Thursday, December 31, 2009

'Picnic' at Sungei Buloh

I tried to organise a trip to Sungei Buloh with the girls, but the date was called off as most of them already had plans for the morning. Thankfully the Zoo gang gamely agreed to a 'picnic' (sigh, although without the picnic basket and the checkered cloth) at Sungei Buloh on the morning of boxing day.

It was also my maiden attempt at using a SLR to shoot, all thanks to Samson. Although I now wonder if I'm a 朽木 at photography because most of my photos turned out grainy!! =( I like to think that with more practices, my photos will turn out better!

At the main bridge, a Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus) was scampering up and down, and looked at my with curious eyes momentarily. This species of squirrel is probably the most commonly seen in Singapore, and definitely not difficult to spot at Sungei Buloh.

Commonly seen at Sungei Buloh during this time of the year (Sep - Mar), Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) are usually solitary and can be distinguished from the other Egrets by its black bill, legs and yellow/ green toes. Its diet consists mainly of fishes, crustaceans and molluscs.

As we walked towards platform 1, we peered through a small opening amongst the mangrove trees and saw this Little Heron (Butorides striatus) perching on a branch, motionless in its usually egg-shaped stance and looking intently at the waters for its next meal. I read that this is a smart bird that knows how to use a bait to fish. A solitary bird, they usually hunt alone and are highly territorial.

This agile Plantain Squirrel was scampering up and down the tree, and in between the roots of the mangroves. It finally decided to stuck its head into what looks like a coconut husks, probably looking for food. Or perhaps like an ostrich, it thinks that we won't see it if it can't see us. =P

We took a long break at Platform 2 for our picnic of ginger bread (courtesy of LK) and junk food, at the same time indulging ourselves with the calls of birds and insects.

Just directly opposite the platform, 2 Collared Kingfishers (Todiramphus chloris) were laughing heartily. You can't mistake their loud and harsh calls that sounds as if they were laughing.  A common bird of our shores, it also feeds on crustaceans and insects, in addition to fishes.

A short distance away from the Kingfishes, a Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) perched majestically on a branch on the opposite bank. Their features are fairly distinct - long necks, long bills, long legs. They prey on a huge range of animals from snakes to crabs to birds to molluscs. With a kink in their neck, they are able to stab quickly at the prey by extending their neck forward at fast speed.

While we were enjoying our food, we heard a splash a distance away and saw a bobbing head, and concluded that it must be the Smooth Otter! Sadly, it didnt swim in our direction and we missed our photo moment.

Little did we expect to meet it at another bird observation hide. The Smooth Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) was sniffing its way round the mudflat, and responded to RX's attempt in mimicing its call. Not only once, but thrice, it stopped and looked in our direction, probably wondering whether which friend of his is making such a nasty call. =P

The little rascal then slowly moved towards the Little Egrets, and send the 2 elegant birds scampering, before disappearing into the mangrove.

Nearer to us, the Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) in his winter plummage was feasting at the mudflats. These waders have relatively long legs, large eyes and a stout bill.

Just as we were about to vacate the bird observation hide, Samson's sharp eyes spotted a Milky Stork (Mycteria cinerea) quite a distance away from us. This individual is unlikely to be a wild one though, but an escapee from the Bird Park. Unfortunately, the Milky Stork is a vulerable species due to rapid loss of habitat.

As it was getting nearer to noon, we were all beginning to feel the hunger pangs and decided to head back via the Mangrove Arboretum. Of course, one will never miss seeing the mudskippers, a faithful resident of the mangroves. This one is probably a Blue-spotted Mudskipper (Boleophthalmus boddart) which feeds on algae by grazing its teeth on the mud. Its huge bulging eyes are located at the top of its head to give it a periscope view of its environment. You can often see one by a tidal water as it needs to keep its skin wet (helps it breathe) and to replenish the water (that gives it oxygen) kept in its gills chambers.

A scene of serenity - would you have thought that this is Singapore which is more well-known as a concrete jungle?

A weekend trip to a place like Sungei buloh never fails to rejuvenate me for a fire-fighting work week ahead. You should try too!

A visit to the brave Chek Jawa

I visited Chek Jawa a decade ago for the first time, after signing up for a guided walk by NEA. While memories of that trip have since been archived, I still vividly recall images of troops of male Fiddler Crabs waving their enlarged pincer at each other/ me, as if saying hi and waving goodbye. I also remember being amazed by my first encounter with the rich biodiversity that I never knew existed in Singapore.

A decade later, I return to this wetland treasure on 19 Dec, feeling a little foreign. The area seems more barren, just... not as lively as before.

Apparently, persistent drastic rainfall over a few weeks in 2007 brought flood waters into the Johor Straits, resulting in Chek Jawa being flooded with lots of freshwater. The marine animals didnt survive the ordeal then. However, it is hearty to hear that the Chek Jawa I saw on 19 Dec was one who is trying its might to nurse back its health.

My first Sea-Star of the day was the Sand-sifting Sea Star (Archaster typicus) aka the Common Sea Star. This Sea Star for its name from its action of burrowing into the sand to feed on organic detritus or escape from its predators. It uses its tube feet found on its underside to move around, and to bring food to its mouth, 2-in-1 use, how very efficient!

A tiny pink 'dot' stood out amongst the sea of brown and green (seagrass and algae), literally 万绿从中一点红. This Pink Thorny Sea Cucumber (Colochirus quadrangularis) is no longer than my index finger. In water, one can often see tts feeding tentacles at one of its end lashing around in water to collect very tiny particles in the water for food.

Its always a 50-50 guess when I come across any shells on the shore. As I quietly wish to myself for a Noble Volute, I turn this shell around and saw its occupant, the Orange Striped Hermit Crab (Clibanarius infraspinatus) instead. Unlike true crabs, Hermit Crabs have a soft abdomen, and occupy shells for protection. Therefore it is important that we do not bring shells, even broken ones, home because it can be a potential shelter for the Hermit Crab!  It uses its last pair of legs to 'carry' the shell, and I often wonder whether if it feels tired carrying its house around - guess they can always stop to take a rest.

Another animal that burrows into the sand is the Sandfish Sea Cucumber (Holothuria scabra). If you find this animal very 眼熟 (familiar), you probably have seen this at your dining table (although it typically doesnt look this way after being cooked). This is the species of Sea Cucumber that some Chinese deemed as a delicacy. Do note that it requires some processing before it is edible as it is mildly poisonous.

Another regular item one can see at the barbeque stall at food centres - the Gong Gong (Strombus turturella). The small brown feature that is sticking out as seen in the middle of the picture is its operculum, which acts as a trap door. It is also used by the Gong Gong to push itself against the substrate to leap away. The Gong Gong is fairly abundant on our shores, but I cant quite imagine how one will bear to eat it after seeing its 2 very cute eyes.

I was initially excited to see a Tube Anemone (Order Ceriantharia) thinking that they are hard to come by since many anemones died during the flash flood. This excitement soon wean off because I realised there are quite many of them! I'm not complaining because this is a good sign of recovery! The Tube Anemone got its name because of its home - a tube made up of mucus and sand! How very green of them to recycle existing materials.. =)

I was hoping to find a Key-Hole Sand Dollar which is uncommon and is on our Red Data Book, but instead, saw several of the Arachnoides placenta (also Sand Dollar, but difference species). Resembling a dollar coin, this is a flat cousin of the Sea Star which has very short and tiny spines that help it 'walk'.

The second Sea Star of the day was the Sand Star (Astropecten sp.), a predator that eats small clams and snails. These 2 that I saw were moving towards each other from opposite directions, once they meet, they stopped for a brief moment and the left one started to follow the other around for a while before spliting up again eventually. I imagine them to be old friends bumping into each other after a long while and stopped to catch up before parting ways - although this wouldnt be possible because they do not have a brain!

This time round, its the real incumbent - the Noble Volute (Cymbiola nobilis) that I saw. This was the largest that I've ever seen, maybe 20 cm in length, and its laying eggs! Another good sign of a recovering Chek Jawa since the environment proves to be conducive and suitable for reproduction. Naturally, its pretty shell resulted in an over-collection of its shells by human beings and in some areas, it is also collected for food! =(

I peered into a small crevice by one of the pillars and was lucky enough to see a Wandering Cowrie (Cypraea errones). Shells of this snail were said to be used as currencies long long ago, thankfully this is not the case now else they would have been extinct ! Not well portrayed in this photo, the Cowrie actually uses its mantle to cover its shell. This helps to keep the surface scratch-free and pretty, just like the effect of our face masks!

Someone found this Mantis Shrimp and managed to hold it in a container for us to take a closer look (it was of coures released after a while). A predator , the Mantis Shrimp uses its claws (with sharp spines) to catch other animals such as small fishes for food. It got its common name probably due to its resemblance of both a praying mantis (the 2 claws) and a shrimp (body).

As usual, I was happy to see another Sea Star! This one is a Biscuit Sea Star (Goniodiscaster scaber), unfortunately I only managed a blurred photo (as you can tell from now that my photography skills clearly needs some brushing up). Some say this Sea Star got its name because of its resembance to a biscuit, but I take more to the reason that its sides are smooth and shape regular, as if everyone of them is cut out from a biscuit cutter.

This Sea Star is also a Sand Star that I saw earlier, but instead of 5 arms, it has 6! Sea Stars are often depicted as having 5 arms, little do most people realised that they can have 4 arms or 6 arms or more!

My last discovery of the day before we head back to the visitor centre was this Moon Snail. Looks like a Tiger Moon Snail (Natica tigrina) to me. Didnt get a clearer view of the shell as I didnt want to disturb it since it looked like it was hunting for food. Moon Snails are more active at night and are fierce predators that feeds on other snails and bivalves and suffocates its prey with its huge body. If this fails, it secretes an acid to soften the prey's shell patiently, before creating a hole and inserting its radula (tongue-like feature) to feed!

Although affected by the flash flood, Chek Jawa still has quite a fair bit of marine life to offer. Hopefully she will return to her glory days in no time!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Leisure trip at Malacca

Over the long Hari Raya weekend (yes this is a really overdue post), I was in Malaysia with a few friends. To summarise the key activities for 3 full days, it was mainly

The pigging started on the coach ride. We were caught in a severe traffic jam at Tuas checkpoint and it took us nearly 8 hours on the coach! Needless to say, I was unconscious most of the time. It was almost evening when we arrived at our destination. Without much time to lose, we answered to the calls of protest from our stomach before walking to St John's hill for a panoramic view of Malacca - the silhouette of flocks of migratory birds against the sunset was simply breathtaking!

We lingered on the hill for an hour or so, immersing in the melodious bird calls of Asian Koels (Endynamys scolopacea) , Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis), House Crow (Corvus splendens), Mynas (Acridotheres spp.) etc. We would have stayed on the hill longer if not for the setting sun, and made our way to Jonker street for a night of sovenir shopping.

It was early rise and shine the next morning as we prepare for a trip to Parit Jawa, known for the haven for the Lesser Adjutant Storks (Leptoptilos javanicus).

The first sight that greeted us was rows and rows of fisherboats and stacks and stacks of cages, presumably used for fishing. We were initially rather skeptical and were not sure if we would really see the storks.

Rows and rows of boats

stacks and stacks of cages

As we walked on, a Cabbage Tree (Fagraea crenulata) and the Sea Almond tree (Terminalia catappa) stood side by side and I mistook both to be the same. While both are large trees with obovate, sessile, large leaves and looks fairly similar, their flowers are distinctly different. The Sea Almond has long spikes of many tiny white flowers which lack petals with a star-shaped calyx, flowers of the Cabbage tree are pale yellow/ creamy in colour.

Also, leaves of the Sea Almond turns orange/ red about twice a year, while leaves of the Cabbage tree remains green.

Flowers of Cabbage tree

                Flowers of  Sea Almond        

 An interesting tree with multiple common names, the Sandbox tree (Hura spp.) is also known as Possumwood. It is called 'sandbox tree' as it is said that the unripe seed pods were sawed in half in the past to make decorative pen sandboxes.

This evergreen tree is recognized by the many dark and pointed spines which also gave its other name of Monkey no-climb. Some also calls it the Dynamite tree as its fruits explode when ripe, and the explosive sound may be loud enough to be mistaken as a gunshot. The seeds can be scattered as far as 100m!

Its milky sap is said to be poisonous and is used by fishermen to poison fishes.

200m away from where we alighted from the taxi, the stars of the day came into sight!! These large wading birds were about 1.2m tall and their head bore strong resemblance to a vulture. While its looks are not all that flattering, it is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species, largely due to the small population that is  rapidly declining as a result of hunting pressure and lost of habitat.

We soon had to leave (with much reluctance) as dark clouds loomed and it started to drizzle. Although shortlived, we were all satisfied with the sighting of the storks, in addition to the many waders, kingfishers, egrets and an unidentified eagle  (check out Samson's posting for splendid photos).

Later I learnt that we have Mr Poh, the protector of Lesser Adjutant Stok, to thank. Without his effort in conserving and protecting the Lesser Adjutant Storks and their habitat, there wouldnt be a lifer for me!  We later met Mr Poh in person whom gave us his namecard! Hopefully, there will be future opportunities to explore the area!

It rained rather heavily on this second day, and thus we hibernated most of the time, appearing briefly for dinner (yummy Nonya food at the hotel!) before returning back to the room for more sleep.

The weather on the third day was more encouraging as we set out to St John's hill again for more birding.

On our way past a Noni plant (Morinda citrifolia), we were awed by tens of dancing Painted Jazebel (Delias hyparete metarete) in its usual nonchalant, graceful manner. Its beautiful display of red and yellow not only allows for easy identification, the colours also warn predators of its toxicity that was accumulated during its earlier stages as a caterpillar.

I was looking for the 'Botak' Common Myna whom we saw the day before and was hoping to get a picture of it as a comparison to the Lesser Adjutant. I was disappointed by the absence of the Myna, but was pleasantly pleased with a very cooperative Zorro look-alike - the Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) - hopping on a tree less than 5 m away from us. We were really in luck because they rarely descend to the ground and often forage high in trees and usually stay within the canopy.

Finally, I had a chance to get a shot of a bird with my point-and-shoot!

The Black-naped Orioles rank among the top 10 most common residents in Singapore and have adjusted very well to cultivated areas, parks and gardens. So, slow down your pace and keep a lookout for it on your way to work, and you will have a good chance of seeing the bright yellow birds foraging in the trees.

Despite poor weather, we still accomplished much during the short 3D2N trip. Apart from the enjoyable birding sessions, we also learnt from about the rich heritage of Malacca, and of course indulge ourselves in the tasty offerings of this food paradise!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Another nice surprise at Sungei Buloh

It was the finale of the Young Naturalist Passport Camp at SBWR. Was not feeling well and I left before the camp barely started. As I walked towards the main hide to look for my parents who were nice enough to stay behind, guess what I saw?

The Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)! It was resting like a dead log about 5m away from the main bridge.

This is the largest of all living reptiles and can grow up to more than 8m in length. The one I saw however, was only about 2 - 3 m long. While they can be man-eaters, there are more than enough food in the reserve, and thus they won't usually pose a danger to visitors unless disturbed.

As more visitors crowd around the area and the noise level increases, the crocodile probably felt the disturbance and started to swim further away from the main bridge.

I texted the camp coordinator re the location of the crocodile and later learnt that the children also managed to see the crocodile which was still at the same location after an hour.

Thanks to the appearance of the crocodile, it was a great finale closing to the Young Naturalist Passport camp 2009!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hunting-seeking survey at Semakau - 5 Dec 09

As we eagerly await the arrival of the rest of the volunteers, dark clouds loomed the sky and we were hoping that it will rain and we can all rest  hoping that the weather will hold at least till we complete the last survey of the year.

There was light drizzle for a while, but the skies cleared after an hour of detailed briefing.

Again, there was a shortage of manpower, and a few of us had to conduct survey alone. I still have not figure out the best way of handling all the equipment - datasheet, pencil, id chart, chopsticks, container, camera, ziplogs, specimen containers, gloves, torchlight - at the same time, without getting the datasheet wet!

In any case, the survey still has to go on. Didnt take a lot of photos, partly because I didnt manage to spot many subjects in my zone, and also because my camera died on me halfway through the survey. While I had a spare camera, it just wasnt good for night shots. =(

Minutes after I started the survey, this fellow was darting around and I managed to catch it for a closer look. Looks like the Sentinal Crab (Macrophthalmus milloti) but wasnt too sure.

A mollusc which I colleceted as I couldnt quite identify it with the ones of the Id chart.

There were also countless Sand-sifting Sea Stars (Archaster typicus). This pair were in the midst of pseudocopulation. The male sea star is on top, with arms alternating with the female’s but their reproductive organs do not meet. Sperms and eggs are released outside the body when the tide comes in, thus they have to stay close to each other to increase chances of success.

There were also many Red Swimming Crabs (Thalamita spinimana) and a few were feasting on what looks like prawns.

Just after taking a photo of this crab, I dropped my camera into the water as I attempt to save my datasheet which still got wet in the end. =(
There were also several Fan Worms (Sabellastarte indica), which I didnt manage to take any pictures because they swiftly retracted into their tubes made of the their own saliva and sand, after sensing my presence.

LK also came to help towards the end of the survey and spotted 2 Spiral Melogena (Pugilina cochlidium), an unidentified anemone with intricate branching and a juvenile Sandfish Sea Cucumber (Holothuria scabra). We also collected what looks like a Hammer Oyster.

This post shall be a tribute to my camera who went through thick and thin with me, across continents and on all types of occasions. Sorry! I realllly didnt mean to bathe you in sea water. Sigh.

Yay! Its shopping time!