Friday, October 22, 2010

One Day of Birding in Singapore

Friday, October 22, 2010

I was recently invited to be part of a birding familiarization trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG) sponsored by The PNG Tourism Board. I had turned down the original invitation (with a great deal of disappointment) because I had a few prior commitments during the three weeks of the fam trip. However, when most of these scheduling conflicts magically evaporated, I crossed my fingers and inquired about space. Glory be! I got back on the trip and began immediate preparations for it.

The only catch was that the participants had to get themselves to Singapore's Changi Airport for the start of the trip. Not only was this logistically hard, it was a tad expensive and a major time eater. (Am I whining now? Please tell me if I start to whine). In order to be at Changi for the 9:30 pm flight on September 23 from Singapore to Port Moresby, PNG (on Air Niugini—note cool spelling), I had to leave Ohio on the afternoon of September 21. It was a long haul, but I made it (thanks in no small part to an entire season of "The Office" which I watched on my iPad, laughing so heartily that I got shushed by a flight attendant).

I arrived in Singapore at 3 am on September 23, slept a few hours, showered, and decided to see about doing some birding since I had a whole day to wait. I'd made previous plans to meet two of the other guys on the trip for a few hours of Singapore birding, but the logistics 'debbils' worked against us and we missed connections. I left my hotel in a taxi, bound for the Jurong Bird Park on the other end of town.

I can hear you asking: Why a bird park? Aren't all the birds in cages at a bird park?

Why yes, many birds ARE in cages in a bird park. But good habitat in places like parks and zoos often also attracts wild birds, and this was my hope. Furthermore, there would be captive examples of birds I hoped to see in PNG, so I could view them as a living field guide of sorts.

Aside: I should mention here that I undertook this trip to PNG without access to a field guide to the birds of PNG. The current PNG field guide has been out of print for so long that used copies are selling on Amazon for many hundreds of dollars. Thus, the bird park was going to have to serve as my preparation for the birds I might see.

Stepping out of the cool taxi into the close, humid air of the bird park, I could hear wild bird calls mixing with the cries of bird park captives. I paid my entry fee and walked into the park. Scores of tourists thronged around the entrance and food court, paying to have their photos taken with captive scarlet macaws. Many of the park visitors turned to look at me. I initially thought it was because I was at least a foot taller than anyone else. Now I realize it may have been due to the fact that I was chewing on a piece of chewing gum—which, apparently, is against the law in Singapore.

Blissfully ignorant of the local mastication laws, I walked into a dark building and added the first two species to my Singapore bird list: snowy owl and great gray owl.
Wait, what?

Yes, these were the first two species I actually saw well enough to identify in Singapore. I also felt really sorry for them, being so far from home.

Finding my way outside the "Owls of the World" exhibit, I began to encounter actual wild birds. Tiny flitting sprites danced through the treetops. I had binoculars but no field guide, so I took notes of the field marks hoping for later access to an identification resource. I recognized a bulbul, two mynas, a ladder-backed, brownish woodpecker, a small dark heron, a night-heron of some kind, a fork-tailed dark swallow, some large white storks, a common sandpiper, a dark-brown teal-like duck, a wood rail of some kind... and then I saw my first HOLY MACKEREL (though my wording may have been slightly different) bird of the trip: a huge lemon-yellow bird with a coral bill and a black mask.

I snapped a photo of the bird with my Canon G11 digital camera. I thought it had to be a kookaburra or kingfisher of some kind. Whatever it was it was HUGE and bright. It felt like the birding portion of the trip had finally begun.

I moved on through the park, seeking out captive representatives of some of the bird species I hoped to see in Papua New Guinea.
The Victoria crowned pigeon was one of the endemic PNG species targeted for our trip. Big as a turkey but a million times more beautiful these birds caused me to stop and stare outside their enclosure. The wonders of evolution...

Next I sought out the birds of paradise. If there is one family of birds that is identified with Papua New Guinea it's the birds of paradise. Most of the 40 species (divided into 12 genera) of BOP are found in PNG. Our trip would be focusing on seeing as many BOPs as possible, so I wanted to drop an eyeball on a few of these creatures to get a sense of their size, shape, and color. The only ones showing well were a gang of lesser birds-of-paradise. I watched a male dance across a feeding tray, trying to impress two rather bored-looking females.

Another male joined in. Like many caged animals, these birds looked slightly ragged and their behavior seemed overly repetitive. I quickly moved away, saying a quiet incantation that I'd get to see the real thing in a few days.

Next came a stupendous creature: a cassowary. Huge and weird are the first two words that leap to mind when viewing a cassowary. The bird park had several captive cassowaries roaming around inside a large, open air enclosure. Everywhere you look on a cassowary, there is something amazing to see from the horn on top of the head, to the bluish skin on the neck, the huge eyes, the neck pouch, the hairlike feathers on the body, and the large and powerful legs with clawed feet.

I stood and admired the cassowary, again, hoping I'd see one in the wild soon.

I wandered back to the park's entrance and stopped in a gift shop to purchase a laminated guide to common city and garden birds of Singapore. Using this handy guide, I ID'd many of my mystery birds from my visual memory and my scribbled notes. Here are some of the species I was able to nail down: yellow-vented bulbul, spotted dove, Pacific swallow, Sunda pygmy woodpecker, white-fronted wood rail, black-naped oriole (my holy mackerel bird!), yellow-billed stork (see top of this page), Javan myna, common myna, Asian glossy starling, yellow-rumped flycatcher, and Eurasian tree sparrow. Plus my old familiars: black-crowned night-heron and cattle egret. There were a bunch of small, olive-drab birds that went unidentified.

And then it was time to head back to the airport hotel to prepare for the flight to Port Moresby, PNG. On my way out of the bird park, a sign caused me to do a double take. Can you see what's wrong with this picture?

Back at the Changi Airport I met up with our entire group—some of whom were old friends—and we settled in to wait for the flight, which would be overnight, with a stop in Malaysia. Sadly it was the middle of the night when we stopped there, otherwise I might have added snowy owl and great gray owl to my Malaysia bird list, too!


On October 22, 2010 at 4:16 PM Connie Kogler said...

That sounds so very cool for a one day adventure. Love the puffins on the penguin poster, too. Can't wait to hear more!

On October 22, 2010 at 5:14 PM massi0913 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
On October 22, 2010 at 5:53 PM Harley said...

I once had one day of birding in Puebla, Mexico, and spent it at the local bird park. Lots of good wild birds, including my lifer White-Throated Magpie Jay, Berylline Hummingbird, and Masked Duck!

Glad to hear you didn't get caned.

On October 22, 2010 at 7:30 PM Erik said...

About 5 years I had a couple of days free in Singapore while on a business trip. I used the Birding Pal website to link up with some locals for a day of birding. It was a fantastic. The best birding was at the botanical gardens.

I'm headed back in December and I have a free Saturday. I'm looking forward to another day of jet-lagged birding. Thank goodness the company lets us fly business class on the long haul flights.

On October 22, 2010 at 8:17 PM cyberthrush said...

verrry nice... but when do we get to the caption-contest photos?

On October 23, 2010 at 9:10 PM Patrick B. said...

I can't wait until you get to more PNG posts. I was lucky enough to see a Cassowary in Australia. It was awesome.

On October 28, 2010 at 10:38 PM Simon RB Thompson said...

Yes, you are whining.........sounds awesome- really, truly and honestly

On November 22, 2010 at 6:32 AM Anonymous said...

Nah, you weren't being stared at because you were chewing gum. It's not a shocker for us Singaporeans, no. You being a foot taller and a non-Asian is, really, the more probable theory.

On November 24, 2010 at 7:53 AM Anonymous said...

The huge yellow bird is a black-naped oriole, fairly common, with a melodic call. The little flitting sprites are probably sunbirds or tailorbirds.

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