Category Archives: Bird Behaviour

A Wondrous Insect Feast at Trus Madi.

By Alan OwYong.

Hillside Montane forest of the Trus Madi Range

The Trus Madi Conservation Area at the Crocker Range in Sabah is well known among insect and moth lovers as the place to go and see the hundreds of insects of the tropical montane hill forests. The Trus Madi Entomology Camp, better known as the Borneo Girl Jungle Camp was set up in the conservation area primarily to study the insect life there.

The Enotomolgy Camp at Trus Madi

Insect screens with special lights to attract the insects were erected at the both sides of a ridge near the camp. On most nights, these screens were swamped with insects, mainly moths of all shapes and sizes, cicadas, beetles, cricket and wasps. April I was told is the peak month.

Insects screen at both sides of the ridge
David Tseu and Theresa Ng shooting moths with their hand phones at one of the screens.

Every morning the resident Pig-tailed Macaque will make its way to the ridge and pick out the biggest and juiciest cicadas that are still on the screen. It will tear away the wings before biting off its head and then the body. These fruit eating monkeys would not pass off a chance of tasty snack that is rich in proteins as well. We saw some squirrels around but did not see them taking any of the insects.

Robin, the Pig-tailed Macaque looking for the juiciest cicada for breakfast every morning
Tearing off the wings before eating
A big fat Cicada the favourite snack of the Pig-tailed Macaque

During the night, another opportunistic raider was on standby. The Barred Eagle-Owl waits patiently at the near-by tree for some of the larger moths and cicadas to fly by before swooping down to pick it up. These insects will supplement their usual diet of rodents and squirrels.

The Barred Eagle Owl taking off to catch the larger flying moths.
Like this Hawk Moth
Another favorite is this Attacus staudingeri , less brown and larger than the Attacus atlas.

When dawn breaks, the rest of the insectivorous birds would gather at the trees on both side of the ridge to start their day with easy pickings. The Ashy Drongos and the White-throated Fantails will sally out for the smaller flying moths. Flocks of the endemic Chestnut-crested Yuhinas will flush out the rest of the insects for a quick meal.  While the Black-bellied Malkohas and the Red-bearded Bee-eaters wait for the larger ones. Even the small tailorbirds were able to pick and choose their food from the buffet in front of them. 

Black-bellied Malkoha looking for Katydids and crickets for breakfast
The Bornean race of Ashy Drongo with its moth
Red Bearded Bee-eater will take other insects if there are no bees around.

This feasting must be a ritual for these birds every morning. Free and easy food in the cool montane air. For the bird watchers and photographers, it is an opportunity not to be missed.

With Wilson Leung, Theresa Ng and David Tseu ( Nature guide).

Grey-headed Fish Eagle. Dive to Survive.

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.

Cleaning crew at Ulu Pandan Canal where the fish eagles hunt, The Albizia trees arevon the opposite bank

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.

It would find a prominent perch on a branch of the Albizia overhanging the canal and wait patiently, sometimes for hours for the fishes to break surface.
Dive! This morning, a pair of Otters were chasing the fishers just below where the eagle perched. One fish came up to the surface. This was the moment the fish eagle was waiting for. Talons ready and eyes focused.
The momentum of the dive carried the eagle into the water. Its nictitating membrane would have covered it eyes and it would not be able to see the fish. If its aim is accurate, its talons would have caught the fish.
Pushing its way out of the water with the fish in its talons needed great effort. The nictitating membrane is still covering its eyes.
Life off, just!
But not enough to pull clear off the surface.
It caught a big Keli catfish. Due to its weight, the fish eagle could not turn around and flew straight at me.
Its determination to keep the fish showing.
Finally it managed to turn around and head towards the other side of the canal
And landed on the side of the canal to take a breather.
To avoid ground predators it flew up to this low tree and started tearing the guts out of the catfish.
With the dead fish, it flew up to the highest branch from where it can check the surroundings for the presence of the House Crows.
With no signs of the House Crows around, it finally flew off with its catch to its nest at Toh Tuck forest. This catch will be enough to feed the family for the day.

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 Killing Skies of Gomantong.

The Killing Skies of Gomantong.

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.

Get Out of Our Tree Hole Nest!

Nesting Wars at Dairy Farm Nature Park

The tree hole “nest” near the top of a dead coconut tree at Dairy Farm Nature Park was the centre of a real estate war between a pair of Banded Woodpeckers, a Red-crowned Barbet and a young Monitor Lizard when I visited the park on 17 July.

Mr. and Mrs. Banded Woodpecker inspecting the BTO nest hole at Dairy Farm.

This particular hole was most probably excavated by the woodpeckers. Both were seen putting in the finishing touches to the nest throughout the whole morning. Each woodpecker took turns to clear the interior and getting comfortable inside.


Each woodpecker took turns to clear the interior of the nest hole.

But just after noon, a Red-crowned Barbet flew in and chased the woodpeckers away. There were no resistance. It seems that both the woodpeckers were afraid of the barbet and did not wish to pick a fight with it.

Changing shift

Changing shift.

But the barbet did not seem too interested in occupying the nest. It went inside for a short while before flying off. From its clumsy attempts to perch on the trunk and it appeared to be a young bird. So it may not be looking for a nest hole to breed.


This surprising aggressive young Red-crowned Barbet chasing the woodpeckers away.

The woodpeckers returned only after the barbet left, happy to reclaim the nest. All this drama was being watched by a young Monitor Lizard at the base of the tree. Some friends told me that the lizard had been seen crawling into the nest before. My guess is that it was more interested in the eggs than the nest.


The Barbet did not seem too interested in the nest.

As with the nest hole at Pasir Ris Park, the woodpeckers did not have an easy time reclaiming this nest. Only time will tell if they will be able to raise a family here.

PS. This tree hole nest seemed abandoned when I checked it a few weeks later. Glad if anyone can provide an update.



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.


Little Terns at the Marina Barrage.

Breakwater at Marina Barrage
Very disciplined shooting session at the breakwaters by the Marina Barrage. Nature next to the CBD.

I think that the breakwaters by the side of the Marina Barrage was built to prevent erosion of the beach fronting the barrage. But it turned out to be a great place to study the post breeding behavior of families of the Little Terns, Sternula albifrons. Besides the Black-naped Terns, Sterna sumatrana, the Little Tern is the only other tern that breeds in Singapore, although we had some sporadic records of the Bridled Terns, Onychoprion anaethetus, breeding at Horsburgh Lighthouse.

Coming in to land.
Frontal flying shots will not be possible without knowing where they will land.

Fluffing up is part of preening to keep the feathers healhty
Preening and fluffing to keep their feathers healthy

Since early July, a few adult terns were using the breakwaters to teach their juveniles flying and survival skills of catching fish in the open waters. As the juveniles are not able to fly for long periods, the breakwaters is a convenient place for them to come in for a rest.

Dinner time.
Parent terns were able to demonstrate the art of catching small fishes to the juveniles near the breakwaters.

At first the parents will bring back the fish for the juveniles and then gradually entice the juveniles to follow them out to fish at sea. The parent birds will catch the small fishes and dropped them back to the water for the juveniles to practise fishing . By the end of July, a few older juveniles were seen fishing on their own having mastered the art of finding and catching the small fishes from the parents.

The juveniles under the watchful eyes of the adult
The juveniles practise flying at the breakwaters under the watchful eyes of the adult

Unlike the period before the chicks fledged, the parent terns at the breakwaters were very tolerant of intruders. They allowed the photographers to come close knowing that the juveniles were able to fend for themselves. Those of us that tried shooting the young chicks at the open grasslands will tell you the ferocity of the adult terns dive bombing every intruder including House Crows that get too near to their chicks.

Stop showing off.
Showing off landing to its siblings much to the delight of the parent on the right.

This in turn allow us to get some stunning photos of these terns in flight, fishing, feeding preening and fighting for food in a natural surrounding. This will not be possible if not for this breakwaters which is just outside the CBD.

Last feed for the juveniles
Parent tern still hard at work with the last feed for the day

Reference: A Field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia. 1993 The Wild Bird Society of Japan.

Size does not matter

When it comes to looking after their youngs, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongos like all parents are super protective. When a perceived predator invades their territory they will try their best to chase it away, even though the predator is many times their size. Size does not matter. It does not know that the Oriental Honey Buzzard goes after the larvae of bees and other insects. Instinct just kicks in.


All this female Oriental Honey Buzzard wanted was to take a rest after migrating across from Indonesia. Unfortunately it came too close to a pair of nesting Greater Racket-tailed Drongos. The GRT Drongo at first just stood guard and hoped that the OHB will go away.


After a few minutes stand off,  the GRT Drongo cannot wait any longer and decided to attack and chase the OHB away.


The GRT Drongo went for the soft under belly even though it may come close to the talons of the OHB. That is really  brave.


Bang! It happened so fast that I did not notice that it made contact until I check the photo. It followed up with another attack from the top to make sure it got the message after this. On its own this photo looks like the OHB has caught the Drongo.

Reference: Yong Ding Li, Lim Kim Chuah and Lee Tiah Khee. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Singapore. 2013 John Beaufoy Publications. 


Fishing White-bellied Sea-eagle.

Platform 1 or Choo’s Platform at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is the favorite place to shoot White-bellied Sea-eagles, Brahminy Kites, Ospreys, Great-billed Herons, Egrets and Terns in action. It looks into the Johor Straits, the breakwaters, a tall mangrove tree and the floating fish farms.

The waters in between are teeming with fishes that either escaped from the farms or were attracted there by the free food. It has since become the best place to photograph these raptors and herons in all kinds of activities. Here are a sequence of a White-bellied Sea-eagle catching a fish from the straits. Excuse for the less than perfect shots as I was hand holding my old manual Nikon lens.   


The low approach.

Both talons out in front
Both talons out in front

The bounce
The bounce

The Grab
The Grab


The Prize.

Woodpeckers in our Heartlands

Male Common Flameback with its distinctive flaming crest

I think the Common Flameback, Dinopium javanense,  has to be one of the most colorful birds that can be seen in our urban spaces and heartlands. I have seen them at the car park at the Alexander Hawker Center visiting the shade trees there. A pair regularly comes to forage on the rain tree outside my balcony. Their calls can be heard often all  over our urban landscape.


A female Common Flameback chipping out grubs from a rotten branch of a Yellow Flame tree

But it was not like this before. Even though it was a common resident then, it was noted by Bucknill and Chasen (1927) that  they avoided towns and stayed in the rural and cultivated areas, mangroves and forest patches. They are also found in our offshore islands of St. Johns, Sentosa and Ubin.

Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker
Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker also benefited from the planting of the roadside trees.

Lim and Gardner 1997 recorded them in coconut plantations, coastal scrubs, orchards, parks and gardens on the mainland. The other woodpecker that followed their spread to the urban landscape is the Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker, Dendrocopus moluccensis.

Many species, like this Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker relied on old branches for their nest holes

I think it had to do with their food sources and places to build their nests. Rain trees and other soft wooded roadside and shade trees provide them with abundant grubs and caterpillars to feed on. The rotting branches and peeling barks on the tree trunks are places where these grubs strife. These old branches also made for good and easy nesting holes. Over time when they have adapted to the noise and our presence, they are safe with no predators around.

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


Buffy Fish Owl caught feeding in the day.

Tearing off small bits of flesh seems to be the best way to enjoy the fresh catch.

Richard White first “discovered” the Buffy Fish Owl, Ketupa ketupu,at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on 8th May. This may be the first record of this owl in the Gardens. We think that it and the Sunda Scops Owls, Otus lempiji were flushed out of the Tyersall Forest by the work going on there to extend the gardens. This pair eventually settled in a dense patch of rain forest near the Symphony Lake. This could be the same lake that they used to hunt.

You want some? An unusual behavior of a Fish Owl hunting and feeding during mid morning.

During the day they perched high up in between twigs and foliage, asleep.This is their usual behavior. Getting a clear view or shot is almost impossible. Those hoping for a photo of these large owls with their eyes open will need lots of patience and a bit of luck. They become active at dusk when they come out to hunt. I have seen them diving for fish at midnight.

Is this eye contact good enough for you guys?

I got a nice surprise this morning when I went to their roost to look for them. One of them was perched at a open branch with a half eaten fish in its claws. The head and stomach of the fish had already been eaten. This was around 10 am, which means that it may have gone fishing in the earlier. This is not their normal behavior to hunt in the day. Could it be that it was unsuccessful the night before? Are they adapting to a new routine being close to human disturbance during the day? This is the first time I came across this fish owl feeding during the day.

Yes I know. I should be sleeping instead of eating at this time of the day.

With the fish held firmly in its claws, it would take small bites of the flesh with its beak. It had to twist its head and pull the flesh off the body. If a bigger piece became loose it will swallow it whole. Whenever there is any sound nearby by, like the calls of the Hill Mynas or human noise, it would stop, look up and stared at the direction of the call.

There was no waste. Even the last bit of the tail with the bones was swallowed up in the end. They must have a way to deal with the bones by passing it out after digesting all the soft parts. What a efficient feeder!