Doing a “Safe Year” in a Pandemic.

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.

An unexpected wetland haven at the open grasslands off MED created by the monsoon rains.

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 rare Slaty-legged Crake sheltering at Ponggol

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.

A national first White-cheeked Starling at Seletar Aerospace Drive

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.

The Chinese Blue Flycatcher appeared for a day at JLG for many of us who missed the one at CCNR.

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.

The grasslands at JLG is attracting more and more birds to the 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.

Only the adult Rufous-bellied Eagle has a rufous belly.

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. 

The Pheasant-tailed Jacana was a surprised visitor to the flooded grasslands at MED

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.

The few Sand Martins were feeding together with the swiftlets over at Harvest Lane.

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.

Female Narcissus Flycatcher showing the two wing bars, white fringes of the tertials and rusty rump.

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.

A heavily cropped shot of a starling showing a dark patch on its cheek.

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.

Safe Birding all!

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