All posts by Alan OwYong

About Alan OwYong

Retiree birder and photographer.

Of Pho and Rice Paper Rolls

Of Pho and Rice Paper Rolls, a travelog for a change.

The port city of Danang is a convenient stop for groups touring between Hanoi and Ho Chi Ming City. But it can be a worthwhile destination by itself if you include visits to the World Heritage town of Hoi An and the ancient city of Hue. Hoi An is just a 30 minutes drive south of Danang while Hue in the north takes a good 2 hours to get there. Bach Ma National Park an hour inland is a great birding destination for highland species.

Went there to jiak hong for a week early last month and was surprised by the temperate weather (read cold), rich historical and natural diversity there. Here are some snapshots of the people and places from the trip. Our thanks to Dang Tien Hy for showing us around Hoi An and Hue.

Dragon Bridge

We chose the 3 star Vanda Hotel right next to the iconic Dragon Bridge. This area is lined with hipster cafes, pastry shops and the in place for the young. The surprise was the $3 taxi transfer from the airport. the cheapest ever!


Entrance to Thien Phuoc Dia Cave, next to the Marble Mountains, a must visit in Danang. The vast interior houses the deities, statues of Buddha and shrines.


This simple BBQ place is voted as one of the top ten places to eat in Danang. A fresh seafood and meat meal with beers for under $10 per person. Unfortunately your hair and clothes smell like smoked chicken after the meal.


Not only you can buy and eat just about everything at the Han Market, you can also get a shampoo and blow dry.


They have elevated the Civet or Luwak coffee to Weasel grades 1,2,3.


The Thu Bon River that runs through the Unesco town of Hoi An. Across the waters is the landmark 18th century Japanese Bridge built to connect the different communities on both sides.


A photo of a photo of Hoi An under water. This happens almost every year. The waters can reach up to the first storey.


Front paddle drive, a Vietnamese woman at home on the river.


Homes transformed into quaint rustic cafes in Hoi An.


Up market Vedana Resort and Spa with lagoon view backed by a green hillside is half way between Danang and Hue. Good Feng Shui!


Tourist enjoying a photo opportunity moment at the sand spit a the Dam Ha lagoon.


Walkway into the classy Pilgrimage Hotel and Spa at Hue. It’s ancient wooden architecture is set against lush greenery. My kind of stay.


Hue has one of the smallest Botanic Gardens I know.  Even the taxi drivers cannot find it.


View of the Perfume River from top of the pine forested hill. Plans are in place to build proper tourist facilities to turn this into a tourist spot.


Rice fields dominate much of the countryside around Hue. Vietnam is one of the rice bowls of Asia.

Olive-backed Pipit

Olive-backed Pipit, a common winter visitor to Vietnam, one of the few birds I managed to get on the sensors.


A popular seafood restaurant with the locals and tourists by the side of the Dam Ha lagoon. The prices here is a fraction of what you pay in Danang.


Big Year 2018.

Big Year 2018

My target was 100 species for January to kick start my fifth Big Year. A certain Mr. K. had a 100+ on the first day (hats off to him), so it should be easy peasy. Wrong! I was not even half way by mid month. Lim Kim Seng initiated the first Big Year in 2014 as a friendly competition to see how many species we can see in a calendar year. It turned out to be a case of who was the first to find the rarer species and share it with the rest as soon as possible. Meals and outings with wives and girlfriends were often interrupted when a mega rare bird turned up.


Nice of the Asian Emerald Cuckoo to stay over the New Year.

The key to a good start was to tick off the rare visitors before they made their way back and chase down the hard to find residents. First thing we did was to tick the Asian Emerald Cuckoo before the caterpillars were gone. It may not be coming back anytime soon. The erratic Chinese Hwamei may not be around for long, so getting it was a bonus. I was a day late and dipped on the rare Yellow-browed Warbler, one of the rarer visiting tree warblers. Well you cannot win them all. The Booted Warbler looks like it will be included in the 2018 Checklist and may not be coming back anytime soon. So ticking it early is a no brainer! The bonus at the Kranji Marshes was the super sensitive Black-capped Kingfisher.


The Booted Warbler is getting use to our presence. It often flies down to the lower thicket to forage giving us a chance of getting open and topside views like this.

I revisited Kranji Marshes on 27th to celebrate Jimmy Chew’s birthday with the rest of his friends. Ended up with a male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and a hard to find resident Greater Coucal at the car park.


This Yellow-rumped Flycatcher is on its way back north but decided to drop over the Kranji Marshes for a rest.

Things were looking better after a visit to the flooded grasslands along Bulim Avenue. In one morning, we had a Von Schrenck’s and Cinnamon Bittern, Greater Painted and Common Snipes and a Watercock, thanks to Goh Cheng Teng, Lester Tan and Adrian Silas Tay. I don’t have many of these last year.

Swintail Snipe at Bulim

A Swintail Snipe over Bulim Grasslands. A Swinhoe’s Snipe was shot there last month by Lester Tan.

A few days later, I returned and was very surprised to find a Black Kite resting in the open field, a species I have not seen for over 20 years.


A rare Black Kite thermaling over Bulim on a hot morning. It was seen flying past a few days later. A lucky find!

I went to chase the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo at the Learning Gardens, thinking that it would be an easy tick. But it turned out to be my jinx bird. Luckily all was not lost. A of small flock White-rumped Munias were feeding on the dried bamboo flowers at the Bambusetum. These are rare residents but its wild status is not certain even they are the correct sub species found here.

Are these wild munias or released birds? At least they are the right sub species.










Then Meena Vathyam got us a global rare tick in the form of a Band-bellied Crake by the Symphony Lake. This is only our second record.


A great opportunity for those who missed the first record to get this globally rare crake at the Helliconia Gardens, thanks to Meena Vathyam.

As I will traveling, I will be ending the month today at 108 species with a Drongo Cuckoo at Hindhede Quarry. Thank you all for your sharing the news and the alerts with me. Welcome to the Big Year and Happy Birding all!


May be a resident Drongo Cuckoo taken at the Hindhede Quarry. 

Ref: Yong Ding Li, Lim Kim Chuah and Lee Tiah Khee. A Naturalist Guide to the Birds of Singapore. John Beaufoy Publishing Co, 2013



Shooting Birds in flight with Manual Focus.

Shooting birds in flight with manual focus.

Everyone loves a great shot of a bird in flight. Getting one is another matter. The recent improvement on auto focus and bust speeds of many of the high end cameras has made this a lot easier. Many of the new models have dual contrast and phase detection with hundreds of cross points for fast and accurate focus.


Aerodamas Swiftlet

Flying swiftlets are a challenge because of their small size and their erratic flight. I had to preset my focus and shoot when they come into focus, which is a touch and go affair.  Shots like this are one in a hundred or more. 300 mm, 1/2000s at F 5.6.

But like me if you have cameras whose AF does not lock on to a small flying bird, what is the best solution? Well start practicing on larger birds like the low flying raptors, herons and the more common species. Because of their sizes, most cameras with a decent AF will be able to detect and lock on to it. Just made sure you used a high shutter speed ( 1/3000 and above) and compensate for the strong back light ( +2 and above). Sunny days and blue skies will give better images.



Surphur=crested Cockatoo @ Sentosa.

No harm starting with bigger common species like this Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. They are not fast flyers and are more predictable in their flight path. I like this shot because of the eye contact.

But for the smaller birds like swifts and swallows, the only way of getting a decent photo of them flying is to use manual focus or rather preset focus. It is more of a  hit and miss game with more misses ( like 95%) than hits. But if you have a camera that shoots at 10 frames per second, your hit rates will improve.


Sometimes your subject helps you to get the shot. I had my lens focus on the parent Little Tern at the end of the breakwater when this juvenile flew in to try to snatch the fish from the parent. Shot it as it got into the frame. 1/2000s, f 6.7 at 280 mm.

Before shooting study the pattern and flight of the birds. Determine a comfortable distance for your shot and then lock your focus to that distance by focusing on a tree or object. Set your camera to “Speed Priority” and the speed at 1/3000s or more.  You can use the largest aperture or set it at F 8 for extra sharpness. Adjust your compensation ( +2 to +3) depending on the brightness of the backlight. You may have to turn your ISO to auto with a set limit depending on your camera’s sensitivity. 

Great Crested Tern

The preset focus will be on this Swift Tern that was perched on a Kelong pole. If you are lucky it will take off to the left of right without changing the distance too much. Cropped shot at 1/4000s at f 5.6 with 300 mm and +1. 

To be able to track the flying bird you may need to shoot at 300-400mm especially if they are close. This will give you a bigger field of view. You can crop the shot for posting later. Start with birds that were flying across as their distance will not vary much. I tracked it from the left and start shooting just before it crossed in front of you. For birds that are flying towards you, you may have to start shooting just before it comes into focus. With luck one of the frames will be in focus. Make sure the sun is behind you to get the best light.


This Pacific Swallow was looping around the open lawn at Singapore Botanic Gardens.  It flight path was almost the same which makes it easier to track. Cropped shot at 1/2,500s, f 6.7, +1 with 400 mm at about 25 meters. 

This can be a frustrating and tiresome method of shooting but with practice and the optimum settings, the chance of getting the shot is much higher than trying to shoot with a on off auto focus. Hope these simple pointers will help you getting these action shots.

Cameras used: Olympus OMD EM 1 and EM5 with 75-300 mm f 4.8-6.7 II zoom lens.

Magical Birding at Nanhui’s Microforests.


The clumps of short trees behind me are the so call Microforests of Nanhui. They are on the leeward slopes of the seawall. In the background are the inner mudflats where shorebirds use as their high tide roost.

If you are on a short business trip to Shanghai I would strongly recommend that you take a morning or a day off and head for Nanhui at the mouth of Hangzhou Bay for some great birding. Situated at the extreme south-eastern part of Shanghai, many birders considered this place as one of the best birding sites in China. Besides providing high tide roost for migratory shorebirds at the inner mudflats, clumps of forests on the leeward side of the seawall provide refuge from the strong winds for migratory passerines. These are the Microforests of Nanhui famed for attracting many of the warblers, flycatchers and thrushes on the way south during the migratory season.


Unlike our rain forests, the microforests of Nanhui is rather sparse with one or two species of  trees and low scrubs almost the prefect habitat for birding. 

The clumps of microforests are well spread out along the length of the inner seawall. You will be looking down at the birds as you walk along the road at the top of the seawall. It is so much more comfortable then cranking your neck to look for birds here. We saw many bird photographers shooting from inside their cars as they cruised along the road. The birds do not have a large area to fly to and will stay inside the same patch once flushed. It is almost like birding in an open aviary. The great company of Jimmy Chew, Tan Gim Cheong, Doreen Ang, Lim Kim Keang, Samantha Ang and Tan Ju Lin, made this another great birding trip for all of us. Many thanks to Alfred Chia for planning the trip and Tong Menxiu for finding the birds for us. Looking forward to more birding trips to come!


Black-winged Cuckooshrike is rather skittish but after a while it got use to our presence. Very similar to the Large Cuckooshrike but smaller, it breeds in southern China and Indian Sub-continent.

Rufous-tailed Robin

Rufous-tailed Robin is quite common often staying very close to the ground. They will come close to you if you stay still.

Yellow-browed Warbler

A head on view of the Yellow-browed Warbler, one of the most common leaf warbler here. The other leaf warblers were not easy to identify as they were not calling.

Mugimaki Flycatcher

There were more male Mugimaki Flycatchers around than females. Most come down to eye level for shots like this.

Blue and White Flycatcher female

Female Blue and White Flycatchers are rather drab.

We passed through Tiaozini on the way to Rudong. The forest on both sides of the long quiet road at Tiaozini was a magnet for passerine migrants. We enjoyed a very productive morning here as it was the only time when we had the sun out for most of the day.

Northern Hawk Cuckoo

This Northern Hawk Cuckoo looks very much like the Hawk Cuckoos that visits us in the winter. It may turn up here one day.

Lesser Cuckoo

The other cuckoo species that we came across is this Lesser Cuckoo. It breeds in Indian Sub continent Tibet and parts of China, winters in E Africa and visits Indochina. I will have a hard time separating it from the Himalayan.

Blue and White Flycatcher

Blue and White Flycatcher is always a great bird to have on your sensors especially the male. The Zappey’s occurs in China as well.

Daurian Redstart Female

This looks like one of those feeding station shots with this female Daurian’s Redstart holding on to what looks like a meal worm, but it was actually something it found on its own. We did not do any baiting. 


Orange-flanked Bluetail ( female) breeds in Siberia in the Taiga forests and winters all the way south to Northern Thailand.

References: Liu Yang, Yong Ding Li and Yu Yat-tung. Birds of China. John Beaufoy Publishing Ltd.





August’s Birding Moments.

August can be a quiet month for birding even though some early migrants started to  arrive. Most of us were taking things easy waiting for the onslaught of of the winter visitors from the Northern Asia in September.

It was not a productive month for me as well being away on holiday for the last week of the month. Here were some of the common species caught doing their things.


The breeding period for these Sunda Pygmy Woodpeckers is from February to August. This pair at Pasir Ris Park is either late starters or thinking of raising a second brood. Did not check if they eventually used this nest hole but it was hard work excavating this in early August. The flying chippings rendering some movements to the shot.


Another late nesting was the Grey-rumped Treeswifts as previous nestings were in April. This mother was seen feeding a juvenile at one-north crescent in mid August. The small cup nest was built on the branch of a roadside tree. Previous nesting was also recorded near by at Kent Ridge.


When the figs and other berries are not available, these Pink-necked Pigeons will come down low to feed on the dried seeds of the Melastoma Plant, a favorite of the Flowerpeckers.


Now I know why the Grey Herons chose to nest by at the Jurong Lakesides. The water surrounding the gardens are shallow and they can wade around and hunt with ease. A bit of action in the shot with the water trails.


When a bird rests on a clean perch at eye level, you have to shoot it even though it is a common species and you have plenty of them in your hard disk. Showing the grassland habitat of TEG adds a bit more to this Red-whiskered Bulbul in the shot.


Yes the tigers are back and good to see that they still dropped by Bidadari even though a large part of it have been cleared for housing. This area will be part of the 9 hectare Town Park which will be ready before the new owners move in. Lets hope they will keep coming back.


Did not have time to chase after these Yellow-rumped Flycatchers that started arriving by the end of the August. By early September, they were reported all over the island. Again we are glad that quite a good number were seen at Bidadari this season.

Reference: Lim Kim Seng. The Avifauna of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore) 2009



Panti Forest is about Butts too!

Hutan Panti Reserve just north of Kota Tinggi is still the closest birding site for the many of the lowland bird species that went extinct in Singapore over the past 50 years. Families like the trogons and broadbills come into mind.  But it is also a place for some of the rare forest butterflies that cannot be found here.

I wish I had spent time looking for them during those early years when we were birding there. But it is not too late as many of the rare species are still there.

Last weekend we spent two mornings there. It was quite birdy. Two Scarlet-rumped Trogons showed up and a flowering Syzygium attracted spiderhunters and a Red-throated Sunbird. Collectively we had a total of 80 bird species, many from calls. But unfortunately no lifers for me.

It was a good thing that we went looking for butterflies as well. We found some rare ones and some real stunners. Most are new to me. Yes lifers! Here are a few that I managed to photograph.

Malay Punchinello
This my favourite. The Malay Punchinello, what a nice name. I checked it up in the dictionary and it means “punch”. The colors certainly are punchy. There was a previous record in 2013 in Panti and a more recent one at Tioman. They normally rest with their wings half open. They are a little more common in Thailand. Wish we can have this in Singapore.


The Arhopala trogon is rare but have been photographed at Panti before.  So easy to overlook we are just lucky to find it.

Redspot Marquis
I also like this Redspot Duke.  Nature decided to give it just a red dot to brighten its dull brown wings.



The Sumatran Gem is uncommon in Panti, but rarer in Singapore, recently shot at Rifle Range Link.

Malayan Bush Brown
Malayan Bush Brown looks like most of our bush browns except for the two darker stripes across the wings.

Great Marquis

The Great Marquis is a family new to me. Uncommon resident of lowland forest like Panti.

Lesser Helen

The Syszgiun flowers also attracted this female Great Helen and other butterflies to it. My first photo of this large butterfly. Uncommon in Singapore.


This badly shot oakblue is identified as the Large Metallic Oakblue. They all looked so similiar to me.

Ref: iNaturalist Butterflies of Malaysia.


Around the Mulberry Bush

“Here we go around the Mulberry Bush

The Mulberry Bush, the Mulberry Bush,

Here we go around the Mulberry Bush

So early in the morning”  A Children’s Song.


Morning shooting session around the White Mulberry Tree at Dairy Farm Nature Park. 

It is more than a Mulberry Bush at the Dairy Farm Nature Park that is attracting many of the frugivorous birds for the past two months. It is the White Mulberry Tree, Morus alba, a native of China. It is a fast growing tree cultivated in China for its leaves to feed the silk worms. It has adapted to the tropics turning into an evergreen here. It soft berries are sweet but bland and a favorite with the flowerpeckers and starlings.


A female Asian Fairy Bluebird bending over for a ripe berry.

Over the months more than a dozen forest, woodlands and garden species have been seen feeding on the fruits of this tree.  Even some generalists like the leafbirds and fairy bluebirds were attracted to the white berries.


A juvenile Greater Green Leafbird, a generalist likes the sweet berries as well.

So far four species of bulbuls have been photographed feeding on the berries on this tree. The Yellow-vented, Cream-vented, Olive-winged and Black-crested. Both the Blue-winged and Greater Green Leafbirds were frequent visitors, but no signs of the rarer Lesser Green Leafbird.


A bit of the habitat shot of the White Mulberry attracting the garden and parkland Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker.

Both the Orange-bellied and Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers were the regular feeders on the soft white berries. The former would more often or not chased the intruding Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers away. They will pass out the seeds some else where and help to propagate this tree.


The forest specialist Orange-bellied Flowerpecker is more aggressive of the two, often chasing away the Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker for intruding into its habitat.

The more common species like the Javan Mynas, Pink-necked Pigeons and Black-naped Orioles did not seem to like the berries as much as the figs that is available elsewhere in the park, but they will still fly in for a bite or two. I have yet to see barbets or squirrels feeding on them. The Long-tailed Macaques did seem interested at all.

For the photographers the tree’s small size and the low branches offered perfect opportunity and easier shooting of some of the less common forest birds.


Lim Kim Seng. The Avifauna of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore) 2009                            Yong Ding Li, Lim Kim Chuah and Lee Tiah Khee. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Singapore. John Beaufoy Publishing 2013.