Trails by Fire, the nomnomnom edition.

Hey Everyone! I hope you’re getting excited about our upcoming public walks! Trails by Fire, 24 August, happened last Sunday and it was awesome to see the great lengths that BES Drongos have improved since the start!

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Look at all the Drongos diligently guiding their fellow Drongos!

The weather was the typical unpredictable Singapore weather with odd drizzles in the middle of the trail. Thankfully, there wasn’t lightning and the drizzles were short so we pushed on. We managed to see some animals particularly the Malayan Blue Coral Snake and Malayan Pit Viper which we had seen previously on our trails. However, this post will be about something that we haven’t talked about, something that will satisfy our stomach…

NOMNOMNOM.

You guessed it: Fruits! While we humans cannot consume all the fruits of the forest, they are nonetheless a source of food for the creatures of the forest. Here are some the fruits we spotted along the trail:

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These Golden Hairy Figs (Ficus aurata) crowding at the base of the leaf does sort of look like a longan, doesn’t it? However, they are in a completely different family as their fellow tropical fruits and are inedible. This particular fig-tree can be distinguished by its distinctive stiff golden hairs that cover its leaves and fruits. It isn’t just the nickname that reflects this fig’s characteristic nature. In fact, it’s latin name, aurata, meaning glided with gold also hints at the golden hairs found on the plant. This shrub is common throughout Singapore so try to spot this enchanting tree if you can!

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Here’s another hairy fruit: the berry of the Hairy Clidemia (Clidemia hirta). This plant is extremely common throughout Singapore and can be found on the outskirts of forests. You can easily recognized it by its hairy leaves! These sweet dark purple berries are a favorite of birds and as you can guess, are dispersed by animals. This berry is supposedly edible and taste like deeply favoured blueberries. However, one should try it with caution as you could get a stomachache.

We have encountered this particular plant many times on our trails so to read more: click here and here.

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This woody pod is not actually a seed as some of you might think; it is actually a fruit! It is the unopened seed pods of the mighty Chewing Gum Tree (Dyera costulata) or perhaps a name that you might be more familiar with: Jelutong. Well, you might be astonished to find that this brown, stiff pod is actually a fruit since we are all used to seeing our typical juicy and fleshy fruits in the supermarkets.

This is due to the mode by which the seed is dispersed from. As you can observe, this unappetizing fruit is probably not going to attract any animal to eat it. Instead, this tall tree (can grow up to 60m!) disperses its seeds via wind. The seedpod will usually open high up in the tree canopy, releasing winged seeds which will be scattered by the wind. It is similar to how your clothes sometimes fall from the bamboo poles. They are rarely found directly under the pole but some distance away!

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This blueberry lookalike is actually the fruit of the Nibong palm (Oncosperma tigillarium). The Nibong Palm is usually found in clusters near water bodies and is distinctive due to its black spine on the stem of the trees. Though the berries might look delicious, they are likely to be inedible so don’t eat them if you see them! However, should you need food desperately, the heart of the palm (inner core of the palm) can be eaten raw or cooked with coconut sauce. Yum!

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Unripe fruit of Rattan palm
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Ripe fruit of Rattan palm

This colorful, scaly fruit is from the Rattan palm (Calamus sp.)  The fruits shown above aren’t ripe yet, but they will soon take on various shades of brown. While we cannot eat it’s fruits, it is still important in the musical world!. Some of the fruits of the rattan will exude a red resin which is called, interestingly, Dragon’s Blood. It is currently being used as a vanish for violins. There are even more common uses for the rattan palms itself how the skin of rattan strands can be weaved into baskets, “cores” made into furniture and perhaps the one we are most familiar with: the rattan cane our parents used to smack us with.

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Last of all, this striped dark and light brown seed is a Rubber Seed (Hevea brasiliensis). It might look innocuous but the capsule (fruit that contains the seeds) actually exploded to throw this seed as far as possible from the parent tree. Though this seed looks rather unextraordinary, the struggle to bring these seeds out of Brazil (the native country) is fraught with bio-piracy, controversy and blood. This makes a fascinating read if you can spare the time.

Well, I hope you have been enlightened about the seeds and fruits of our forest. We’re be going about our trail soon again so do look out for our next misadventures.

For more cool photos: check out our Flickr

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Talk Science To Us

Hello everybody! Jac the research officer here. For this post, we are going to take a break from all the cool things that we discover along the Petai trail and talk about, well, talking about science. As we all know, telling stories about biodiversity is not the easiest thing to do, even though it seems effortless. So, to help us along with the guiding process, I would like to introduce to you all some of my favorite science youtubers, and why I love them!

First up is Emily Grasilie from The Brain Scoop. She is a science communicator and Youtube presenter, and currently works as the American Field Museum as their first ever Curiosity Correspondent. What I love about her is her incredibly infectious energy and relaxed, conversational tone when she presents about all the weird specimens she has at the museum, which tends to make the viewer feel excited about whatever she is talking about purely because… she seems excited too. I personally think she manages to pull off such great energy because she really is genuinely very passionate about whatever she is talking about, and she always draws her audience’s attention using emphasis when she speaks (“Sometimes they are called… THE WALKING ARTICHOKE or anteater pinecones, because basically thats what they look like.”). Plus, she makes great use of her hand gestures when describing a specimen at hand to point out all their crazy features and how they work, so in a sense she makes her dead specimens come alive through her actions and descriptions, which in turn also work because they tend to be delivered in the form of simple and funny comments. So if you are incredibly excited about nature and think you are or can be as cute as Emily, I do suggest you look at her video on Owls and Romantic Ants. A warning though; some of the brain scoop videos can be a bit gory because she taxidermises some animals, but the three in this post are gore-free. I promise.

Next we have Zefrank1, who runs an incredible nature narration series called True Facts. Not much is known about Mr Zefrank other than that he has a soothing voice that rivals the legendary Sir David Attenbrough, but what we do know is that he spices up his presentation with a descriptive language that borders on the ridiculous. In a manner, Zefrank makes fact so much stranger than fiction, and the resulting hilarity makes the whole package work. His sarcasm and jokes are what make information stick, and he is not afraid to make relatable comparisons between animal and human behavior to get the audience to understand how and why animals do certain things. It may not be possible for us mere mortals to write a script as golden as Mr Zefrank, I am certainly going to try. For more inspiration, I suggest you also listen to his take on the Anglerfish and Chameleon.

Last but not least, I would like to give you all a throwback to the 90s, where one of the best science presenters took to the air. I know he’s not part of youtube formally, but Bill Nye the Science guy is a tough act to follow, even today. Bill Nye really appeals to me even now because he makes complex things simple. This particular episode about biodiversity sums up everything about all our process keywords like ecosystem, biodiversity and the idea of scale when it comes to such keywords. What is amazing is that it is simple enough for kids to understand, but it does not sound dumbed down. Bill Nye episodes are also interesting because he has a segment called “Consider the Following” (at 9:11), in which he actually deals with more controversial issues on an equal level with his audience and actually asks for opinions while effectively introducing his own. This is fun because it gets people thinking, which in turn gets them involved with the information being presented. Another thing I like about Bill Nye episodes is that they run along themes that he comes back to often to broaden the viewer’s understanding, and to re-enforce the main message, like in this episode where the emphasis falls on how everything is connected. This makes the whole episode seem neat, and this would work nicely for anything that has to be presented in a continuous time block, like our walks! For your viewing pleasure and daily dose of nostalgia, I suggest you watch all of the Bill Nye episodes on youtube. ALL OF THEM.

Aaaaand that is it! These are all my favorite science presenters on youtube. But before I go, I would like to leave with you a clip from my favorite comedian on one of my ex-favorite nature presenters Steve Irwin:

R.I.P Steve. While your exploits thrilled us, touching everything dangerous is generally not an example most of us can (or should!) follow.

If anyone has any comments or questions, feel free to drop me an email at besdrongos@gmail.com! Just put a “To Jac” in the subject header and I will try my best to answer any queries you all may have. Till then, happy guiding! (:

Discoveries on our Trail by Fire!

Hello everybody! The BES Drongos are quickly gaining traction as they begin their first edition of Trail by Fire – a series of trails where selected members of the public (aka our friends) to join our walks and add that little bit of authenticity to our practice walks. Why “Trail by Fire”? It’s a pun on ‘trial by fire’, nature trail style.

Trail by Fire Group Photo

Last Saturday’s trail saw us encountering new biodiversity, particularly birds! It was the first time that we, the BES Drongos, encountered our namesake – the Greater Racket Tailed Drongo! Its scientific name is Dicrurus paradiseus. The drongo is an immensely interesting bird, and not just because they are our mascot animal. They are visually very distinctive as they have a pair of long unique tail feathers called “rackets” as seen from the photo. They are excellent mimics and can imitate the calls of a variety of other birds, although they tend to attach a metallic ring to the end of the call, which is unique to this bird.

This picture of the drongo was captured during another trail at the Venus loop of the Macritchie Reservoir Park.
This picture of the drongo was captured during another trail at the Venus loop of the Macritchie Reservoir Park.

Drongos are also sneaky creatures. They are known to practice kleptoparasitism, which means that they often steal prey from other foraging animals such as macaques. One of their favorite tricks is to follow a flock of birds like babblers, and then make an alarm call to scare the foragers away while the drongo picks up the spoils. This is the story behind the BES Drongos’ tagline, “Follow that monkey!”. 

Trail by Fire Entrance

As we were walking through the trail near the entrance to the Petai Trail, we heard a distinctive call that reminded us of a rooster. These were the calls of Red Jungle Fowl, also known as jungle chickens! Red jungle fowl are essentially the ancestors of our domestic chickens, and can be distinguished from them by their white ear flaps.

This picture of the red jungle fowl was captured during another trail at the Venus loop of the Macritchie Reservoir Park.
This picture of the red jungle fowl was captured during another trail at the Venus loop of the Macritchie Reservoir Park.

Red jungle fowl also distinguish themselves from their more placid descendants in that they can fly, often flapping their way up trees to escape predators! Their call also differs from domestic chickens in that the end is cut off (sounds kinda like it has a sore throat). An excellent example of this call can be heard in the Youtube video below:

Blue-throated Bee Eater

This beautiful bird perched on the tree overlooking a large water body near the end of the trail is a Blue-throated Bee Eater. This bird is not a permanent resident of Singapore. Instead, it migrates around the SEA region seasonally. They normally visit during their breeding season, although they are sometimes also classified as uncommon winter migrants (that means that they spend time here during winter, but rarely). They are insectivores that favor flying insects, and the one that we saw was eating dragonflies that it picked off from the surface of the water. When taking venomous prey or prey with stings, they will “wipe” their prey against their perch to get rid of the venom or sting. This is probably where they get their name from; they basically specialize in eating stinging insects that other birds find unappetizing.

The photo below is of a bird that is as yet not properly identified because it is unclear, but we suspect that it is a Pin-Striped tit-babbler. During the trail, we may have also seen a forest babbler but failed to get a photo.

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Babblers are common residents in most of our nature reserves in Singapore, including the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. They can be noisy little birds with a distinctive and repetitive call, as seen in this Youtube video:


Babblers are important to note because they are one of the vulnerable bird groups that could be affected detrimentally should the Cross Island Line be built through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. This is because certain species like Abbott’s babbler can only live in the lower story of mature secondary or primary forest, which is obviously quite scarce in rapidly urbanizing Singapore. Because of their small size, these birds also dislike flying across large open spaces. As fragmentation occurs due to the building of developments across the nature reserve, these birds are unlikely to travel between forest fragments. Thus, their breeding potential is limited and their gene pools are reduced due to less mixing between populations.

Trial by Fire

We hope you have enjoyed this short sharing on some of our discoveries on the Petai Trail at Macritchie Reservoir Park. Each trip is an eye-opening experience and as you can tell from our posts, we never cease to find something new and unexpected each time! More Trails by Fire will take place over the next few weeks. We will be providing more information on the impacts that developments within nature reserves can create, such as forest fragmentation and soil disturbance in future blog posts, so keep an eye out for them. For now, pop by the Love Our Macritchie Forest website, run by the Toddycats, to find out more about how the Cross Island Line can impact the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Credits to Jacqueline Chua for the photos.

For more awesome photos, check out our Flickr page!

Toddycats and Drongos Unite!

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This week the Drongos had some special guests with us, the Toddycats! The Toddycats are nature and environment volunteers with the upcoming Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, and they run another trail in MacRitchie, called the Venus Loop that is located further down Upper Thompson. The Toddycats also manage the Love Our MacRitchie Forest movement, which was launched in response to the proposed Cross Island Line (CRL) that would cut through MacRitchie. The Toddycats hope to educate the public through their walks about the fragile ecosystem and stunning biodiversity we have here through their trails, and the Drongos are hoping to follow in their footsteps. So in a way, the Toddycats are our mentors, and we certainly learnt a lot from them on this trail.

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This trail was also pretty special because it was the first time our volunteers were presenting to non-Drongos, and we are proud to say that they are shaping up to be promising guides!

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However, we all certainly still had a lot to learn, as the Toddycats amazed us with their uncanny ability to spot all sorts of biodiversity along the trail. So for today’s post, there are a whole lot more animals, and we hope that with more experience we can someday be as sharp as the Toddycats in spotting such amazing creatures!

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This Ornate Coraltail (Ceriagrion cerinorubellum) was flitting around near the boardwalk. The Coraltail is a damselfly, which is not the same as a dragonfly, even though they look very similar. Both dragonflies and damselflies are from the order Odonata but are generally classified into two different suborders, with dragonflies under Anisotera and damselflies under Zygoptera. The most obvious difference between dragonflies and damselflies is that damselflies have a long, slender body as compared to dragonflies, which have shorter, stockier bodies.

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We were very lucky for this trail as we spotted both a Malayan Blue Coral Snake (Calliophis bivirgatus) and Wagler’s Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri )(photo below), highly venomous snakes that we had not seen since our first recce of the trail. A fun (and rather frightening) fact that we learnt from the Toddycats was that the Malayan Blue Coral Snake is also known as the Hundred Paces Snake, because its venom is so powerful that a person can only make it about a hundred paces after being bitten before they die. Ouch.

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It seems that the snakes like to bask near the boardwalk because the vegetation is not as dense there and thus has more sunlight. Because venom takes a while to make, it a good thing to remember that snakes generally will not attack non-prey animals (for example, us) unless they are highly threatened or cornered, so if you ever see a snake, give it some room and back away slowly so as to not startle it. Always ensure that the snake has an escape route, and you should be fine!

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Another interesting reptile we saw today was a Clouded Monitor Lizard (Varanus nebulosus), named as such because it has beautiful yellow cloud-like markings on its back. Monitor lizards are closely related to Komodo Dragons (the largest lizards in the world which grow up to 3 meters long), but thankfully all the Monitor Lizard species in Singapore are unable to grow that big.

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This Common Sailor butterfly (Neptis hylas papaja) was resting on some Resam ferns (Dicranoptris linearis). Both the Common Sailor and Resam like the sun, and both are common species found on nature reserve fringes.

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Speaking of butterflies, we found this fantastical caterpillar (Eudocima smaragdipicta) creature so strange that it really seems otherworldly. Other than the weird Pokémon ball-looking patterns found on its body, the oddly shaped “head” at the end of the caterpillar facing up in this photo is actually its tail! The caterpillar uses its false head to give the impression of a rearing snake as it raises its behind, serving as a defense against birds and other hungry predators.

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While we are on the topic of fake snakes, we also found the flower of the Rattan Plant (above) and the resulting fruit (below). The scaly fruit develops in between the “cups” of the long, segmented flower, and the cups only fall off after the fruit is ripe, exposing the fruit bunches.

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As most of us know, the main stem of the plant is often used to make furniture and other products (like canes), but did you also know that the fruit produces a red resin known as “dragon’s blood” and is often used to dye violins?

Well, that is about it for this trail! We would like to give special thanks to the Toddycats Chloe Tan, David Tan, Yi Yong, Sean Yap and Amanda Lek for taking the time to come down to our trail with us! We hope that as we develop our own stories and gain experience as guides that we will one day make you guys proud. (:

(Thanks to David Tan, Sean Yap and Samuel Chan for pointing out some initial mistakes in the post!)

For more photos, check out our Flickr albums!