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.

Early yesterday morning at 7:30am, before my morning coffee, Ben Quek messaged me about the discovery of Asian Openbills in Singapore by Bill Heng. A few quick message exchanges later, we nailed the location down to Punggol Barat. I immediately alerted a few birders hoping they will be free to go find the birds. I had an important meeting at 9:30am and could not excuse myself. Unfortunately everyone else seem to be busy as well, it being a weekday.

So after my meeting ended at 10:40am, I rushed down to Pulau Punggol Barat. Alas no birds at the pond or anywhere nearby. No birds at the dam either, nor were they found at a promising piece of waterlogged field at Seletar Airport side. Flustered, hot and hungry, I decided to go try Punggol Barat pond again before lunch. Thankfully I saw Kim Keang’s car and knew he will be there instead. Saved me of a certain sunburn. He reported zilch. So next, I traveled to Punggol side, to have a look at any water filed places. Punggol Waterway was way too sanitized for anything and the fields were empty. I decided lunch was to be a KFC near Sungei Serangoon to have a look at the possibility that the Openbills will fly to Halus. Nope.

Thinking of all possibilities, I decided that I will try the Seletar West/North Link again one more time, and ending at the promising field at Seletar since it most closely resembled the conditions at Batang Tiga where I saw hundreds of Openbills just last Saturday. So off I went and a glance up at any treetop along the way for a largish bird. Thankfully the roads were empty, but so were the treetops.

As I turned into Seletar Airport, at the corner of my eye, I saw 2 birds that were large and greyish in the field. Without further looking I knew I had the birds. Got out of the car, pressed a few camera shots and started calling people. Darn M1 and their lousy network coverage! The birds were wary of my presence and as soon as I moved into the field, they flew in for cover. I reckoned whatever I have then was good enough so I did not pursue them further. A few more calls and noting down the co-ordinates, and I sped back for work. Made it back by 2:05pm. Phew!

So although I am not the first to see them in Singapore, it was deeply satisfying hunting the birds down. It is such moments in birding, the thrill of the chase and the strategies and tactics one employ that makes it all fun for me.”

The openbills stayed around that waterlogged field until at least the first week of February 2013. In the time they were there, they were observed by many birders. Their main diet consist of the golden apple snails that were abundant in the field. Since that time, no further sightings of the openbills have been reported, and the field gave way to development, as is usually the case in Singapore.


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