Apart from the one occasion when Fay had stopped over for a day [returning from the UK with or son, Adam] we have only ever been transit passengers in Singapore. It seems that no matter with which actual airline we travel, and in the past quarter century at least we have travelled with a number of different airlines [e.g. British Airways in the early days, QANTAS, Singapore Airways itself and more recently with Etihad] we always pass though Singapore – in transit.
In planning for the May 2014 trip to the UK we decided to consciously break the habit of a lifetime and take a stopover in Singapore. We had intended to make it a two-night sojourn but Kim Seng’s commitment to birding in China saw us remain an additional night; that gave us three almost entire days and three nights.
We had learnt our lesson back in May 1997 when we did Hong Kong over four days without a local guide to help us through the birding maze; contrary to popular belief, not everyone in Hong Kong speaks English. Our best piece of birding came as we neared the end of a park and ran across one of the park rangers, obviously a keen birder but with only a poor smattering of English. In the few minutes we spent with him, he was able to put us onto gems such as Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus and Hainan Blue Flycatcher Cyornis hainanus.
Never again would we bird alone in an area where English is not the lingua franca and on the occasion of planning for Singapore we recalled the lessons of Hong Kong and browsed the Internet for local birding guides. They abound but in the end we settled on Kim Seng.
Our arrival was rather less than auspicious and cost us continuity in the Bird-a-Day challenge [see previous blog]. It had been a long, tiring flight and at midnight it was too dark to bird effectively. We staggered into our room, made ourselves the obligatory cup of tea and slept.
Sunday 01 June proved the point. This had been our original date of choice in which to be guided around Singapore by Kim Seng but his prior commitment to China had forced us to fend for ourselves. Not that we hadn’t done any homework to cover this contingency; we had the Botanical Gardens to explore.
We did reasonably well on our own, even if the Asian Palm Swifts Cypsiurus balasiensis turned out to be the Edible-nest Swiftlets Aerodramus fuciphagus [ a Lifer] and, worse still, those Common Mynas Acridotheres tristis transmogriphied themselves into Javan [or White-vented] Mynas Acridotheres javanicus [another Lifer!]. Admittedly the Black Swan Cygnus atratus had us pondering awhile. According to Kim Seng, like its counterpart, the Mute Swan Cygnus olor, introduced onto the nearby appropriately named Swan Lake, the Black Swan was purely an ornamental introduction into Singapore. On the other hand, a passing resident assured us that the Black Swan had a nest with cygnets just beyond the grassy point. If the swans are reproducing then surely they must at least be on the cusp of becoming a viable population and almost “tickable”.
We decided against the tick.
However, our solo results paled into insignificance compared to the following day when we entrusted ourselves into the very capable hands of Kim Seng. It reinforced the lessons of Hong Kong; a bird guide in hand is worth a plethora of solo birding attempts armed with only a fieldguide, when you don’t speak the language and are not familiar with the local avian populations.
Kim Seng had an extensive itinerary set out for us:
0530 Pick up from hotel
0600-1000 Central Catchment Nature Reserve forests
1015-1045 Breakfast [at local Indian-style café]
1100-1230 Bukit Batok Nature Park
1330-1415 Lunch [in Changi Village]
1430-1630 Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve [Singapore’s only wetland reserve]
1645-1800 Birding in Kranji Marsh
1830 Back at hotel
Kim was a little late arriving which had Fay and I clock-watching and trying to plan a contingency plan should he not show. We were standing by the hotel’s main entrance when he finally arrived so we promptly grabbed our bags and climbed aboard. It was as we pulled up at the Central Catchment Nature Reserve carpark that I first realized that I had left my camera [the SONY A55 with a 70-300mm telephoto lens attachment] back at the hotel – on the lounge room table!
It took a moment to appreciate that it was perhaps already too late to ask Kim Seng to return to the hotel; the camera would be gone, along with dozens of undeveloped digital images. Panic seemed to be the most immediate and appropriate response to the realization but I chose to emulate Zeno of Citium. It was gone; I was on the threshold of a new birding adventure and I still had my pocket-sized SONY “Cybershot”, a handy little camera that had helped me out on a number of previous occasions.
After the second shot the battery petered out.
It was a long, gruelling day of birding which saw us racing around the Singapore countryside and at the end of which we had tallied 59 species; 30 were Lifers- once we realized that the Zebra Dove Geopelia striata had almost sneaked in under the radar as the Peaceful Dove Geopelia placida. There were a further four that Kim Seng called: Asian Fairy Bluebird Irena puella; Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus; Lineated [or Grey-headed] Barbet Megalaima lineata and Rusty-chested Cuckoo Cacomantis sepulcralis but as they were all “heard only” birds, Fay and I have not included them on our joint LIFE LIST. It is a self-imposed regulation we adhere to that a Lifer has to be seen to be included. The Southern Boobook Ninox novaeseelandiae serves to illustrate the rule; first recorded as a “heard only” in December 1990, it was not added to our IFE LIST until eventually seen in March 1991.
We have no qualms in adding any subsequent “heard only” records, as in the case of the Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala , first seen in Goa on 26 November 2012 but “heard only” in Singapore on 2 June 2014.
At the outset, Kim Seng had advised us that a number of Singaporean birds would overlap with some of our Hong Kong  and Goa  species. The Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis was an obvious double-up on Hong Kong, although back in 1997 we had only seen the bird skulking on the edge of extensive reedbeds at Mai Po whereas in Singapore the bird was no more than a metre or so from us, dabbling in a drain overflow. The Chestnut Munia Lonchura atricapilla was another Hong Kong overlap.
The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo Dicrurus paradiseus was an overlap originally recorded in Goa. Both the White-throated Halcyon smyrnensis and Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis were initially seen in Goa.
A handful of Singaporean birds had previously been recorded in both Hong Kong and Goa: Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopa; Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius and the Oriental Magpie-Robin Copsychus saularis while the Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri shares its billing with the UK, Goa and Singapore.
On the other hand, Kim Seng’s Zebra Dove turned out to be our own Peaceful Dove the Common Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica, Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis, Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris and Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus [considered a pest in Singapore] were originally recorded here in Australia.
On Tuesday 3 June I awoke to a touch of “Delhi belly” which effectively put all further birding at an end. All that remained was to wait out the day until our shuttle service picked us up at 2000 hours for the return to Changi Airport- never straying too far from the nearest amenities block. It would naturally have been exciting to report that while we sat in the hotel lounge, sipping endless cups of tea, a passing Himalayan Griffon Vulture Gyps himalayensis glided smoothly along Victoria Road.
Only in our wildest fantasies. The Javan Myna alone put in numerous appearances.
We boarded our scheduled flight, settled back in our seats, fastened our seatbelts and listened to the soft purr of the aircraft motors. A moment later the captain asked us all to disembark as they were having slight problems with one of the engines. We disembarked.
Two hours further down the track we re-embarked, perhaps a little more ingerly than we had originally embarked.