Grey-headed Fish Eagles as the name suggests live on a diet of mainly fresh water fishes found at inland ponds, lakes and rivers. This family of Grey-headed Fish Eagles have been fishing at the Ulu Pandan Canal for over a decade and have adapted very well to the conditions there.
They have become experts in diving for the fishes in the canal from the tall Albizia Trees by the side of the canal. This is a photo documentation of one of the many successful dives and catches.
Their survival will depend on the continued presence of the mostly alien fishes in this part of the canal. The family of Sooth-coated Otters here appear to be in competition but in reality, they play a symbiotic role in helping the fish eagles with their catches. Other times, their discarded half eaten fish serve as a easy meal for the fish eagles and Brahminy Kites as well.
The Upper Seletar Reservoir Park is a gem of a place for insect and macro photographers. Rare forest butterflies, damselflies, spiders, flies and other critters can be found along the forest edges if you spent time looking for them. The rows of Syzygium zeylanicum when in bloom are a magnet for a host of butterflies and moths that are rarely seen outside the forest. Landscape planting of the Leea indica, Leea rubra and Ixoras provided added food sources for them.
Spending a morning combing the forest edges early this week with Richard White, Laurence Leong and Lee Yue Teng opened a whole new world to the insect and understorey life for me. Star finds include a Scorpion, two Agamid lizards, cockroach, spider, a fly and some butts but surprisingly no damselflies.
Nick Baker and Kelvin Lim. Wild Animals of Singapore. NSS.
I missed the nesting of the Crested Goshawks at Sin Ming early this month. Heard that the goshawks at West Coast Park have fledged and decided to pay them a visit this morning. A few photographers were already there pointing their lenses at a pair of them perched on a Pong Pong Tree. They seem oblivious to our presence. Their parents were not around. A sign that they are now old enough to look after themselves.
But as youngsters, they are still playful and I stayed around to try to capture their behavior and interaction with each other. They were contended to jump from branch to branch keeping some distance from each other. I was hoping for them to come together to see how they will behave.
We called off the Big Year 2020 when the government declared a “Circuit Breaker” in April. Birding was put on hold for the next few months, except around our homes and the balcony. Most of us spent our time doing hard disk birding on our laptops “Social distancing ” became the new buzz words.
The pressure was off but some of us continued keeping a list of our sightings for the year. We just carry on with our own safe birding. Even now we all have our masks on. I am glad to end the year with 208 species. I thought that it will be interesting to blog on what happened during the year and how we cope with the pandemic.
The highlight of 2020 for me was the six SG lifers which I did not count on. I made a big mistake of choosing to take an afternoon nap instead of rushing to SBWR for the mega Gadwall tick, only our second record since 1989. Ah well you cannot win them all.
The year started wonderfully well in January with a Slaty-legged Crake sheltering at a most unusual place, a small stripe of plants at a Punggol Central apartment block. This rare winter visitor was a lifer for many of us, me included. A second lifer was an out of the blue appearance of the White-cheeked Starling, an East Asian species, feeding at the open grassland at Seletar end. Other rare winter visitors seen in January were the Red-throated Pipit roosting at Turuk Track for a week and an Orange-headed Thrush hiding in the dark undergrowth at Dairy Farm Nature Park.
This was followed by two lifers in February, the Brahminy Starling at the Jurong Lake Gardens (JLG) thanks to the Records Committee upgrading it to Category A and the Chinese Blue Flycatcher inside CCNR. The second record of the Tiaga Flycatcher at West Coast Park and a Watercock at JLG made this a busy month.
In March, many of the photographers was mesmerised by a shining male Asian Emerald Cuckoo feeding on the Tussock Moth caterpillars on a Ficus tree behind Ghim Moh estate, a teaser just before CB.
We all took a breather for a good part of the mid-year and restarted in September with an elusive resident, a Barred Buttonquail at the grasslands at Jurong Lake Gardens.
By November, we were cranking our necks to the skies over the Southern Ridges eagerly awaiting the arrival of the migrant raptors. I missed the super rare Eurasian Hobby over at Henderson Wave, the prime spot for raptor watch, but was compensated by Grey-faced Buzzard over at Kent Ridge Park and a Greater Spotted Eagle. A rare Rufous-bellied Eagle was hunting over the forest at SG quarry. Most of us were delighted to get photographs of this raptor, even though it was a plain looking juvenile.
The heavy December rains flooded a large part of the open fields off Marina East Drive, transforming it into a temporary wetland for the migrant waterfowls. Watercocks, Baillon’s Crakes, Pheasant-tailed Jacana and the rare Grey-headed Lapwing could not resist the aquatic buffet being offered there.
Over to the north, the open fields at Harvest Lane was welcoming Sand Martins in November followed by the rarer Asian House Martins. A pair of the shy resident White-browed Crakes found refuge at the low-lying waterlogged farmland there. This may be the last season for us to bird there as all the plots are being developed into high tech farms.
My nemesis flycatcher arrived at Dairy Farm NP in November. It was the Narcissus Flycatcher, a female, a most sought-after lifer by many. I missed this rare migrant flycatcher by a day at Bidadari. The prayers of the bird photographers were answered a month later when a stunning male Narcissus Flycatcher turned up at the SBG Healing Gardens in December. First time a male was recorded in Singapore.
My last lifer of the year was a Chestnut-cheeked Starling, a vagrant. I was photographing a flock of Daurian Starlings at the Grandstand in early December and found one with a patch in its cheek. I, Ho Hua Chew and Alfred Chia went back the next morning to try and find it. By a stroke of luck, Alfred was able to scope an adult among the hundreds of Daurian Starlings roosting in an Albizia there.
It had been an eventful year to say the least. The birding community here was mindful of the pandemic and observed the rules when birding. A few national firsts were recorded. My thanks to many of my friends for the alerts and assistance in finding many of the rarities. Let us continue to cooperate and enjoy watching our feathered friends in 2021.
I am sure that many of you like me had a super busy November chasing the many rare migrants that arrived here on their way south.
The highlight of the month for me had to be the female Narcissus Flycatcher that made landfall at Dairy Farm NP on 19th. I dipped on the past sightings at Bidadari and the last one here. As with the previous year, more gems like the Siberian and Eye-browed Thrushes dropped by to feed on the White Mulberries at the park.
Most of us spent the first week getting roasted at Henderson Wave hoping to catch some rare raptors coming through. The lucky ones hit the jackpot with a juvenile Eurasian Hobby. I had to be contented with a Peregrine Falcon, Greater Spotted Eagle and a Jerdon’s Baza.
When news that some marsh terns were seen foraging off the Marina Barrage early in the month, many of us got great shots of the White-winged Terns flying over. A short walk to the granite sea wall rewarded me with some wintering Kentish Plovers although I was not able to find the recently split White-faced. Two Sanderlings were also wintering there.
Once again the Healing Garden at the Singapore Botanic Gardens was attracting many of the migrant flycatchers with a myriad of insect life there. All the three paradise flycatchers, including a white-morphed, were keeping us busy. I was happy to redo my male Blue and White Flycatcher here.
This may be our last season to bird at the open farmlands at Neo Tiew Harvest Link as all the plots have been sold. A few snipes were feeding at a wet patch at the end of the road. One was confirmed as the Common Snipe. Over 350 Pacific Golden Plovers were using the dry open spaces as their high tide roost. Up in the air, Marsh Harriers came and went on the same day, but a few Sand Martins stayed around to feed with the Aerodramus Swiftlets.
My year list is just below average at 190 partly because of Covid. I still hold up hope of reaching 200 by year end. Bring on December!
There is only so much HDD and balcony birding one can do during this CB period. With the release of the 2020 edition of the Birds of Singapore Checklist, I decided to go through my list of 359 species to date to see how many bird family “grand slams” (of 5 or more species) do I have. If you are doing this as well, do let us know what your “grand slams” are.
A magical place inside CCNR. How insignificant are we? Photo: Glenda Heng.
Not that many as it turned. Only 11 out of a total of 26 families with 5 or more species in it. I was missing the Little Green Pigeon for the 14 Pigeons and Doves Columbidae family. But now with the acceptance of the Oriental Turtle Dove, a national first, it will be that much harder to complete.
I though I have the 12 Rails and Crakes Rallidaefamily done and dusted but found out that the Eurasian Coot, a stray last seen in 1988, is in this family. Arrrrh……
Thanks to Francis Yap:) I “lost” the 13 Bulbuls Pycnontidae family when he photographed the Black and White Bulbul at Jelutong Tower in 2012.
A big thank you and shout out to all my friends, past and present for the timely alerts and help. Many of you will recall the happy memories of when we got these species together. Special mention to all my mentors and my long time birding friends Alfred Chia, Kenneth Kee and Yang Pah Liang for being with me in this journey since the early 1990s. These are the stories of the sighting of the last species of each of the eleven families.
1. Ardeidae (Bitterns, Herons and Egrets) 19 species.
It was a late afternoon phone call from Vincent Ng that an Indian Pond Heron was seen at Bidadari Cemetery. Joseph Tan had photographed it on 11 April 2015 but did not processed it until Er Bong Siong posted his a week later. It was subsequently identified by Francis Yap. Link. Our first record was from Senoko on 20 March 1999 by Lim Kim Seng and Lim Kim Chuah. It was listed in Category D ( Wild birds but possibility of released or escaped cannot be ruled out). Since then, we had 8 more records from Farmway 3 in 2012 and 2016, Bidadari 2015 and 2018, Bishan Park 2018, Jurong Lake in 2019, Windsor Park and Transview Golf Course in 2020. This should not be a difficult family to complete.
The first Indian Pond Heron seen in Bidadari in 2015.
2. Charadriidae ( Lapwings, Plovers) 11 species.
I was late to tick the Grey-headed Lapwing at SBWR on November 2011, found by Lim Kim Chuah. But when news that one was scoped inside Kranji Marshes on 23 October 2016, we went running in to the tower to look for it. I remembered missing it by 5 minutes as it flew over the open field outside the Marshes. Geoff Lim and I decided to drive into Harvest Lane to look for it. We flushed it just after we got out of the car. For most the Common Ringed Plover will be your nemesis in this family.
3. Cuculidae ( Cuckoos and Coucal) 19 species.
The last cuckoo was supposed to be the Lorong Halus’s Jacobin Cuckoo in 2015 but a female Asian Emerald Cuckoo turned up at Siloso, Sentosa in late December 2017 changed that. Link . Topping this was our third record and this time an adult male in its full brilliance found by Kelvin Ng and friends on 23 March 2020 next to the Ulu Pandan Canal behind MOE Ghim Moh.
The adult female Asian Emerald Cuckoo was much easier to identify than the first juvenile female photographed by KC Tsang in 2006.
4. Tytonidae/Strigidae (Owls) 10 species.
January 2016. Another late afternoon phone call this time from See Toh that almost knocked me off my seat. A juvenile Barred Eagle Owl was spotted again at the car park at Bukit Timah NR. I missed the last appearance as I was away and was glad to have completed this difficult family which has the vagrant Short-eared Owl, Northern Boobook and the most sought after Brown Wood Owl in it. I had an old entry in my notebook of a BEO sighting on 16 Nov 1996 near the summit of BTNR during a survey, but I do not have any strong recollection of this sighting.
5. Alcedinidae ( Kingfishers) 8 species.
The migrant Black-capped Kingfisher is known to be super skittish, secretive and hard to find here. Most of the old records were from Pulau Ubin, hidden in between the mangroves. That was where I got mine. For many of the birders it was the most wanted kingfisher. Most should have this family grand slam by now with the Ruddy Kingfisher ever presence at Kranji.
6. Picidae (Woodpeckers) 8 species.
I was lucky to be birding when the White-bellied Woodpeckers were still around. Then the former resident Great Slaty Woodpecker made a spectacular reappearance on May 2018 at BTNR. But it was the Buff-rumped Woodpecker that eluded most of us until Adrian Silas Tay found one at Pulau Ubin on May 2019. Good thing it stayed around long enough for us to tick it.
This male Buff-rumped Woodpecker stayed around the same patch at Pulau Ubin.
7. Psittaculidae ( Parrots and Parakeets) 6 species.
The rare forest wanderer, Blue-rumped Parrot numbers have remained small all these years. They can be seen flying across the Central Catchment Forest in small flocks on good days. It was only the discovery of a fruiting Star Fruit tree at Venus Loop that we were able to see them close up. This should be an easy grand slam for all.
Nationally threatened Blue-rumped Parrot feeding on the Star Fruit at Venus Loop.
8. Monarchidae ( Monarch and Paradise Flycatchers) 5 species.
None of us expected to see an Indian Paradise Flycatcher here as it was not their usual wintering range. But Oliver Tan photographed one at SBWR on 2 December 2017 which was later identified by Dave Bakewell. Link. Our second and third records the following year were at SBWR as well.
The identity feature of this Indian Paradise Flycatcher is the long crest.
9. Hirundinidae ( Swallows and Martins) 5 species.
Both martins in our Checklist were hard to find, Surprisingly I got the rarer Asian House Martin before the more common Sand Martin. Both can be easily overlook unless you pay attention to any flocks of flying swallows.
10. Phylloscopidae ( Warblers) 5 species.
The Dusky Warbler would be the missing warbler for this family for most but I was around when Peter Kennerley mist netted one at Tuas in 1994. Instead my warbler to complete this family was the SakhalinLeafWarbler that was heard calling along Dairy Farm Loop by Lim Kim Keang on March 2014. We had the Pale-legged Warbler in our Checklist, but the sub song was clear enough for us to replace it.
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler replaced the Pale-legged Warbler in our checklist.
11. Cisticolidae ( Cisticolas, Prinia and Tailorbirds) 6 species.
This is an easy family to complete as all the 6 species are our common residents. Among them the forest edge Rufous-tailed Tailorbird was the hardest to find and photographed for some time. But their presence at Dairy Farm and Venus Loop made it much easier now.
This Rufous-tailed Tailorbird was photographed along the railway track at Wessex Estate.
HDD Hard Disk Digging. CB Circuit Breaker, CCNR Central Catchment Nature Reserve, MOE Ministry of Education, BEO Barred Eagle Owl, BTNR Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, SBWR Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.
Lim Kim Seng. The Avifauna of Singapore 2009. NSS
Craig Robson. The Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia.
If you have an afternoon to spare when you are in Sandakan, do take a 2 hours drive out to the Gomantong Caves and see for yourself the natural spectacle of mass exodus of bats leaving the caves in endless streams.
Spirals of Wrinkled-lipped Bats streaming out of the Gomantong Caves at dusk.
Every evening since recorded history, more than a million bats, mainly Winkled-lipped Bats leave the Gomantong Caves in never ending spirals into the night skies. This awesome sight can last well into nightfall. The bats will spend the night feasting on insects all over the countryside before returning to the cave to roost before dawn.
Another drama is waiting to unfold. It will be a life and death encounter over the killing skies of Gomantong.
Meeting the colony of bats side on, the Bat Hawk is built for the kill.
The resident Bat Hawks and the Rufous-bellied Eagles have been spending the day resting up for this moment. It is a buffet not to be missed. The larger Wallace’s Hawk Eagles and smaller Peregrine Falcons will wait nearby for their turn as there is no need to rush and fight for such an abundance of food.
Cropped photo of about 300 bats in a single frame.
The Bat Hawks are specialised bat predators. With folded wings they will slice into the colony of bats, twist their bodies upright, push their talons up front and try to snatch at any of the bats that come close to it. Once in a while it will miss catching one or the bat somehow managed to wriggle out of its grasp. But it will be a matter of time before the Bat Hawk gets its talon on one. It will tear and eat it on the wing to save the trouble to coming back for another.
The Bat Hawk locking on to a bat with its talons by twisting its body backwards.
The Rufous-bellied Eagle is less agile. It will have to fly into the cloud of bats several times before getting hold of one. The smaller Peregrine Falcons are known for their speed and they use it to good effect. They will thermal higher up above the colony of bats and then dive down for the kill. Their success rate is almost 100%.
The adult Rufous-bellied Eagle had to make several dives before catching one.
On the day of observation, the Wallace’s Hawk Eagle was the less interested and did not join in the killing frenzy. It perched nearby watching the spectacle even as the bats were flying directly overhead. Maybe it had its fill or was just waiting for its favourite species to appear.
The Wallace’s Hawk Eagle perch just below the colony of bats waiting for the right time to hunt.
I was ecstatic to be able to witness and capture this life and death drama, mother nature’s wonder, over the killing skies of Gomantong.
Reference: John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo.
The rice fields of Sungei Balang, a short drive north of Batu Pahat, had to be the richest waterbird site in Johor. It is also the foraging site for the main flock of the Lesser Adjutants and the wintering grounds for migrant raptors and shorebirds.
The monsoon rains have arrived. Time for a new crop of rice. Rich foraging grounds for the White-breasted Waterhen and the Wood Sandpiper.
We counted over 60 Lesser Adjutants that day. There were over 200 Asian Openbills thermalling over Balang this morning.
The daily buffet provided by the plowing of the rice fields attracted a one day Woolly-necked Stork, a second for Malaysia, to Balang. We missed it by a few days.
A few Sand Martins ( above) together with Barn and Red-rumped Swallows hawked for insects flushed up by the plowing.
Not giving each other an inch of space as they fly towards the plowed field for their feast.
Marsh Sandpipers are well adapted to feed at freshwater rice fields besides mud flats.
But the Little Ringed Plover in breeding plumage prefers to forage at freshwater habitats.
A Greater Spotted Eagle was wintering there the week before. But only this juvenile Black Kite and a male Eastern Marsh Harrier were around. A Booted Eagle was photographed wintering there this week.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, the tail of the skink swinging from end to end as it was being eaten alive by the Black-winged Kite, the most common resident raptor here.
Common Moorhen with juvenile given the zoom in treatment for effect.
This wintering Black Drongo has a rather stubby short bill, so how is it going to catch insects with it?
With hundreds of dragonflies around this Blue-tailed Bee-eater saved time hunting by snapping up two at one go.
No stones around for this Stejneger’s Stonechat so a mud mount will do.
This is the closest we got to a Citrine Wagtail. The white supercilium did not curved down enough to form a half circle behind the ear.Eastern Yellow Wagtail.
Sometimes lup sup birds like these Scaly-breasted Munias are worth shooting. There were flocks of White and Black-headed Munias around as well.
The star bird of the trip is this rare Small Pratincole pointed to us by Chris Gibbins. The site fidelity of this pratincole is truly amazing.
I wished to thank Kim Keang and Veronica for arranging this trip and doing all the driving.
The Red-necked Phalarope, Phalaropus lobatus, is a long distance migratory wader that breeds in the Arctic Tundra and spend their winters on the tropical waters off Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo. The females are more brightly colored than the males and takes no part in raising its young, a reversal to the norm.
Part of the main flock of 11 Red-necked Phalaropes that spend their winter at sea.
It is an accident visitor to Singapore with a winter bird seen at the Tuas flooded grasslands from 16-25 November 1994. This was my only national first record.
We have to wait for another seventeen years before another was seen foraging in the Straits of Singapore on 17 April 2011 during a NSS Pelagic Survey. Coincidentally I was on board on this trip.
The lobed toes of the right feet that helps them to paddle themselves on water can be seen in this photo.
On 8 October 2016, Frankie Cheong photographed a moulting juvenile to winter plumage at a freshwater puddle at the reclaimed land at Pulau Tekong, our second land record.
In flight the upper white wing bar stands out.
Last Saturday 28 September 2019, we came across a floating flock of 14 juvenile Red-necked Phalaropes again at the Straits of Singapore, north of Batam. My hattrick! This is the first multiple sighting of this vagrant.
They were busy feeding among the floating sea grasses, paddling around in small circles with their lobed feet. This unique habit helps to stir up the marine invertebrates up to the center for easy pickings.
Our first multiple sightings as all the past three were single birds.
With this record and hopefully more in the years to come, we may be able to reclassified their status from vagrant to a rare winter visitor.
Reference: Wild Bird Society of Japan. A Field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia. Lim Kim Seng. The Avifauna of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore) 2009.
Our decision to fly to Taiwan and look for the endemic birds in late June was inspired by Ping Ling’s recent birding weekend to Daxueshan. She even introduced us to Liao Mei-Feng, one of the top bird guides in Taiwan. I swear she knew the calls of just about every resident species in Taiwan. She picked us up at the Taoyuan Airport in her Honda CRV and we spent the next nine days driving up and down the central lowlands and mountains in search of the 28 endemic birds that lived here.
A number of small resorts and homestays at Baling town provide accommodation for tourists to Lalashan. They are fully booked during the cherry blossoms season in February, a good time to photograph birds with a backdrop of the pink flowers.
By the time she dropped us off at the airport we had seen 27 endemic species and I managed to photograph 24 of them, more than what I had hope for. We would have got the easy Chestnut-bellied Tit at Basianshan on the last day if not for the rain. But on the whole it was a super trip. For sure it will not be possible without her local knowledge, experience and skill. A big thank you to Mei-Feng for her tenacity and be at the right place at the time. It was almost like she had pre-arranged with the pheasants and partridges to come out to meet us.
Tits are very curious birds. They can be easily attracted by the calls of the Collared Owlet. An uncommon endemic, they can be found in mixed montane forests. One of the earlier endemics that we ticked off.
Photo opportunity are around every corner and turn along the twisting mountain roads. Photo: Liao Mei-Feng.
After the side trip to Yilan for the Fairy Pitta, we made our way to Lalashan Nature Reserve, the home of the ancient sacred trees. I have birded here on my own before but it is so different with someone who knows the place well.
The lush green valley inside the Lalashan Reserve, with a giant Redwood Cypress tree in the distance.
This is where we got the rare endemic Rufous-crowned Laughingthrush,Ianthocincla ruficeps, thanks to the alertness of my wife. Mei-Feng was over the moon as she did not expect to find this laughingthrush here. Just as well as we did not get to see them again during the trip.
We stayed in a small family guest house that overlooks the Baling Valley. A bubbly lady ran the place and is known for her vinegar fruit drinks. We don’t have a choice of what to have for dinner. Her husband insisted that we must have their popular deep herb infused fried chicken. Who are we to refuse? It was very flavourful but I would prefer it to be a little less well done.
Flocks of Yuhinas and Tits visit the trees in front of the balcony of our guesthouse in the morning. We enjoyed staying in this cosy and friendly place.
Taiwan Yuhina, a common endemic, comes in flocks and sometimes as part of a bird wave.
A very attractive Black-throated Tit is another common resident of the mixed mid level forests.
Wild lilies and orchids add colour to the dense and dark forest.
One of the 22 giant Redwood Cypress that the reserve is famous for. Most are over 2,000 years old existed before Christ. Photo: Liao Mei-Feng.
The Rusty Laughingthrush move in family groups foraging among the undergrowth. A common endemic, that have lost fear for humans, often coming close to path in the reserve.
A newly fledged Rusty Laughingthrush waiting for the parents to bring back food.
White-tailed Robins are common in the mossy forests. The subspecies in Taiwan is the montium. Residents of Indian Subcontinent and China and uncommon resident in highlands of Thailand and Malaysia.
Lalashan in Fuxing District is a mere two hours drive from the airport. Many of the resorts at Baling Town can arrange pickup from the airport.
Reference: Craig Robson. A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia
Mu-Chi Hsiao. A Field Guide to the Birds of Taiwan.