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

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The Oriental Darter at Bukit Gombak

The Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) is a waterbird that is found in South-east Asia and South Asia. Historically they were breeding residents in Peninsular Malaysia (which include Singapore), but have vanished from this region save for some vagrant records. Recent records in Peninsular Malaysia include birds at Kinta Nature Park in Perak and Batu Kawan in Penang, which gives hope of possible reestablishment of this species in the region. So when a darter-like bird was reported in Singapore, it was time to it check out.

Oriental Darter
(An Oriental Darter sunning itself at a disused quarry pool at Bukit Gombak)

This darter was first reported in early August 2014 by Jean-Marc Chavette at a disused quarry at Bukit Gombak. The bird was rather shy and often flew in to the trees upon seeing human presence. Occasionally it will come out and sun and preen itself at the far end of the pool, unreachable by anyone. I managed to get some close shots of the bird through the longest possible focal length (500mm lens with 2X teleconverter and 1.6X crop camera, effective focal length of 1600mm), and they revealed that the bird was un-ringed and the feather condition was rather pristine. Coupled with its wary behaviour, it does suggest a bird that was wild or at least not recently kept.

Once in a while it will swim around the pool at the far end, and hunt for fish. I managed to get a few shots of a successful hunt.

Oriental Darter
(In the water just having done a successful hunt)

Oriental Darter
(Swimming back to the bank of the pool and getting ready to swallow fish)

Oriental Darter
(Om nom nom!)

Checking with AVA, Jurong Bird Park and the Zoo revealed that there were no imports of darter to the country. There had been a previous sighting of a flying darter at Neo Tiew Lane 2. In the end, the Bird Group’s record committee was undecided on the status of this particular darter.

Recently, there were a couple of reports of a pair of darters in the quarries at Pulau Ubin. It will be interesting to follow up on those sightings, to ascertain their status.

Video

(Video of the darter sunning and preening itself. Note that it was very wary of its surroundings)

 

Photo Gallery

 

Reference:
Wells (1998) The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula, Volume 1

Black-headed Bulbul in Singapore

The Black-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus atriceps) is a species of South-east Asian bulbul that is considered a rare resident bulbul species in the forest of Singapore. They have never been seen in large numbers, yet have persisted over the years.

Black-headed Bulbul

Currently, the main flock is restricted to the Central Catchment Nature Reserves as well as the adjacent Bukit Brown cemetery area. There have been a single sighting at Pasir Ris Park recently, although their origin from the bird trade cannot be ruled out, as previous presumed escapees were found in Pulau Ubin, Sungei Buloh and Botanic Gardens (Lim KS 2009). Having said that, (Wells 2007) reported that they may have wandering behaviour.

There is however one place at Bukit Brown that the bulbuls have been regularly seen, Bukit Brown. A particular fig tree there had regularly attracted the bulbuls when the fruits are in season. I had the opportunity to observe a small flock of 3-4 birds eating the figs. They hungrily devour these figs whole and picked only the reddest, most ripe ones.

Black-headed Bulbul

Another encounter was a single bird at the Macritchie boardwalk where it was observed hunting repeatedly for food among the tall grass that grew at the bank of the reservoir. Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that it was hunting for spiders. At least a pair were reported there for extended period of time. The hunting for and carrying away nutrient-dense spiders suggest that there was breeding nearby but we could not locate the nest. Little is known on the breeding habits locally, due to the scarcity of records.

Black-headed Bulbul

The Black-headed Bulbul is considered nationally threatened and they are seldom seen by anyone in Singapore, other than the committed birder. However we believe that with more eyes and better identification, we can track them better and get a more accurate distribution map and count. This will be a first step in conserving this species locally.

Photo Gallery

References:
Wells (2007), The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula Vol 2
Lim KS (2009), The Avifauna of Singapore

The Violet Cuckoo in Singapore

The Violet Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx xanthorhynchus) is one of the rarer resident cuckoos in Singapore. It is more often heard rather than seen. And when it is seen and identified, it is mostly flying away! One of the lessons I have learned along the way in finding this cuckoo is to learn its call. It is been described as a loud, spaced and repeated “ter-weet’ That is normally heard while it is flying around or on top of canopy of tall trees.

The Violet Cuckoo is named after the appearance of the adult male bird, which has an attractive glossy violet feathers on the head and upper parts of the body. The degree of violet depends very much on the angle of light and can appear very dark. Interestingly the scientific name xanthorhynchus actually means ‘yellow-billed’ which is also a characteristic of the adult male. The female and the juvenile differs markedly from the male with the female having a dark, brown crown and greenish-bronze upperparts. The juvenile has a rufous crown and barred rufous and greenish bronze upperparts.

Recent sightings in Singapore of this cuckoo include areas such as Pasir Ris Park, Bukit Brown, Dairy Farm Nature Park, Kent Ridge Park, Hindhede Park, Jelutong Tower, Neo Tiew Lane 2, Bukit Timah and Jurong Eco Garden.

In fact the last place, Jurong Eco Park was where a male Violet Cuckoo was seen regularly for close to 3 months between end October 2014 to January 2015. The reason it was there was because of the abundance of caterpillars, which is one of its main diet. This regular appearance was a boon to bird photographers who managed to record many photos of the bird. The previous extended display of this bird was in January 2011 at Pasir Ris Park where one bird was seen daily feeding on caterpillars. This is one of the peculiar thing about this species of cuckoo. For the better part of the year, they are hard to find, but once there is a suitable and sustainable food source, they appear regularly until the food source is depleted.

There is speculation that some of the birds recorded in the winter months are in fact migratory birds. This however is hard to prove. Nonetheless the dates of appearance of these two adult male birds seen for prolonged period of time are within the wintering months.

Although many pictures and videos have been posted on this species, there is still much to learn about it’s behaviour. For example, it is known that like many cuckoos, it is a brood parasite that lays its egg on the nest of another species. In Singapore, there are past reports of hosts including the Brown-throated Sunbird, the Van Hasselt’s Sunbird and the Olive-backed Sunbird. Pictures and videos of these species interaction will be valuable indeed.

Photo Gallery:

 

Video:

The secondary call of the Violet Cuckoo is less known. I made a recording of this call on 28 October 2014 at Jurong Eco Garden.

The Singapore Big Year 2014

Another birding year has just passed. 2014 was a busy year for me birding-wise, and towards the end of it, this blog was inactive as I spent my time finishing my Big Year.

A Big Year in birding parlance is a competition among birders to see the most number of bird species within a year (January 1 to December 31) and within a certain territory (in this case Singapore). Unlike other countries, Singapore is rather small so the adventure and logistics parts of it were rather tame in comparison to what the Americans do for example. To keep things interesting, I promised myself that I will only count a bird species if I managed to photograph it.

This was my second Big Year. In 2012, I participated and managed to finish joint fourth with a bird count of 260. That year, Lim Kim Seng managed a record-breaking 265 bird species. I thought I did relatively well and kept up with the leaders right until the last days of the competition. And I made lots of friends and learnt quite a lot about birds then.

On my second attempt in 2014, quite a number of the 2012 participants did not take part. Can’t blame them. It is a year long affair that really is very tiring. I am happy that there were a few bird photographers joining in the fun this time as well. While it was a competition, we never took it to extremes, and shared lots of bird sighting information amongst us. I felt good this time around, as my birding knowledge has improved compared to 2012 and social media made sharing of sighting information much easier.

So how did I do?

I managed to photograph 261 bird species. An improvement of 1 bird. But that was enough for me to top the competition this time around. Perhaps some of the others were feeling fatigue from doing yet another Big Year. In fact, it will be a very long time before I even contemplate another one. I do highly recommend that new birders attempt it at least once though. You will learn a lot about bird identification, their behaviour and their habitat.

The highlight of the year was the discovery that the wintering ground of the Sakhalin Leaf Warbler is in South-east Asia. My contribution to this was made during the Big Year, when I managed to record the song that it sang (which confirmed its identity), while photographing the bird at Dairy Farm Nature Park. It is not everyday that we make an ornithological discovery for the region!

Other highlights include the first Singapore photographs of the Asian House Martin and Gull-billed Tern, and the rediscovery of the Yellow-eared Spiderhunter that was last seen in 2006. Other participants saw the rare Chestnut-cheeked Starling, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Oriental Scops Owl and there were reports of Barred Eagle Owl, Lesser Adjutant and Malaysian Eared Nightjar.

On the other hand, 2014 also was marked with closure (permanent, temporary and imminent) of many places that provided good habitat for birds. This include Changi grassland, Punggol Barat, Bukit Timah summit, Kranji marsh and lastly Bidadari.

The album below is the complete 261 bird species photographed by me. Pardon the quality of some of them, which were often done in haste.

 

(Warning: The album / carousel may load slowly due to the number of pictures in the album)

Photo Album

A Green Broadbill in Singapore

The Green Broadbill is a small green bird that is in the broadbill family. It is found in South-East Asia in the lowland and lower montane forest. Its plumage colour ensures that when it is stationary, it is exceedingly difficult to see. It is known to be a fruit-eater and has a rather weak bill.

It was a resident bird species in Singapore until its local extinction around 70 years ago. Pulau Ubin was at one time well populated with this species. In fact the type specimen for this species is believed to be collected by Sir Stamford Raffles somewhere in what is now the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. He named it ‘Burong Tampo Pinang’.

So what is a Green Broadbill doing in East Coast Park? On the morning of 27 November 2014, See Toh Yew Wai came across a fruiting tree at East Coast Park and notice an unusual bird among the mynas, bulbuls and orioles. He captured a few underexposed photographs and went home to process the pictures. It turned out to be a Green Broadbill on a fruiting fig tree.

Where did it come from? There is speculation that it may have been an escapee, as both the Jurong Bird Park and allegedly some bird shops carry this species. Another intriguing prospect is that it is a genuinely wild bird that dispersed from the forest of southern Johor.

What is the supporting evidence for the dispersal theory?

For one, Wells (2007) mentioned that this bird species may be a genuine long distance disperser. The relevant paragraph reads: “On three nights in December 1968, a total four Green Broadbills flew into mist-nets set around floodlights on the crest of the Main Range at Fraser’s Hill (BR 1968). At the time, they were considered likely to have been attracted up the slope to insects swarming around lights (BMP5), but the species has since been shown not to occur in Montane forests and genuine distant dispersal (cf. frugivorous pigeons of Lowland forest: Volume 1) is a possibility.”

Secondly there has been another ‘extinct’ broadbill species that reappeared at Pulau Ubin, the Black-and-red Broadbill. Another broadbill seen on a fruiting tree. So the prospect of broadbills being able to travel across the narrow Johor Strait is a distinct possibility.

What about the unlikely location of the sighting? East Coast Park does not seem to be what one would consider a forest. Yet, on the same day that this broadbill was seen, another 10 Cinereous Bulbuls were seen at the same location. The even rarer Streaked Bulbul was heard near this location a few weeks back as well. It seems to be that there is a dispersal event happening for the bulbuls and East Coast Park seems to be one of the hotspots for this event.

So which is which, an escapee or a wild bird from Johor? That will be decided by others. In the meantime, here are some photos and video that I took in the evening.

Video:

Photo Gallery:

 

Reference:
1. Wells, D. R., 2013. Raffles at Macritchie Forest? An overlooked collecting ‘first’ for Singapore, with consequences for avian nomenclature. The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology
2. Wells, D. R., 2007. The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula. Volume 2, Passerines.