2 islet, Pulau Hantu Besar and Pulau Hantu Kechil) located south of Singapore. It is best known as a destination for fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as a weekend retreat for campers.

The island itself is pretty small at 12.5 hectares, so chances of meeting many birds there is limited. Yet I have been to that island a total of 4 times since 2011. The reason is very simple. I was looking for the grey thickhead. What is this bird that doesn’t seem to have a Wikipedia entry? Thickhead is the old name for a genus of birds called the whistlers. It is a literal translation of the generic name, which is derived from the Ancient Greek terms pachys “thick” and kephale “head”. In other words, all the birds under the genus Pachycephala are called whistlers. In Latin ciner means “ashes”, and in scientific naming convention, normally is used to refer to the colour ashy grey. So Pachycephala cinerea is grey thickhead. Its English name is Mangrove Whistler, but that really isn’t very evocative of how it looks.

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