Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Galahs of Queensland, Australia

The Galah (Eolophus roseicapilla), also known as the Rose-breasted Cockatoo is a commonly found Australian cockatoo that has a rose-pink head, neck and underparts, with paler pink crown, and grey back, wings and undertail.

Like most cockatoos it is a rather loud and sociable bird. In fact in Australia, galah is a derogatory term that means a loud-mouthed idiot or fool. Like most cockatoos too, it roost in tree cavities and gather as a group in the evenings and early mornings. The sexes can be differentiated easily by their irises colour. The males has dark brown irises, while the female have pink irises.

I managed to find a group of them while on vacation in Queensland in September 2012, and took some pictures and made some observations.

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The search for Asian Openbills in Singapore

The Asian Openbill is distinctive stork is found mainly in the Indian subcontinent and South-east Asia. There are a number of large breeding colonies in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. In the Malay Peninsula, they have only been reported sporadically until recent times.

In early January 2013, a large flock of openbills were found at Kuala Gula in Perak. Subsequently, another flock was reported the next day at the paddy fields of Batang Tiga, Malacca. The southern movement of these large flocks of openbills was an exciting event for birders in Malaysia and Singapore. I personally made a journey to Batang Tiga in mid-January 2013 and found these birds in good numbers.

When these birds journeyed further southwards and started appearing in nearby Johore state, many in the birding community in Singapore started wondering aloud about the possibility of a few stray birds entering Singapore itself. Speculations abound as to the possible landing sites. So it was not unexpected that finally in 22 January 2013, a few were seen in the vicinity of Punggol Barat.

I co-authored a paper that has been published in NUS about the status of the Asian Openbills in Singapore with additional notes on foraging and dispersive movements. It can be found here.

I will like to present my account below of the search for them, written on 24 January 2013, the next day after my own discovery.

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Himalayan Monal in Bhutan

The Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus) is a member of the pheasant family that as the name suggest inhabit the Himalayan region. It is the national bird of Nepal.

The adult male is a strikingly coloured bird with iridescent rainbow-like plumage. It has a wiry, metallic green crest, coppery feathers on the back and neck, chestnut-brown tail, and a white rump that is visible in flight. The female and the juveniles are much less showy.

The bird is found throughout Bhutan, preferring cool upper temperate oak-conifer forests interspersed with open grassy slopes, cliffs and alpine meadows between 2400 and 4500 metres in altitude. I had the good fortune of seeing a random male at Chelela Pass on the second day of birding, although it was very shy and moved away quickly. My guide assured me that we will get another opportunity to see the male birds again in central Bhutan.

So a few days went past and we were in the Bumthang district when the guide suggested that we go climb up to a monastery high up in the hills. Apparently the monks in that monastery like to feed the wild monals with leftover food. Therefore the birds make semi-regular visits. On reaching the monastery, we did not see the monals. We were informed that as the monastery was undergoing renovations, foreign workers were called in and there were suspicions that some were poaching the monals for their crest feathers.

Heavy rain came and we retreated to inside the monastery and the monks gave us cups of their traditional butter tea. These were made from tea leaves, yak butter, water, and salt. The rain subsided gradually and as we peeped outside, a flock of monals were coming down from the higher slopes! One of the monks gathered some cooked rice and spread them on a walking path, and the monals coolly marched down to get their meal. It was a group consisting of one adult male in resplendent plumage and a few dull individuals that were assumed to be the female and juveniles.

Our main attention of course turned to the male and occasionally the duller females. Unfortunately, my lens was too long and they approached too near at times. Backing out was sometimes not an option as the wet slippery slope of the hill made for bad standing positions. We managed quite a number of shots. It was a bit unsatisfying frankly as the birds were so used to human presence.

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Another otter encounter at Sungei Serangoon

In my previous otter encounter, I had written about one of them eating a fish along the bank of Sungei Serangoon. Although there were other otters nearby, I did not manage to fit them in frame and the lighting as poor.

Going back to the same place about a month later, I managed to find the family again. This time around, the lighting was better and the family was more comfortable with my presence. One of them was eating a freshly caught tilapia fish, while the others looked on. A happy encounter. I have uploaded higher resolution files this time around.

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Is there a Singapore Scops Owl?

There have always been questions about whether the tiny island of Singapore having any endemic or near-endemic bird species. After all, it sits in a high-biodiversity region. For a very long time, the answer is no.

Nonetheless a few publications, namely Owls of the World (K├Ânig & Weick, 2008) and Owls of the World: A Photographic Guide (Mikkola, 2012) suggest that there is such a bird named Singapore Scops Owl.

In Singapore, the resident scops owl is the Sunda Scops Owl (Otus lempiji). The subspecies in the southern Malaysia and Singapore is called cnephaeus. What is proposed by these publications is that due to the difference in the vocalizations of the owls in Singapore, they are distinct from the normal Sunda Scops Owl elsewhere in the region. Hence an elevation to a species level and renaming to Singapore Scops Owl (Otus cnephaeus)

Does this claim stand to scientific scrutiny?

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Mangrove Horseshoe Crabs at Mandai Mudflats

The horseshoe crabs belong to an ancient family of marine arthropods, with lineage dating back to 450 million years ago. They are considered a living fossil because they have remained practically unchanged in terms of shape and size for those millions of years.

In the past I have seen empty shells of the horseshoe crabs in the various coastal areas, but have not seen a live one. Traditionally they were harvesting of their blood, which is used for the detection of bacterial endotoxins in medical applications. In my undergrad years, there was excitement in my field when a Singaporean team managed to cloned the enzyme responsible for the endotoxins detection, thereby negating the need to harvest the horseshoe crabs in the wild.1

In Singapore, there are two species of horseshoe crabs, the Coastal Horseshoe Crabs and the Mangrove Horseshoe Crabs.

On a Sunday morning while birding at Mandai Mudflats, while searching for early returning waders, I chanced upon a spot where there were quite a number of overturned horseshoe crabs. At first, I thought they were all dead. But one of them was waving its tail around. As the mud was soft (that’s why it’s a mudflat), I carefully walked over to set it right side up. It then proceeded to ‘walk’ away. My first live horseshoe crab! As I scanned the surrounding, I noticed even more of them, some partially submerged in the mud. As their colours did not stand out, I did not notice them from a distance. I wanted to photograph them, but my long birding lens made things very difficult indeed, as I had to stand way back to get them in frame.

I think some of them got caught in the rapid retreat of the waters due to low tide, and although technically they can right themselves, most were just motionless. I managed to turn a few over, but reckon there were at least 30-40 of them, and the soft mud was doing me no favours. But before I could do more, turning back, I could see thick smoke bellowing from a close distance away. Natural human curiosity compelled me to get to the source of the smoke instead. Apparently there was a fire at a factory at Sungei Kadut and I drove over to have a closer look. 2

When I got back home, and having done some more reading up, the horseshoe crabs species encountered that morning was the Mangrove Horseshoe Crab (Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda).

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