Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Another failed attempt: Sungei Buloh 5 Sep 09

I spent the morning at Sungei Buloh, before heading for Read-with-Me at Hougang. It was another attempt to see the Smooth Otters at the reserve, and of course, I left empty handed (why ah why ah..sigh). I am now resigned to fate and think that they will appear only when I least expect them to!

While I didn't get to see the otters, I was treated to the greetings of the migratory birds! Although the season just started, some early birds (literally) had already arrived at their pit stop. These birds have flown thousands of kilometres from their winter countries. Like us who appreciates a transit in between a long flight, these migratory birds uses Singapore's mangroves between Sep & Mar as a stopover to rest and feed.

Seconds after I settled down at the main hide, a big brown bird flew past and landed on a tree directly opposite me.

After observing it through my bino, and frantic flipping of whatever books I had with me (and subsequently surfing of the internet), I concluded its the juvenile Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) that I saw !

With a sharp bill and long necks, Herons are hunters of the mudflats. They are able to attack the prey in the water/ mudflat very quickly due to the special kink in the neck.  The adult Purple heron's coat is purple-grey but the juvenile's coat is brown.

Of course, the Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) are back too! Love their elegance. They can be distinguished by their black bill and legs, with yellow toes.

While the Little Egret is usually solitary, we can find them in small groups at times, just like the quartets in their formation below - I wonder what they were looking at...

A super blurred picture of a common migrant - the Common Redshank (tringa totanus). Its high time I get a new camera *cross fingers for good VB next yr!*! This bird is easier to recognise due to its long and distinct orange/red legs. They feed on worms, crabs or molluscs found on the mudflats.

I am very fond of the Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), and have always been amazed by their very long downcurved bill. Thus, this bird is not too difficult to identify too! On this trip, I saw several small flocks of them feeding, probably on crabs, molluscs and worms.

While its a really short trip (and I ended up being late for read with me), it was an enjoyable walk in the tranquil reserve. Surely, I'll be back to birdwatch soon!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reminiscence: Pulau Ubin excursion - 29 Aug 09

While I've never really lived in a Kampung (at least, not that I can remember. In fact, my most vivid recollection stops at the plucking of rambutans when I was probably 4/5 years old), I grew up listening to stories of how life was like for my parents and brother - the feeding of pigs, the catching of long kang fishes...... And, Pulau Ubin is probably, amidst the country's rapid development, the only surviving testament of life in the '70s.

The ground was littered with rambutans!

Its been almost a year since I last stepped onto the island, and it sure feels good to be back! My family used to frequent Ubin when my cousin had a prawn farm there. This time round, it was a leisure walk, instead of the usual cycling. While its more time consuming, its a effective way to force myself to slow down my pace, and simply... ... enjoy nature.
It was also refreshing to learn about new plants, insects and birds, outside the Semakau classroom.

No prizes on how The Elephant Ear Fig (Ficus auriculata) tree got its name. With the largest leaves, figs from this tree is actually edible. The actual flowers of the fig are unseen unless the fig is cut open, and the fig tree has a unique pollination system with the help of tiny wasps, known as fig wasps. These wasps enters the fig to both pollinate the flowers and lay their own eggs. The flowers are in turn, nourishment and home for the next generation of wasps (so watch out for extra ingredients if you ever eat one =P).

These 2 really adorable kittens were mewing away, hiding amongst the tall grasses. They couldnt decide whether we were friends or foes, and were prancing back and forth in their hiding place. As I was taking this photo, someone behind me said... "snake food".... so sad!!!!

The Akar Mempelas (Tetracera indica) is a climber with rough leaves and stem. Also called the sandy leaf/ sandpaper vine, it's leaves which have a rough surface are used by villagers as a substitute for sandpaper. Another good use is its pounded leaves and roots which supposedly is effective in relieving skin itches.

At some random spot, it seems like a durian tree has decided to take roots there. We were joking (actually I think LK sounded quite serious about it) that we should start planting fruit trees, so that theres continuity for the next generation to enjoy the tropical fruits - 前人种树, 后人乘凉! In addition, this can also be our retirement plan, to take care of a durian plantation in Ubin when we are old! Although, I would pretty much prefer relaxing under the sun,with the company of the sand and sea, vis-a-vis harvesting and/or selling durians!
Babies coming your way, and worried about the escalating costs of living (in particular the costs of diapers) amidst the recession? Fret no more! Nappy tree comes to the rescue! The leave of this tree is so soft that people used it as nappies for babies in the past. For all we know, it might be even more comfy than Pampers!
It was also my pleasure to be introduced to the elegant White Lady (Thunbergia fragrans). While these lovely, fragrant blooms may look angelic, its fruits certainly look the opposite. Bearing resemblance to a bullet, its really painful when a certain someone pokes you with the fruit (no joke!). With its sharp tip, I'm sure it can be used (perhaps, was used) as a deadly weapon, of course only if displaced at a high speed!
The praying mantis was motionless for a period of time, long enough for us to take turns to capture its portrait. 
Thanks to my skeptism, I refused to touch this bug despite strong recommendation from a fellow GV (yah, some good friends of mine?!?). Otherwise, I'm sure I'll end up being an outcast throughout the walk because the Stink Bug (family Pentatomoidea) is known to emit a foul odour (called stink bug for a reason!), which most people find repulsive (although I think it can be washed away with soap and water). In any case, if you happen to see a bug with a triangular shaped plate on their back, leave it alone and don't take any chances! Actually, we should'nt be disturbing them even if they do not have i triangular shape plate on their back.
This Mata Ayam (Ardisia elliptica) tree was a pretty sight with the display of colours of its fruits. The tree is named after its fruits because they look like and are about the size of the chicken's eyeball (mata = eyes in malay, ayam = chicken in malay).
The cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao - literally translates as "drink of the gods") is a plant that brings back fond memories for my brother. I was told that because of the family financials (or rather, the lack of), chocolate was a luxury when my brother was young. To satisfy the crave, my brother used to "steal" the cocoa fruit from our neighbour's garden. Once, he was seen plucking the fruit and in his panic (naturally, he tried to scoot off), he fell into a hole laid with burning charcoal! Although that must have been really painful, I can imagine it to be such a hilarious sight!
The trip was also a good recap of my mangrove knowledge (which was limited, to begin with..*sheepish*..). Managed to identify the Api-api bulu (Avicennia rumphiana) which has furry leaves that looks like soup spoons. Many of these tress were fruiting!  
Thankfully, I also remembered the Bruguiera Cynlindrica (although strangely, I couldnt remembered its common name, Bakau Putih), and spared myself from being knocked on the head. One of this species' distinctive feature is its light green sepals that sticks out at right angles to the fruit.
Fancy a symphony in the mangroves? Be sure to recruit the Mangrove Trumpet (Dolichandrone spathacea) tree as part of your orchestra (although I won't trust it to make any sound..hee..). Found in the back mangroves, this tree is probably named after its white flowers thats trumpet-shaped (actually, I think a cluster of its pods looks like a trumpet too!). I read that the wood is light and thus was used in floats for fishing nets and wooden shoes, and even for making traditional 'wayang kulit'.
We spent a really long period of time observing the Spider Wasp (Family Pompilidae). This brightly coloured wasp seemed to have caught a spider and was darting around (it was so tough to get a good photo..). We were told that the wasp will typically dig a hole to keep its prize, together with its eggs - which it will lay on the spider soon enough. We were lucky enough to catch this wasp in action (I even caught a video of it burrowing, with splendid commentary to boot!) 
It would be almost impossible not to spot spiders on such walks - some cute, and some not so. Heres a pretty one, though not sure of its species.
I got a rude shock, when a pair of itchy inquisitive hands very lightly touched some folded leaves. Out jumped this big furry spider, which I thought was quite menacing looking. Hmm.. I don't really fancy big spiders, especially furry ones! It quickly hid behind the leaves, out of our sight. Guess it must be more fearful of us, than we are of it.
Lots of cute little spiderlings came scurrying after their mother!

While waiting for our transport, we saw (and even had more than enough time to observe) the Changeable Hawk Eagle and 2 hornbills. Unfortunately, my point-and-shoot was not capable of capturing any sharp shots.

Its amazing how much more I can appreciate this island, now that I have a little bit more knowledge of its fauna and flora. Can't wait to be back on 19th!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Guiding @ Semakau - 23 Aug 09

This sleepyhead woke up to the music of a heavy downpour in the middle of the night, and was torn between feeling excited about guiding, and upset about not being able to sleep in! I'm amazed that I managed to drag myself out of bed to make my way to Marina South (and yes, now I know walks will never be cancelled...).

I was pleased to be assigned to the Knobbly Sea Star group ('cause its one more badge for me!). Despite the lack of sleep, it was definitely an enjoyable trip with our 9 participants from Queensway Sec Sch.
Thankfully, the rain stopped when we reached the island. The tranquility of the secondary forest and the breathe-taking scenary of the intertidal area never fails to put one at ease.

The hunters-seekers, as usual, didnt fail us and showed us the interesting marine life of the island.

We were lucky with sea cucumbers that day and saw 4 out of the 5 sea cucumbers commonly seen at Semakau.

From top left (clockwise):

The Sandfish Sea Cucumber (Holothuria scabra) is the delicacy we find in our dishes, but only after its processed as its mildly poisonous.

My audience initially thought that the Synaptid Sea Cucumber (Family Synaptidae) is a worm when I ask them to make a guess. They were surprised to hear that this is the longest sea cucumber with very delicate walls, and has hooked spicules. It feeds on detritus by lashing its tentacles in the surrounding waters.

The Dragonfish Sea Cucumber (Stichopus horrens) gets very stressed up when its out of water for too long. It is known to 'melt' (!!), disintegrate if left to suntan, and may eventually die. In fact, just handling them for a few seconds may cause their disintegration, so all of us (including the participants) are always encouraged not to handle such delicate wildlife and leave them in their natural environment.

The hunters-seekers found this HUGE Oscellated Sea Cucumber (Stichopus ocellatus). To my best estimation, its almost 40cm long! Its papillae (eye rings) is believed to have sensory functions to help it move around. It appears as if thousands of eyes were staring right back at me - a little scary, I must say.


There was also a sumptuous display of Nudibranchs - a type of sea slug named after their exposed gills on the back of its body (in latin, Nudibranch means naked gills). Interestingly, these slugs are born with shells, but loses them as they become adults. They are carnivores, grazing on algae, sponges, corals, and some, even other nudibranchs.

Their two sensitive tentacles (called rhinophores) located on top of their heads, are their handy detector of preys. I read from the internet that they derive their color from the food they eat, and some even retain the foul-tasting poisons of their prey. Their bright colours and yucky tasting glands, in turn becomes its defense mechanisms against predators.

Here, we have (from top left, clockwise) the Black Margined Nudibranch (Glossodoris atromarginata); Black Phyllid Nudibranchs (Phyllidiella nigra); and Polka Dot Nudibranch (Jorunna funebris).


Flatworms, as the name suggest, is very flat and are the simplest of worms. They have no skeleton, no circulatory nor respiratory system, instead their flattened shapes allow oxygen and nutrients to pass through their bodies by diffusion.

The 2 we encountered on this trip was the Acanthozoon sp. and one that I can't quite identify...I ploughed through the internet and realises that while it resembles Pseudobiceros fulgor, the lines and colour are quite different.  

We were also treated to a galaxy of sea stars, including the juvenile Cushion Star (Culcita novaeguineae). It certainly didnt look any much larger since the last time I saw it a few weeks ago. Looking forward to seeing it grow into an adult, slowly, but surely!

The unidentified sea star, which made is first appearance on the launch of Project Semakau, made a guest appearance too! It has certainly grown in size since Nov 08. While it has knobs on its upperside, it looks rather different from the Knobbly Sea Star. My group members guessed that it must be a cross breed.. =)

Along with it, the unidentified sea star brought us his friend - a brittle star (Ophiuroidea) that was probably taking shelter on its underside. Like the lizard that drops its tail, a brittle star may drop off an arm when threatened. To make its escape, the brittle star's dropped arm may continue to wriggle to distract the predator.

The highlight of the trip has to be the appearances of the Knobbly Sea Star (Protoreaster nodosus). I used to think that all sea stars only have 5 arms, only to realised now, that its not true. The 6 arm Knobbly we saw is evidence that some sea stars have more than 5 arms! While they are brightly coloured and covered with knobs, Knobbly sea stars are not venomous.While they are mostly red in colour, some come in brown too. Don't the brown Knobbly Sea Star look like a piece of choc chip cookie?

We also saw a Knobbly Sea star that seemed to have lost an arm, and is in the process of regenerating it. Hopefully it will get well soon!

Some of my participants cringed when I shared about this beautiful mollusc. Indeed, while 人不可貌象, the Noble Volute (Cymbiola nobilis) can't be judged by its shell too. This mollusc may look pretty and harmless but its actually a fierce predator of other snails. It wraps its prey with its siphon in an attempt to suffocate the victim. When the prey has no choice but to open its shell to breathe, the Noble Volute quickly snap in to eat the prey.

The pole vaulter was also sighted - The Spider Conch (Lambis Lambis), named after its long spider-like spines, has a strong operculum that helps it to 'jump' around. Although it is very well camouflaged by a thick layer of algae, it has a really beautiful and smooth underside, 可算是内有乾坤!

We also saw the Hell's Fire Anemone (Actinodendron sp.), which I almost mistaken as the upside down jelly fish. This animal got its name from the painful stings it gives.


The resident Fluted Giant Clam (Tridacna squamosa) was patiently awaiting our arrival. Unlike most bivalves, the Giant Clam harbours symbiotic zooxanthellae which produces food through photosynthesis, for sharing. This also explains why the mantle is exposed to allow sufficient sunlight for the algae (else the clam may go hungry!) to make food.

On our way back, I found a Anemone Shrimp (Periclimenes brevicarpalis) amongst a Carpet Anemone. No matter how hard I look, I could only find one even though they often come in pairs. The Anemone Shrimp is able to live in harmony with its host, despite the Anemone's stings, by coating itself with a layer of mucus produced by the Anemone. This layer of mucus prevents it from being stung by the host.

The partcipants crossing the Seagrass meadow:
Presenting the Knobblies:

The participants embarked on the landfill tour after the intertidal walk. Unfortunately, none of us were able to help R(I would have loved to, but I have never been on one! =P heh..excuses...), and he had to guide despite a really bad throat. I'm sure the sacrifice is worthwhile, in exchange for an enjoyable experience for all the participants (I hope!).

I was absent from the track girls' weekly run and they chided me for not informing them about the trips to Semakau. Naturally, they were upset when told that there are no more guided walks this year. Next year ok? While I'm happy to share the wonders of this island, I would prefer not to have you girls in my group if I'm guiding!! =P