Tag Archives: singapore nature trail

Rad Reptiles (Part 1): The Specimens

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).

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Woo, another fun walk! (Photo by Sandra)

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.

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Photo by Sandra

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 [1].

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 [2].

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Peek a boo. (Photo by Sandra)

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 [3]. 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 [4]. If you haven’t spotted one, there are always pictures. Check out this awesome one of the infamous one-eyed Buffy Fish Owl [5]!

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 [6]. Pretty cool, huh?

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Photo by Sandra

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) [7].

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-wee call. [8]

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.

  1. Baker, N. (n.d.). Malayan Water Monitor. Ecology Asia. Retrieved Aug 1, 2016, from http://www.ecologyasia.com/verts/lizards/malayan_water_monitor.htm 
  2. Tan, R. (2001). Malayan Water Monitor Lizard. Naturia. Retrieved Aug 1, 2016, from http://www.naturia.per.sg/buloh/verts/monitor_lizard.htm 
  3. Ho, HC (n.d.). Close Encounters with Owls of Singapore. Nature Watch. Retrieved Aug 1, 2016, from http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/pub/naturewatch/text/a051a.htm 
  4. OwYong, A. (2016) First known nesting record of the Buffy Fish Owl. Singapore Bird Group. Retrieved Aug 3, 2016, from
    https://singaporebirdgroup.wordpress.com/tag/buffy-fish-owl/ 
  5. Seng, A & Loei, J. (2015). Encounter with a one-eyed Buffy Fish-owl. Bird Ecology Study Group.  Retrieved Aug 3, 2016, from http://www.besgroup.org/2015/07/11/encounter-with-a-one-eyed-buffy-fish-owl/
  6. Royal Society SEARRP. (n.d.). Buffy Fish Owl (Ketupa Ketupu). Stability of Altered Forest Ecology. Retrieved Aug 4, 2016, from http://www.safeproject.net/animal-sightings/buffy-fish-owl-ketupa-ketupu/ 
  7. Yong, DL. (2009). Persistence of Babbler (Timaliidae) Communities in Singapore Forests. Nature in Singapore 2009, 2, 365-371.  
  8. kh. (n.d.). Babblers. Singapore Birds. Retrieved Aug 4, 2016, from http://singaporebirds.blogspot.sg/2012/07/babblers.html

 

Words by Mel 

Monkeying Around: Misconceptions about Macaques and how we can make it better

Hi everyone! Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’d know that Chinese New Year is just around the corner and this year happens to be the Year of the Monkey!

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Generally, people think that monkeys are adorable, curious, and highly intelligent animals – which is not untrue. However, if you’ve ever been on our guided walks or to MacRitchie Reservoir Park at all, you might have seen people scream and run away at the sight of the monkeys.

This is not without reason: the monkeys at MacRitchie have been known to snatch people’s food, bottles, and bags. Though, what people don’t know is that we created these human-macaque conflicts ourselves and all that’s required to resolve it is a simple change in behaviour. But, let’s start from the top to catch everyone up to speed 🙂

About the monkeys

The monkeys at MacRitchie are called long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and they are a forest-edge species. What this means is that rather than living deep in the forest, the macaques prefer to live at the edge of the forest, which coincides with the parks and paths that we use for our leisure.

Clarifying misperceptions

  1. “The macaques are aggressive and scary.”

Firstly, it is important to differentiate between aggressive and assertive. Aggressive behaviour includes biting and scratching, while assertive behaviour refers to the baring of teeth, chasing, lunging and/or grabbing. The macaques at MacRitchie are usually assertive and have in fact rarely been observed to be aggressive.

Secondly, whether the macaque is being assertive or aggressive, it is all part of their natural behaviour. Visitors to MacRitchie might have noticed that the macaques often travel in groups. This is their troop. In each troop, there is an alpha male – equivalent to the ‘dad’ of the group, and it is his responsibility to care for and protect his troop. As such, when people or dogs get too close to his family members, it is the alpha male’s instinct to display assertive and/or aggressive behaviours.

  1. “The macaques are attracted only to red plastic bags.”

This is a strange myth and how it started remains a mystery. What we do know is that the macaques are in reality attracted not only to plastic bags of all colours, but also to any bag that is handheld (e.g. reusable bag, shoe bag, tote bag, even backpacks). Even when there is no food present, the very image of a bag carried by its handles and held in a hand results in the macaque associating the bag with food.

  1. “The macaques are relocated when complaints are made about them.”

Many think that when people call AVA or NParks to complain about the macaques being a nuisance in the park, the macaques will then be relocated to another forest patch or the zoo. This isn’t a method employed by AVA or NParks in dealing with complaints as relocating the macaques is simply relocating the problem.

When someone makes a complaint against the macaques, the problem macaque, when identified, is actually culled, or killed. Sometimes, when the problem macaque cannot be identified, more macaques are culled 😦

It is important to be aware of the consequences your complaint might have so that you complain responsibly. Save your complaints for problems that you can’t solve. With that in mind, here are some ways in which you can help play a part in resolving the human-macaque conflict.

Resolving conflict

  1. Be prepared

Imagine this: A macaque approaches and attempts to grab something from you, you scream and run. The macaque gives chase and refuses to give up. In the end, you decide to simply get rid of the monkey by giving it what it wants – throwing your food/bottle/bag at it so it will finally stop pestering you.

The above scenario is one that has been commonly observed. The macaques are smart and they learn from experience. Such submissive human behaviour teaches the monkeys that they are able to easily obtain food. It also results in them associating humans with food, which will only prompt them to approach humans more often and more aggressively.

A study in 2014 (Lai) showed that by simply changing your reaction towards macaques, the macaques will respond submissively and not attempt to grab your items. Some simple acts of deterrence include:

  • Making loud noises at the macaque
  • Making threatening gestures using tools such as umbrellas or sticks (or even your hands)
  • Stomping your feet.
  • NOTE: DO NOT HIT THEM
  1. Avoid conflict altogether

Very simply, this means removing the exposure of any items that might trigger a macaque into initiating interaction with you. Such items include:

  • Food
  • Other food-associated items
    • Bottles
    • Plastic bags of any colour
    • Any hand-held bags (be it tote bags, shoe bags, drawstring bags, backpacks, etc.)

It is encouraged that you do not bring food anywhere near the forest, especially on trails, and when consuming food, please clear your trash responsibly.

In summary

  1. Macaques are simply exhibiting their natural behaviour
  2. It is within our power to help resolve the human-macaque conflict
  3. Make loud noises, threatening gestures, or stomp to prevent the macaque from approaching you and/or grabbing your things
  4. Don’t expose any food or food-related items when in the park and/or near the macaques

Ultimately, MacRitchie is our park, but it is also where the macaques live. They too have a family, and they too need a home. It’s been their home long before it was our park, so let’s all play a part in helping both species to coexist by being more understanding and tolerant towards the macaques 🙂

Words by: Tan Jia Xiu

Glorious comeback: NEW walks

Sem 2 poster (first 3 walks)
Photo and design by Aw Jeanice

Mark your calendars for the new set of BES Drongos trails are here!

To kickstart 2016, come and join us on a remarkable adventure through the stunning forests in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve along the well-trodden Petai Trail!

Did you know that a walk in nature can relieve stress and improve physical well being? Besides, you get to know a lot more about the critters worth protecting in our reserves, while learning about the ecosystem they are living in and dependent on. Wait no longer! Share our walks with a few fun-loving friends and sign up on our EventBrite page without further ado.

Visit our Essential Information page for more details on the meeting location and duration of our walks, as well as other safety tips generally useful in any nature walks!

Stay tuned for our recent developments in forming a new committee and training new volunteer guides!

Our First Trail Season: Highlights

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!

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The BES Drongos committee AY2014/2015!

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 😦

11 Oct

12 Oct

18 Oct 

Image credit: © NUS OSA 2014 | Photography by Clement Hong

25 Oct

Image credit: © NUS OSA 2014 | Photography by Clement Hong

1 Nov 

9 Nov 

15 Nov 

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.

PGP Walk

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.

Leaf Litter Plant

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.

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The greater racket-tailed drongo, our nameksake!

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.

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Wagler’s pit viper… look at those ominous eyes

We also encountered on our public walks some new animals that we hadn’t seen before, such as this pin-striped tit babbler:

Pin-striped tit babbler peeking out at us!

Pin-striped tit babbler. Photo credit: Tanvi of Saving Macritchie

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.

Let us know if you came on the trail and have something to share about your experience! Mail us at besdrongos@gmail.com or drop us a comment on our Facebook page!

The BES Drongos will be resuming guided Petai trail walks in 2015, so until then, we wish you happy holidays and a happy new year!

Words by: Judy Goh

Variable Anim…Drongo!

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!

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Ready to Rumb…Guide!

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.

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Oooo, what’s that?

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.

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Our mascot bird!

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.

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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!

Mothership

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.

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Slinky skink

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 fully subscribed for this season but do come and join us for our next upcoming season in January. We look forward to see you then!