Sunday, January 31, 2010

1st Hunting-Seeking - Knobblies Galore!

My first hunting-seeking survey in 2010 was a splendid one with lots of Knobbly Sea Star appearances (for once!). After the past few lonesome hunting-seeking surveys, I grew not to take any partners for granted! This time round, I teamed up with a great partner and thanks to her, the survey was quite smooth sailing.

We spotted quite a few crabs, and heres a juvenile Swimming Crab (Thalamita sp.)Flower Crab (Portunus pelagicus. Swimming crabs are easily identified from their last pair of legs that are paddle-liked, while the rest of its legs are pointed, which enables it to swim very well. Their speed and agility, coupled with their long pincer, helps it to catch fish and other fast moving prey.

It seems that we have 'invaded the privacy' of these 2 Dog Whelks (Nassarius pullus). One was intially on top of the other, but soon both went on their separate ways after we stared at it for some seconds. These snails have long siphons which they use to detect dead matter. Without these important scavengers, dead animals will not be dispose off quickly, and their rotten body will pollute the environement, eventually affecting us.

We saw a number of Sandfish Sea Cucumbers (Holothuria scabra), albeit in different habitats. This sea cucumber is the species that some human beings deem as a delicacy. However, they must be processed first as it is mildly poisonous. Often burrowing in sand (and thus its name), it uses its tube feet to cling onto surfaces. Unlike us, sea cucumbers circulates water through its body to transfer nutrients and can get very stressed out when they are out of water. Thus, we should always leave these animals in their natural habitat, or if we really have to, not remove them from water for too long.

An Orange Fan Worm, which probably got its name from its feather-like tentacles, was also recorded. We always take extra care by approaching this segmented worm slowly as it is very sensitive to movements, and retreats into its home (a flexible tube) in lightning speed once they sense danger. A role model of the 3Rs (reuse, reduce, recycle), the Fan Worm personalises its home by building it with sand and its own mucus. A very green and inexpensive way, isnt it? Apart from its purpose as a hiding place, the tube also keeps the worm moist if they are exposed at low tide.

Perhaps starting the trend of using black coloured lipstick, Black Lipped Conch (Strombus urceus) almost escaped my not-so-keen eyes due to its excellent camouflaging, with algae & particles covering its shell. Like other conches, it has a strong operculum that helps it skip around.

A few Gigantic Anemone (Stichodactyla gigantea) were also spotted. With sticky and stinging tentacles, Anemones trap and entangle animals that carelessly bump into them. While the toxin from the stingers generally affects smaller animals, it may leave welts on sensitive skin, so, better not touch them! In one of the anemones, a clownfish was darting around underneath it. Clownfish has a layer of mucus over its body which protects it from the stinging tentacles and thus enjoys a cordial symbiotic relationship with the Anemone. The clownfish gets shelter from the anemone, and in turn protects it from predators.

I chanced upon a pair of twins and decided to take their portrait even though we were not required to record Corals. The Sunflower Mushroom Coral (Heliofungia actiniformis) is often mistaken with the Anemone due to its long tentacles. It has a stalk when it is juvenile, resembling that of a mushroom, thus its name. As it grows older, this stalk breaks off, and they end up free living (长大了, 翅膀硬了,会'走'了). This hard coral is like a bungalow as it is a single polyp/ animal, unlike other hard corals which are like HDB/ Condo as they contain many polyps living together.

We saw 2 Polka Dot Nudibranchs (Jorunna funebris) side by side, looking quite jovial and carefree. Nudibranch, translated in latin, means 'naked gills' and refers to the exposed feather-like rhinophores on its back. A type of sea slug, Nudibranchs are born with shells but loses them as they become adults. Thus, to replace the protective shell, species like the Polka Dot Nudibranch acquire poisons from the blue sponge it feeds on; others develop bad tasting glands to repel predators. Most of the nudibranches are clad in bright colours to warn predators of its poisonous or bad tasting nature.

Good things seem to come in pairs. Near the reef edge, 2 Red Swimming Crabs (Thalamita spinimana) were motionless amongst the coral, quite unlike its usual agile self when it senses movement/ danger. One of them was feeding on what looks like a prawn for dinner, perhaps too contented to notice our presence.

I was hoping to show my partner the Octopus (Order Octopoda) as its her first time exploring the shores of Semakau. This kind fellow seem to have heard my wish, and appeared right in front of me. One of the smartest invertebrate, Octopuses are known to be capable of learning and is able to remember its tracks and even open jars. Without a skeleton, it is more flexible than an olympic gymnast and can move into the tiniest crevices. A fierce predator, it uses its tentacles with powerful suckers to catch its prey, before paralysing the prey with a bite. With special cells, the Octopus can change its colour instantly for the best camouflage.

On our way back, a Blue bordered flatworm ,seeking refuge on a blade of seagrass, caught my attention. Apparent from its name, Flatworms are very flat and can hide into any crevices. Being very flat, it does not have a respiratory or circulation system. Instead, oxygen diffuses through its body. Another fierce predator although of small animals, it kills by injecting digestive juices into the prey and sucked up the end product of a liquified meal.

I wonder whether it is my partner whom brought me the luck, we recorded a total of 18 Knobbly Sea Stars (Protoreaster nodosus)! Drawing its name from the knobs on its body, this is one of the largest Sea Star on our shores. Unfortunately, due to overcollection in the aquarium trade and rapid destruction of habitat, the Knobbly Sea Star is a threatened species in local waters. It is heartening to see so many of them, which proves that our shores are healthy enough as a place for them to identify as home.

A treat to the stunning scenary of Semakau usually awaits us at the end of evening surveys. The peaceful and serene shoreline is a good reminder of the purpose of our continuous effort in Project Semakau. Hopefully, it will all pay off and this piece of land that is rich with biodiversity will be conserve, and not end up like....

this contrasting island by its side.....

Beginner's luck really works wonders..

Finally our date materialised, and I was at SBWR with yy last Sunday. Thanks to her virgin trip, her luck brought us many interesting sightings! (And, I think I found a twitcher in her!)

She was introduced to the usual residents such as Archerfishes and Half-beaks at the main bridge. In the distance, the migratory Little Egrets were foraging for food. We couldn't miss the Pacific Golden Plovers, Red and Green Shanks on the mudflats as well. After spending some time at the main hide, we decided on the route towards Platform 2 which, we later realised, was a great move.

As we were about to reach platform 1, a loud 'cluck cluck cluck' sound distracted us. Wondering if it was a bird call, we were searching for movements in the canopy before realising that it was the Plantain Squirrel's (Callosciurus notatus) way of telling us that it is enjoying a hearty breakfast.

Easily recognised by the black and white stripes by its side, this local squirrel is often seen in the mangroves. With great agility, one can often see it leaping from branch to branch

Platform 2 was a great stop for us. On the opposite bank, a Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) was easily spotted being in full view. This hunter can stab quickly at a prey in the water with its special kink in the neck, and typically swallows its prey whole, thus have a strong and efficient digestive system.

On a closer look, 3 other Grey Herons were resting on a tree not too far away. A top predator in the ecosystem, presence of a healthy number of herons are good indicators that our wetland is healthy and conducive. Unfortunately, these majestic birds are threathened by loss of habitat locally.

We observed another 3 more Grey Herons landing on the same tree. Maybe theres a special attraction between that tree and the Herons, but it was getting a little crowded. =P

Overhead, 2 White-bellied Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) hovered, swooning occasionally, close to ground. The other visitors were so thrilled and were commenting that it was a free performance by the Eagles. Unfortunately, all I managed were very blurred shots not worthy of posting.

The only consolation was the elegant Great Egrets (Casmerodius albus), whose flight I managed to capture. Must be a double-bliss day - apart from the pair of eagles, we also witness a pair of Great Egrets 'chasing' each other in flight. This species is the largest egret in Singapore and is distinguished by the pronounced kink in the nick.

We were chanting 'otters otters' and 'crocodile crocodile' but it didnt work. With our main objective at Platform 2 not accomplished, we retreated back to the main bridge in view of time constraints.

On our way back, I pointed out the 'Ba Chang' look-alike leaves to yy. These triangular shaped leaves are actually homes of the Weaver Ant (Oecophylla smaragdina). This complex nest is build by worker ants who joins the edges of the leaves using a strong silk produced by squeezeing a larva.

Its beginner's luck because 2 surprises were awaiting us at the main bridge! Instantly, I assumed that the Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) has made is appearance again, after seeing Dr Chua at the main bridge with a few other cameras pointing at the water.

I was hoping for some action that I missed the day before, and was staring intently at the Crocodile when yy exclaimed, 'OTTER'. I gave her the skeptical look but soon had to take it back. True enough, a small head bobbed in and out of water! It was too fast for me to capture any shots, and I was also busy worrying for this chap, as it was swimming just 10m away from the crocodile. Thank goodness for its agility in water!

Before we left, I wanted to try our luck at the fresh waterpond, thinking that the Otter might return. Instead, it was the Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis) that caught our attention for 10 full minutes. Well protected beneth the Simpoh Ayer, it was enjoying a feast by extending its neck quickly to stab on probably fishes in the pond.

While we only managed to cover the distance from main bridge to Platform 2, it was one of my most efficient trip to Sungei Buloh, having seen so many amazing animals and birds. I guess, it also gives a reason to bring yy back for the mangrove boardwalk in future. =)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A morning of action at SBWR

I was at Sungei Buloh yesterday to guide a group of colleagues from the Bank, in support of a fellow GV's Climate Change Project. Instead of tagging along for the mangrove trees planting, I decided to take a walk of my own and was rewarded with scenes from Nat Geog (well... almost...).

The Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) was in action, this time causing more excitement than usual.

It was initially taking a leisure swim at the opposite Bank, about 20m away from the bridge, exhibiting only its head. Shortly after, it was fully submerged and I lost sight of it.

A few seconds later, it reappeared but was swimming towards the main bridge.

Slowly but steadily, it looked just like a log floating on water - there were no ripples at all!

For a long while, the crocodile parked itself by the water edge and remain submerged. Our bewilderment was soon answered by a bobbing figure on the mudflat.

A Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) was foraging for food, bobbing its tail up and down as it walked about. The stalking thus began. The crocodile was stalking the Sandpiper. And we, were stalking the crocodile. =)

The Sandpiper paced up and down the water edge, obviously unaware of the danger and the existence of the crocodile.

It was no question that this crocodile was in a hunting mode. It adopted the underwater approach by orienting its head towards the Sandpiper, positioning itself in the immediate vicinity of this potential prey.

Slowly, the crocodile's head silently emerges, inching closer to the bird. The move was so sleek that one could hardly notice the movement.

The Sandpiper clearly was one of those who did not notice this move.  As it walked closer and closer to the water edge, my heart started beating faster and faster too. Beside me, a visitor's mumbling of 'oh no. oh no.' became louder and quicker. Momentarily, both of us held our breathe when the bird was within striking distance of the crocodile, fearing for what we assume will happen.

Not sure if the roots of the Avicennia was obstructing the way, but the crocodile never struck. I was hoping that it will lunge forward with the jaws opening then slam shut. Cruel to the Sandpiper, but thats the way how nature and the food chain works, isnt it?

The Sandpiper must have sensed the danger (or perhaps heard our gasps) and started taking off in short, jerky flight, landing a short distance away.

The crocodile then emerged from the water but it was all too late. The Sandpiper has landed too far away.

Minutes later, the croc also lost patience in waiting for the Sandpiper to return. It walked up the river bank, in anticipation of its next potential prey while basking in the sun.

I really couldnt believe the coincidence. Just as the Sandpiper disappears, a Striated Heron (Butorides striatus) emerged some metres behind the crocodile.

I doubt it would be in any danger though since this shy but intelligent bird typically would take flight long before it is in danger.

I left before I could witness any hunting actions of the crocodiile as the guided walk was about to commence. Just as I was about to walk away, a few school children sauntered past and was joking about how it was quite impossible to see the crocodile. Their expression of amazement was priceless, as we pointed out the crocodile to them.

I've always wanted to take a photo of the sign, with the crocodile in the background. Although the crocodile is fairly far away in this instance, its probably the best that I can get, for now. =)

The entire episode has reinforced my 2010 and 2011's resolution to plan for trips to Borneo and Kruger, for a bit of Nat Geog action! =P

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A trip to the forgotten Chinese Garden

'Huh? You mean there are birds at Chinese Garden?' was the typical response I received when some friends learnt of my trip to the uluated west end of Singapore.

I was also not so sure initially, but the 3-hr  long trip certainly changed my view of the place I last visited almost 15 yrs ago.

Minutes after we arrived, a flock of Milky Storks (Mycteria cinerea) flew past overhead. Likely to be escapees, this a vulerable species largely due to the rapid loss of habitat. Not sure if we are still able to see wild ones in Singapore.

I made a casual comment that this Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis) did not look natural since it was not in its usual surroundings of thick vegetation/ water edge, but was fully exposed.

My companions said I must have incurred its wrath as the bittern immediately took flight just as I ended my sentence with a full stop. Tsk, what a petty little fellow.

It was still in full view though, after landing on a tree some distrance away.

This tree looked as if it has tilted to one side under the weight of a flock of Asian Glossy Starlings (Aplonis panayensis) who decided to perch only on the left side of the tree.

It was near sunset, and flocks of Cattle Egrets (Babulcus ibis) flew 'home' after, what I assumed, a long day of adventure.

I have often seen Cattle egrets on patches of grassland, and sometimes by the MRT tracks, but never have I seen that many of them perched on a huge tree at any one time. I tried counting, and gave up after numerous attempts.

Some of them were in their breeding plumage with a rufous buff on their head and neck.

A good example of 鹤立鸡群 as it was not that difficult to see our tallest bird in Singapore - the Grey Heron (Ardea Cinerea) standing amongst the sea of white.

A golfer must have hit a bad shot, sent the ball flying towards the water, and startled the flock of Egrets. Though this resulted in a magnificient scene of a flock of Egrets circling the area, looking for a better and probably safer tree to perch and rest.

Nearby, a Collared Kingfisher's (Todiramphus chloris) attempts to capture our attention with its harsh laughter-like call were not futile. I embarked on my mission to 'hunt' it down and eventually found it perching on a bare branch. While the typical impression is that Kingfisher only eats fish (probably owing to its name), it also feeds on crustaceans, insects and small lizards. Interestingly, they have been observed to beat a large prey against the branch below devouring it.

Not an uncommon sight at marshes, the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) was foraging near the water edge, occasionally probing with its bill in the mud for food.

Apart from the plentiful species of birds, there were, of course, lots of plants too. Although its my second encounter with the Mickey Mouse plant (Ochna serrulata), I still could not fathom how it got its common name.

I was told to look closely at the sepals and imagine Micky. I did. But it still didnt work.

Then, I thought perhaps, it is the fruits that gave it its name. With some ingenious imagination, the fruits do resembles the looks of Mickey, to some extent.

After surfing the net, I learnt that the these green fruits are actually immature and will develop into round black and succulent fruits, surrounded by the bright red sepals. The black thus resembles the black ears of Mickey, and the red sepals - Mickey's face. Ah ha.... I shall remember to look for such an image when I next see the plant.

It was gangsterism by the pond as I engaged in a staring competition with the tortiose. =P I escaped unscathed, and ended the day in high spirits having had a great walk.

Pleased with our sightings of the day, I was also quietly ashamed of myself for having the perception that our Chinese Garden is a boring place with nothing much to offer. Certainly a great place for a slow and leisure walk with nature.

Oh yes, and one of my takeaways from the trip.. is that a fruit tree is very simly erm.. a tree that bears fruits. =P