In early December 2012, the Big Year competition in which birders participated in finding the most birds in a year, was nearing its end. Birders were frantically finding the last birds for the year. One person in particular was missing a simple bird, the Oriental Pratincole.
The last sighting of the Oriental Pratincole was in mid-November that year at a place called Punggol Barat, a reclaimed piece of land next to an airport. Bare earth, thin patches of grass with a small pond made for an ideal location for the pratincole.
So on that sunny morning, the birder walked around alone to explore the place. With a lot of walking and a big dose of luck, he managed to see a pratincole sitting near a pond through his binoculars. It was a good find. Not wanting to disturb or flush it, he kept his distance and took some pictures instead, and left soon after. Being a fair birder, he decided that he will inform those that did not have the bird yet, so that they too have a fair chance of seeing it later.
Afterwards, away from the unbearably hot sun, he sat down to have a closer look at the photos he took earlier. Immediately it struck him that he was looking at a Small Pratincole (Glareola lactea), a related but much harder to see species in Singapore. In 2012, social media was already used to share bird sightings and so he quickly sent out a mass Whatsapp message.
At the other part of the island, I received the information. Without much thinking, I immediately dropped my work and drove off. I too was involved in the Big Year, and I have certainly not seen this bird before. The last time it came to Singapore in 1989, I was still schooling somewhere in Malaysia. Singapore was still a distant land then.
Once I arrived more than half an hour later, it was my task to find the bird. Others who received the message were eagerly awaiting the news of the bird whereabouts. Could it have flown away, or was it still around? I hurriedly walked to the pond area where it was last seen. No bird. It was not unexpected. But I circled the pond slowly to check further. Halfway around the pond, next to bare earth and near the edge of the pond, I finally saw a small bird that looked very much like a rock sitting still. That must be it, and I slowly stood down and moved no further.
A few snaps later, I too sent out a message to the rest of the Big Year participants. And then it started drizzling….followed by heavier rain. Without an umbrella, I had to decide to go or to stay. Seeing that it was an important bird, I decided to stay at least until the next birder had seen and known the location. After all, it was the fair thing to do. So I waited, and one by one they trudged in soon after. The young and the old, the ones in office attire, the student, the businessman, the retiree, with heavy gear or with light gear. All after the same bird, on a barely known and middle of nowhere piece of land. It was quite a sight. The sense of joy of finally seeing the bird was clearly seen on each and every birder face that day. I stayed on a while to enjoy the moment, but as the evening went by, I too took my leave.
And that event encapsulated to me how the 2012 Big Year went. The competitive spirit, the camaraderie, the sense of fair play and the excitement of new discovery.
The next day, more people came and they informed even more people. The bird stayed for 2 more days and then it left our shores. But enough people came by to find the Black-winged Stilts and the Bailon’s Crakes later, both rare migrant species to Singapore. Proving once again the Patagonia picnic table effect in action.