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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!

Committee Group Photo
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.

Wagler's Pit Viper
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

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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!