The wind grew stronger as the dark clouds loomed. The meeting point was crowded with people from the approaching rain. Even the resident long-tailed macaques were indoors to seek shelter. It was a quarter to nine when our guides started to worry. Will the trail carry on or will it be cancelled? Just as the clock struck nine, the clouds started to part and the sun shone brightly on MacRitchie Reservoir Park. It was time to commence the trail!
Our five nature guides and six participants made their way to the start of Petai Trail for the Bachelor of Environmental Studies (BES) Drongos guided walk. As they began, the team spotted the native red jungle fowl from its distinctive call. Who would have known that such a brightly-coloured and loud animal could be found in our forests?
As our guides shared about the history of Macritchie Reservoir Park as a plantation and a kampong¸ they pointed out distinctive plants that have remained through the ages. They included the tall and majestic chewing gum tree (also known as the Jelutong), and the twirling rattan tree.
The trail was filled with the sights and sounds of many of Singapore’s native wildlife. Thanks to our nature guides, our team was able to spot and identify a wide diversity of animals such as the pin striped-tit babbler, long-tailed macaques and common sun skink.
Long-tailed Macaques (Photo by Nicholas Lim)
Common Sun Skink (Photo by Nicholas Lim)
As the trail came to an end, the group was greeted by a cool breeze along the reservoir. It had been an exciting and informative trail, with both the participants and nature guides learning more about Macritchie Reservoir Park from each other.
If you are interested to learn more about the wildlife in Macritchie, then join us for a free guided walk at Petai Trail by signing up here. Our friendly nature guides would love to take you on a trail you will not forget!
It’s been a pretty wild summer and we just had another great walk last week along the Petai Trail. It was pretty awesome to talk with so many interested Singaporeans about the natural heritage we can find at the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CNNR).
As you can probably guess from the title, the theme for this post was inspired by the cool reptiles we managed to spot along the way.
This critter digging his snout into the ground is most commonly known as the Malayan water monitor (Varanus salvator). Among the largest lizards in the world, you can probably spot this lumbering reptile in areas with dense forest like CNNR and Sungei Buloh. Not just native to Singapore, these reptiles are commonplace throughout Southeast Asia and can even be found in urban areas .
Their abundance has largely been attributed to the adaptability of this cunning creature. Though it is a primarily terrestrial species (lives mainly on the land like us homo sapiens), it has been found to climb trees and swim in the reservoirs, using it’s flattened tail to propel itself forward like a tadpole. With its ability to climb and even dive underwater, few animals are safe from its jaws. From insects (probably what this particular one is searching for) to crabs scurrying about in the mangroves to birds resting on a perch, they have been noted to consume almost anything they can get their claws on .
The next reptile that one of our guides spotted was the Buffy Fish Owl (Ketupa ketupu). Hang on a minute, that’s a bird not a reptile! Well, a Cool Science Fact to blow your friend’s mind: birds are actually classified under reptiles. Part 2 of Rad Reptiles will be explaining why so keep your eyes peeled for it!
Now, back to the Buffy Fish Owl. Though you can only see its speckled brown back in the picture above, the smallest of the fish owls can be distinguished by it’s brilliant yellow eyes and adorable ear tufts that are usually tilted at 45 degrees . Since they are largely nocturnal, it can be difficult to spot owls at daytime when they are usually resting silently in trees, an indistinguishable shape on the tree. However, birders have reported an encouraging increase in local sightings of this elusive fish owl in the recent years . If you haven’t spotted one, there are always pictures. Check out this awesome one of the infamous one-eyed Buffy Fish Owl !
As you can probably guess from its name, it feeds exclusively on aquatic creatures such as fish. Because of their special diet, they aren’t like your typical owl. Unlike the snowy owl (Harry Potter’s tragically dead pet), the Buffy Fish Owl does not fly silently. They don’t need to since their prey (fish) are unlikely to be able to hear them anyway. Another unique behaviour of the fish owls are that instead of swooping down to catch their prey like we so often see on documentaries, they actually wade into shallow waters to catch their prey . Pretty cool, huh?
Last of the reptile species we spotted is the Abbott’s babbler (Malacocincla abbotti). Named after the Lieutenant Colonel who discovered it, they are one of the more common babbler species still found in Singapore. While majority (well, three of the five) babbler species such as the short-tailed babbler (Malacocincla malaccensis) are predominantly found within relatively undisturbed forests (mature secondary and primary), the Abbott’s babbler are habitat generalist. This means that they have been spotted to use disturbed habitats like regenerating secondary forest (like the forest along Petai Trail) .
Babblers are one of the harder bird species to identify since they are rather small (usually the size of the iPhone 6). The easiest way to identify a babbler is by its distinctive call. The Abbott’s babbler is known by its characteristic wee-woo-weecall. 
Well, that’s all for now. Do keep out for Part 2 where we will discuss why birds are considered reptiles, about their evolution from dinosaurs and why some scientists stuck a plunger on a chicken’s butt for science reasons.
Our public walks are right around the corner, and we have been tirelessly retraining our volunteer teams over the past two weekends to provide higher quality guiding for all of you. A lot has changed along the Petai Trail, with new additions and some passings, so come with us to know even much more!
A delightful sight
For the first time on the Petai Trail, we caught sight of the Malayan Flying Lemur (Galeopterus variegatus), which is a misnomer for not only is not a lemur, it also does not fly! The more accurate common name is the Sunda Colugo. The Sunda colugos are usually mottled grey in colour but color variants exists. The one we documented is a brown variant with reddish to orange brown fur. Feel free to share your photos with the BES Drongos if you have seen any colugos along the Petai Trail!
Follow that monkey, indeed
The namesake of our guiding group, the greater racket-tailed drongos (Dicrurus paradiseus), were sighted following a group of macaques around. When it comes to food, these extremely intelligent birds have a few tricks up their wings!If you are wondering why they do that, you can check out our previous post to learn more about these clever and sneaky creatures!
Eulogies to our glorious Asam tree
Over the course of the past few months, we have seen a rise in the number of trees that have succumbed to termites’ insatiable demand for wood. The magnificent Asam gelugur (Garcinia atroviridis) has its bark stripped off and branches bare, although it still looks undeniably beautiful. We here at Drongos are going to miss telling how the ripe fruits of this tree, ‘Asam Keping’, are used in making our yummy curries. Both the massive Chestnut tree (Castanopsis schefferiana) and the endemic bat laurel (Prunus polystachya) tree were also severely damaged by the termites which come and go, leaving only wreckage and darkbrown trails of their poop!
Many people still do not know how to differentiate termites from ants, but we don’t blame them. They look remarkably similar and their size range is comparable to ants. However, termites are in fact more closely related to cockroaches (order Blattodea) than ants (order Formicidae)!
If you wish to know more about them, simply come on any of our trails. Don’t hover over the sign up link there (→) anymore – click it, you won’t regret it! Even our BES freshmen of class 2019 who joined us had fun! And when you see us on the Petai Trail and are interested to share with other people about our guided walks, feel free to ask us for a name card freshly printed for you!
Check out our flickr page for more photos taken by our photographers Jacqueline Chua, Emmanuel Goh, Teo Rui Xiang and myself, Aw Jeanice!
A few months ago, the BES Drongos was merely an idea to bring the public around a nature reserve in Singapore to emphasise the importance of nature and let them experience natural spaces for themselves. Now, we are a volunteer group of 25 Bachelor of Environmental Studies students who are proud to call ourselves the BES Drongos nature trail guides. We spent months organising ourselves through recee trails and concluded our first ever trail season last month after taking eight groups of trail participants onto the Petai Trail!
As a guiding group, we are still young and have much to learn about how the public interacts with nature – what’s interesting to us as nature lovers and scientists-in-training may not engage families, young children or people who are there to take selfies photographs.
“When you get caught up in the things that went wrong, always think about how we started with nothing.” – Jacqueline, our research officer
This trail season, we took seven groups of trail participants onto the Petai Trail at MacRitchie Reservoir Park/Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Mother Nature doesn’t take cues for scheduling according to our walks. Our first ever opening walk day on 4 October was rained out, despite a full turnout from the participants who had signed up. Nevertheless, we were lucky to have been able to allow all walks after that to continue as expected!
4 Oct – it rained 😦
We were glad to have interested participants come on our trails who enjoyed exploring and finding out about nature as much as we do! Some of our participants came from abroad, and they brought with them interesting stories about other nature walks back in their home country and the kinds of animals they have seen.
Each of the walks was an exchange of knowledge and wonderment, as we continued to learn about the wildlife in our nature reserve and broaden our perspectives about what it means to live in a city that claims to be fully urbanised, but has pockets of nature worth preserving.
For instance, we experienced some kind of (nerdy) joy when we managed to overturn common misconceptions about forests: tropical rainforest soils are actually nutrient poor because of heavy rainfall leaching away the nutrients. Therefore, plants like the leaf litter plant (Agrostistachys indica) to flourish because of their clever way of trapping leaf litter and absorbing nutrients from this decomposing matter through its rootlets.
We also spotted lots of variable animals in the nature reserve! We have talked about the Greater racket-tailed drongo, the long-tailed macaque, the Asian softshell turtle and common sun skink in this earlier post.
While on our recce walk with the Toddycats, we spotted an ornate coraltail dragonfly and two venomous snakes! The Blue Malayan Coral snake and the Wagler’s pit viper (which we also later saw once more on the trail with public participants) were rare finds that we got really excited about and blogged here.
We also encountered on our public walks some new animals that we hadn’t seen before, such as this pin-striped tit babbler:
On this same walk, we encountered some crimson sunbirds, the unofficial national bird of Singapore! Tanvi, the young creator behind the blog Saving MacRitchie, was a participant on this same walk and these photos were taken by her.
And, we’ve captured some footage of a pair of greater racket-tailed drongos along the Petai trail, how awesome is this? Note the tail flicks!
We hope that we’ve touched the lives of the people who have come on the trail with our stories of the animals and plants that are found along the Petai Trail in the secondary forest of MacRitchie. Our guides have learned a lot about environmental education, whether it is storytelling to engage an audience or public speaking practice. We are infinitely glad to have the support of our BES office in NUS, our readers of this blog and followers on our Facebook page and everyone who has helped to support us in one way or another.
Hello everyone! The BES Drongos recently conducted our last training walk before the official opening for public trail walks.
Look at all the ready faces!
As with every walk, we see different things and it’s part of the reason why these walks are exciting because you never know what you will see! Animals aren’t stationary, like many of us who constantly check the fridge for something to eat. They are in constant motion and we cannot guarantee that you will definitely see an animal during our walks. They could be sleeping, feeding, hunting for prey… at any point in time as you’re walking along the Petai Trail boardwalk, which is a singular route that you can take along the edge of the forest that will minimise your disturbance to the quiet nature reserve.
However, the wonders of reading mean that even if you could not spot them on our walks, you can read all about what it’s like to experience them here! This post is on Variable Animals, animals that you might see along the walks – but have unpredictable behaviour and roam all over the nature reserve, unlike plants which are stationary and usually can be found in the same place from one week to the next.
This is our namesake bird, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus). These birds are common in forested areas and have two distinctive elongated tail feather bare shafts. When they are in flight, it looks like they’re being chased by a pair of carpenter bees!
We call ourselves the Drongos because these birds, like us, are both noisy and clever. They can not only mimic calls of other birds very well, they also use this unique ability to steal food from other creatures. How do they do so? Well, they can use alarm cries known to, perhaps, pigeons to scare them away, stealing what food they have left behind. Scheming, aren’t they? This looting behavior is known as kleptoparasitism.
This video below shows how a clever fork-tailed Drongo, not the same species as the ones found here, steal food from a group of Meerkats!
This is not the only interesting foraging behavior they show. They have also been seen following in the trails of troops of monkeys to eat the insects that these monkeys stir up in their wake. In fact, our slogan, “Follow that monkey” is inspired by this sneaky behavior.
The Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) is another animal that practices Kleptoparasitism and more often than not, they steal from us! I’m sure everyone has been warned of the practice not to bring along food or plastic bags on the trail (if you have not, please read our Essential Information page for trail etiquette pointers). This is because the BES Drongos, along with people who live close to the habitats of the macaques in Singapore as well as those who frequent these places, have observed the macaques’ behaviour of having their belongings snatched away by these fleet-footed creatures.
These Old World monkeys are intelligent – they have even learned to use rocks as tools to crack open the shells of crabs to eat them! This gives rise to their other common name, the crab-eating macaque. Why crabs? These macaques originally thrived in the mangroves of Singapore where crabs are a common food source. Gradually, their populations have spilled into more forested settings, like the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
Macaques are also a species that like to roam around the edge of their habitat. Since Singapore’s forest cover has diminished over the years, these macaques have increasingly smaller areas to forage for food, and thus, they turn to urban areas. Many people, at the sight of an adorable-looking wild animal, reach for food to feed it. However, by regularly feeding these macaques, they have learnt to associate humans with food. Some of them have abandoned their usual foraging behaviours because humans subsidise them with food! The food you give them are not in their regular diet and might make them sick. So, the next time you are faced with a macaque, please keep your distance and refrain from feeding it!
This huge turtle you see here is the Asian Softshell Turtle (Amyda cartilaginea). This particular creature is fondly referred to as the “Mother-ship” by the BES Drongos. Why? As it is observed that wherever it goes, a trail of Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) seem to follow. It brings to mind a giant Mother-ship spaceship with the smaller spacecrafts swerving behind. DA DA DADADADAAAAADA DA…
Well, moving on…like the Red-eared Sliders, this species is not native to Singapore. It could have been brought over to Singapore to be boiled for soup. Yikes! Furthermore, since they are considered a delicacy in many Asian countries, their populations have been dropping. In fact, it is classified as Vulnerable under the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List. So, the next time you are at a Chinese restaurant, maybe you can order lotus root soup instead of turtle soup.
Lastly, this Common Sun Skink (Eutropis multifasciatus) is another cold-blooded creature you can often see basking under the sunlight along the boardwalk. As you can observe from this photo, they have a glossy, somewhat angular body with smaller legs. This feature, along with the fact that they have no pronounced neck, helps differentiate them from true lizards (Family: Lacertidae). They are also remarkably pretty under the morning sun with glints of auburn and bronze gleaming off their scales.
Like the “lizards” we find at home, or rather more accurately Geckos (Family: Gekkonidae), these skinks are known to practice Autotomy. Doesn’t sound familiar? Well, word comes from the Greek words “auto-“ meaning self- and “tome” meaning severing. I’m sure, all of you have seen, at one point or another, a clever gecko escaping leaving its wiggling tail behind to distract its predator. The Common Sun Skink is also known to exhibit this behavior but it doesn’t grow back perfectly. So, don’t go trying any experiments!
Well, as a familiar bunny goes, That’s all folks! I hope you have enjoyed reading about the interesting animals you can see along our trail. With the start of the Opening Walks, hopefully some of you guys will actually get to see some of these critters.
We are fullysubscribed for this season but do come and join us for our next upcoming season in January. We look forward to see you then!
Hey all! With the public walks coming up, BES Drongos have been going down every weekend to hone our guiding skills. It’s been hard work but fun at the same time.
This post will be slightly different as it will be both about the creatures that we saw and about invasive species. We hope not only to show what the BES Drongos are doing but also to show readers how nature works.
So, what is an invasive species?
As you can infer from the video, they are usually an exotic (not native) flora or fauna that has a negative impact on the local environment. They usually thrive in the introduced environment and can outcompete local species (which is a fancy way of saying they can snatch away precious food, water and other natural resources). It’s kind of like Planet of the Apes, only that highly evolved apes are more often than not highly evolved plants and smaller creatures and the people who are being terrorized are the local biodiversity, which might or might not include us.
A famous example of invasive species is the Hairy Clidemia (Clidemia hirta). This hairy leaf is commonly seen along the edges of our forest and is found throughout Singapore. While this plant might look innocuous, it has spread from its native continent (South America) to as far as Australia. Producing about 500 fruits in a single year, it is capable of outcompeting local plant species by sheer reproductive capacity. This has given it its nickname, Koster’s Curse. Koster, in fact, was the man who introduced this species to Hawaii. The plant wrecked such havoc on the coconut plantations there that it was considered a curse. Hence, Koster’s Curse, which in hindsight might not exactly be the legacy you want to leave behind.
However, as of the time this post is written, the Hairy Clidemia is not considered an invasive species in Singapore. This is because it is currently found only at forest edges and not within the forest itself. However, this does not mean it has no effect on the local ecosystem.
It’s not just plants that are invading our local forests, animals are too. The cause this time, are Red-eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). They don’t sound familiar? I’m pretty sure you have seen them before, just take a look at the picture below.
They’re the cute terrapins that you had as pets as kids. Small and placid, they were perfect when you were little. However, these terrapins live for up to 30 years and grow much bigger. They’re no longer able to keep them in those small, blue plastic tanks. These terrapins, more often than not, are released into reservoirs and ponds. They’re in their natural environment, right?
Wrong! These Red-eared Sliders originate from the Land of the Free, USA. They’re brought over here because they’re so popular as pets. When people release them into our ponds, they start competing with our local turtle species for basking and nesting sites. This has led to a great decline in numbers of local turtles. They’re so successful as an invasive species that places like Australia and Europe has banned the trade of them. Maybe it’s time for Singapore to do the same.
Another example of local species being outcompeted by invasive species is the displacement of the Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) by the Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor). The pictures are both Green Crested Lizards, native to Singapore. As you can see, they’re a brilliant green-bluish colour though (as seen above), prior to mating, the lizard has been observed to change into a dark brown colour (as seen below).
In Singapore, these lizards have often been displaced by the more aggressive Changeable Lizard, an exotic species. Now, Green Crested Lizards can rarely be found in urban areas and forest edges but are still frequently seen in our nature reserves and forests.
However, we cannot always blame the invasive species for the fall in local diversity. These species could simply be moving into abandoned areas, rather than outcompeting native species. What do I mean? Take for example the construction of a park. This would undeniably change the natural habitat from a forest to an urban area. Native species, unused to such an environment, would eventually leave because they cannot find food and other necessities. Hence, it would be inaccurate to say that the invasive species are the cause of displacement of native species when they are simply expanding into an abandoned area.
Habitat disruption as a matter of fact is far more likely to be a greater threat towards biodiversity than invasive species. Habitat disruptions is a global trend and occurs even in Singapore. A very recent example that its currently happening in the Johor straits would be the reclamation of land causing destruction of coral habitats, or the clearance of existing forests to build more housing. These are just some examples of habitat disruptions that have changed natural habitats to such great extent that native species can simply die out. This trend is so prevalent in our time that many scientists are now certain that we are going through the 6th Mass Extinction! This is frightening if you consider how the last Mass Extinction was the period by which the dinosaurs went extinct. So, here’s a short video that would tell you more about this event and why we should worry about this.
Well, all these issues might seem insurmountable and a problem best left to the authorities and experts. That’s not exactly true. This problem is our problem and sticking your head under the sand like an ostrich is not going to make it go away. Such large issues need both global and community action and your choice to be aware of such an issue can be a tipping point for your community. We encourage you to read, research, join our guided walks and watch more TED videos in order to, in the words of Jac the research officer, find out what you have to lose and then decide if you want to save it or not.
Well, we have more misadventures ahead of us whether on the Petai Trail or on the other roads of life. So, do continue to come back to read more about it!
Credit for the brilliant photos: Aw Jeanice, Ecology Asia, Jac and Rachel Lee.
For more fascinating photos, check out our Flickr account.
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.
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.
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!”.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
The BES Drongos adventures on the Petai Trail and more!