Saturday, March 21, 2015

Singapore - Birding in the Southern Ridges

One more bird watching trip before I leave tomorrow. I had enthusiastically signed up for a bird watch walk with the Nature Society some weeks ago, and regretted the decision last night. The walk will start promptly at 7:30 in the morning, and I was still up at 1am the night before. I had received group emails from people backing out of the trip, and was very tempted to do the same. In the end, I decided that it was my last day in Singapore, possibly my last birdwatching trip for a good while, so I bit the bullet as I set my alarm for 5am the next morning.

Obviously this was going to be a group walk. I hadn't forgotten my lesson about birdwatching with company. But I hadn't expected a crowd this size as I got out of the cab at the group's meeting point. There must have been over twenty people, adults and children alike. I had forgotten this was the tail end of the March week-long school holidays. Families were out with a vengeance, trying to make the most out of the last couple of days of the break. My heart sank as I counted the number of children present. Could they possibly walk in the silence and reverence that was required on such a journey? There wasn't anything I could do but follow the two guides as the tour started. Luckily, they decided to split the group into two. I quickly jumped in to join the first group after gauging that there were less children than in the other.

For the first stop, the guide brought us to the Henderson Waves Bridge, built at the tree top canopy level. The morning sun blazed a bright red, but we were able to gaze directly at it because of the hazy atmosphere. Within minutes, we spotted a collared kingfisher perched high on the branches. We also saw the very common Yellow Vented Bulbul, which we would consistently see throughout the walk today. Several people came equipped with their fancy cameras with their even fancier bulky lenses. I half wished I had borrowed my dad's until I remembered that his lens weren't powerful enough for long distances. I watched enviously at the little boy standing next to me, big-ass camera slung around his neck, aiming his shutter at the beautiful pink necked green pigeons, trigger happy and clicking away. Do I really have to pick up another hobby for my latest hobby??

Next, we were led through the treetop canopy walk on the Southern Ridges. Adding to my life list was the Racket-Tailed Drongo, also a fairly common but splendid sight - dark glossy black, with two single long tail feathers, falling like a regal train down its back.

Halfway through the walk I gave up trying to keep up with my group. They forged ahead even as I fell behind, taking my time to seek out the birds that I heard but could not see. By this time, the lesson was firmly etched into my brain - birdwatching is a solitary activity. Period. No ifs or buts. It was when I fell behind that I saw the most. A couple other stragglers from my group were by no doubt, serious birders themselves. I hung around them in silence, as I decided with a sweeping glance they were more experienced and seasoned birders. My patience paid off as one of them spotted a dollarbird in a far off tree. Through my binoculars I could only make out its bright and thick orange bill. As I pulled out my newly purchased Singapore Birds Field Guide to confirm my sighting, another guy pointed out the four long-tailed parakeets perched at the very top of another tree. Man, was I glad I stuck around! These guys are good! In the following fifteen minutes, we walked into a clearing and proceeded to spot two common flamebacks, multiple pairs of common hill mynas, and even a lineated Barbet!

By now, the sun had come out in full force and most of us decided to call it a day. One of the guys had struck a conversation with me, and when I described my birding experiences in Singapore thus far he remarked, "Wow, you're quite an adventurous girl!" To which I had no reply. I had never pictured myself that way, certainly not in Singapore where it is very safe to travel around on your own, by and large. But I felt a little flattered and a lot more confident.

I can be alone, I may actually have the courage to be on my own.

Bird list: collared kingfisher, yellow-vented Bulbul, Pink necked Green pigeon, olive-backed sunbird, oriental Dollarbird, long-tailed Parakeets, Javan Mynas, Common Hill Mynas, Dark-necked Tailorbird (?), Lineated Barbet, Common Flameback, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-naped Oriole, Asian Glossy Starling

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Singapore - Birding at Botanic Gardens

Having had a partner around for so long, being alone takes some getting used to. Justin and I were inseparable, we had been together for 8 years. So excuse me if I feel weird eating at a restaurant all by myself, feeling self conscious, thinking that I possibly look very much like a loser to inquisitive onlookers. In the last couple of weeks, my single and alone status has grown on me. I can do things on my own again and not give two hoots about what people think.

I am stronger than I give myself credit for.

Today I ventured out to the Botanic Gardens to do more birdwatching. It is one activity you have to do alone, as I have come to realize. The night before I had hesitantly agreed to let my friend accompany me in the morning. He had just returned from a trip to Cuba and NYC, and was perhaps just a tad too eager to share his experiences. I was also too polite to stop him, even as my eyes darted from tree to tree, and my attention wavered whenever I heard a birdcall. I couldn't do my usual note taking as I was not able to watch the birds long enough to make clear observations. With company, I felt pressed to keep moving. My friend redeemed himself with his photography skills, taking great pictures of the birds we spotted. I also saw some new birds for my life list today, which made me feel like my day wasn't a total bust. Up on a palm tree, dozens of Asian glossy starlings gathered together, their bright crimson eyes watching the skies, their bluish black bodies glistening in the sunlight. On another tree, I caught sight of a gorgeous Blue-tailed Bee-eater, his body a riot of colors, fading from orange, to yellow, to green, to blue. How is Mother Nature such an incredibly talented artist? How have I never seen such birds all my life, growing up in this garden city that is Singapore?

Bird list: yellow-vented Bulbul, Spotted Dove, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Pacific Swallow, Brahminy Kites, Lesser Whistling Ducks, Asian Glossy Starlings, White breasted Waterhen, Olive backed Sunbird, Rock Pigeons, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Ashy tailorbird (?), Black-naped Oriole

Monday, March 16, 2015

Singapore - the Jukuleles and Going OM

Tonight I went to Going OM, a hippy dippy little sit down bar in Haji Lane, to watch The Jukuleles perform. The band members, Tian and Wan, perform covers, mashups as well as originals on their ukuleles. I first heard Tian sing at one of our friends' karaoke sessions a couple of years ago, and remembered thinking "Damn, this girl sure can sing!" Definitely not your usual karaoke caliber.

The first set started slow and mellow with songs like Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours", Radiohead's Creep and Ed Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud. The second set proceeded to be a lot more upbeat with songs from Muse to Oasis to Bruno Mars. I came alive when they did a cover of Taylor Swift's Blank Space. By the end of the night they had people dancing and even singing at the top of their lungs to Cee Lo Green's uncensored version of Forget You. I've always associated ukuleles with tame, Jack Johnson-ish sorta vibes. Who knew the instrument could produce such powerful sounds! Now I want to learn how to play the ukulele too! According to Tian, it is much easier and more forgiving for a girl. The wide guitar necks were always a constant problem for me, forcing me to contort my wrist at weird angles, and made bar chords a terribly tiring affair. I could see why ukuleles might be a welcome change. And it is also travel-friendly. I may very soon trade my guitar for a uke. Any takers?

On this same night I met Barry from my Sisters Island camping trip, and found out he owns a store right next to Going OM. He sells fun things from crystals to incense, prayer flags to tie dyed shirts. I fancied an OM bracelet but it was too big. And I was already wearing a ton of bracelets given by various friends as farewell gifts. I asked Barry for an anklet instead and he pulled out a drawer full of beaded anklets. Instinctively, I picked out one with bells, as though I had been searching all my life for this particular one. I walked up and down the store, listening to the tiny tinkling sounds with each step I took. I bought it and put it on immediately. Later, I would be dancing to the Jukulele tunes with the bells for accompaniment.

Never again will I be lost. When all I want is to sink into the mire of the past, I will find myself by the sound of those bells, the bells shall bring me back to the present.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Singapore - Birding on the North Eastern Riverine Loop

It's true that Singapore doesn't have much variety in terms of natural landscapes. We have no mountains and valleys (just hills), no deserts, no changes in climate. But what little green spaces we have, we sure make a helluva good use of it. The National Parks Board have recently built a network of paved trails and walkways to link the major parks in Singapore to each other, so visitors can park hop from one place to another with great ease, mostly without having to encounter road traffic at all!

I live about ten minutes away from Punggol Park, which is part of the 26km North Eastern Riverine Loop, linking a total of four major parks. The website states it takes about 3-4 hours to walk the route, or a 2hr bike ride. Level of difficulty : Easy. So today, I packed up my Gryffindor backpack, armed myself with my binoculars and Justin's Chicago Bears cap, slapped on some sunscreen (being sensible finally) and trudged out the door. I'm off to do some serious birding today.

I rented a bicycle from the shop at the park. Nothing fancy, no mountain bikes (c'mon this was going to be a paved trail!). Just a simple bicycle equipped with a basket in the front, and an "I ❤️SG" tinkling bell on the side. The rental was $8 an hour. I'd be back in an hour an a half at most, smiling smugly to myself as I rode away.

Ahh.. Riding with the wind in my hair. I could ride on forever.

I made my first stop at the Sungei Serangoon Park Connector, and got my fair share of birds. I realized I could spot them a little more easily now, having had a little bit of practice the other day. I could also recognize some of the birds I had seen before, or read about. The yellow vented bulbul, the collared kingfisher, the black-naped oriole, the pied fantail.

I was glued to one particular grassy spot, watching a black-naped oriole feed on a bug it had between its beak. It didn't immediately swallow the fuzzy centipede-looking fellow, but proceeded to slap the bug on the branch it was perched on. Several times. As if it was trying to knock the poor creature senseless before devouring its crunchy snack. When it was done, I started to walk towards the paved trail when a movement amongst the grass startled me. I looked down, and about two feet away, a thin black snake slithered across my path. I was too stunned to do anything, and in retrospect I was glad I didn't make any sudden movements. Excitedly, I fished around for my camera, but when I finally got it out of my bag, the snake was gone. I made a mental note to stick to the trail from now on.

At some point on my ride, I silently wished that I would come across a raptor. Having volunteered at the Raptor Center in North Carolina, I grew very fond of these magnificent birds of prey. I had decided that the best way to make me voluntarily read up on these birds was to become a docent. It provided some external motivation, and a compelling one at that, to learn more about birds. Otherwise, I can be very lazy.

Ten minutes later, as I was approaching the Lor Halus Bridge, I saw two shadows in the sky. Too mighty to be anything but a stork, egret, or perhaps a raptor? My heart skipped a beat. I pedaled faster towards the bridge and parked my bicycle against some benches. Reaching for my binoculars, I tried to ID  the birds with my eyes. Gliding in the air, powerful wing beats, skimming the waters in search of food. For fish? Looking through my binoculars, a more powerful set of eyes - a white bald head, chestnut wings that glowed bright rufous red against the sunlight, black wing tips. Sea eagles? What kind? I scribbled frantically into my notebook. I later found out those were a pair of Brahminy Kites, only one of the most common raptors found in Singapore, snorted a birder in derision. Well, common for you maybe, it goes on my life list, thank you very much.

When I was done feasting my eyes on those kites, I turned my gaze towards the calm peaceful waters. A little head broke through the glassy surface. I blinked. What did I just see? I scanned the surface, this time with my binoculars and saw not one, but two otters. Excitedly, I looked around and saw a couple of people on the edge of the waters a little further ahead. I was so excited I wanted to call out to them to come look at the otters. Was I glad I didn't. I pushed my bike and walked in their direction, preparing to ride away when I saw what they were looking at. About five feet away, in the waters, was an otter feeding on a fish. Calmly and nonchalantly chewing away, as the onlookers excitedly took pictures and videos with their cameras and phones and other devices. This was wayyyy more interesting than my sighting of otter heads above water. Like the Brahminy kites, these otters are regular visitors. I felt like such a noob.

Multiple house swallows, white breasted waterhens and pipits later, I decided I was done for the day. Even though the trails were well paved, there were parts where I had to pedal upslope and across bridges. Okay. So the slopes were gentle, but unforgiving on my knees. I half wished I had rented those mountain bikes with better suspension and fancy gears. I was at the halfway point on the route, but I had already been out for two and a half hours. There was a convenient option of cutting through the loop via the Punggol Waterway. Nothing to see along this route, just plenty of construction and noise. Lots and lots of new residential buildings are going up. Good for the ever exploding population. 5.5 million and growing.

Bird list for today: Collared kingfisher; yellow vented bulbul; black-naped oriole; zebra dove; Sunda woodpecker; long tailed shrike; grey heron; house swallow; paddyfield pipit; white throated kingfisher; Brahminy kite; white breasted waterhen; common Iora; pied fantail; hawk cuckoo (not sure which kind); oriental magpie robin; common mynah; brown throated sunbird.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Singapore - Birding at the Lower Peirce Reservoir Park

Last night, I was looking through the National Parks website and decided I wanted to hike a trail in the morning. I picked a quick 45min easy trail that looped around the Lower Peirce Reservoir because the description said that I would be able to spot some native birds. I haven't really gone bird watching since I came back, so this would be a good opportunity as I had nothing on my agenda today. Zero. Amazing.

The weather in the morning was beautiful. Clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight. I took my time to have breakfast and Face Timed my in laws for an hour. When I decided to finally set off, the sky looked a little iffy. Newsflash! My weather app projected a 90% chance of rain. That didn't deter me. By my strange and stubborn logic, I thought I could perhaps outrun the clouds, get to the trail and finish hiking and birdwatching before the heavens opened.

I know what you're thinking. Uh-oh. This story does not have a good ending.

As the bus neared my destination, I could see dark ominous clouds lurking over the exact spot where I was going to hike. I muttered a silent prayer for the clouds to hold up, even just for an hour. I wasn't going to be greedy, just one hour please. The sun was still shining, even though I felt tiny droplets at random moments. I looked at my still-pretty-darn-new pair of walking shoes. Damn, they're about to get real muddy.

Still, i plodded on.

If there weren't enough warnings, a sign at the trailhead read : Do not enter in the event of stormy weather. Sailed right past it.

I was relieved to find that the trail was a boardwalk the entire way (I love you Singapore, and your no nonsense efficiency. I applaud you for your foresight). Muddy shoes, a thing of the past. The towering trees also covered much of the skies, so the rain suddenly became a distant memory. Very soon, I was straining all my senses in hopes of finding myself a new bird for the life list. Nada. I saw a monitor lizard, and a skink. And just a couple of other hikers. I could hear them little birdies chirping away, but identifying them by song is the least of my capabilities. I remembered reading on the website that the trail takes you to an open area to the quarry lake, where the birds are most likely found, so I doubled my pace to look for water.

There are many things an avid birder would avoid. One, dressing in bright colors, because let's face it, they don't call it the bird's eye view for naught. Two, making too much noise. The ultimate birder's nightmare was about to happen to me. I had reached the part of the trail that edges the quarry lake, and walked past an old man, who was doing some gentle stretches, minding his own business (as was I). To my horror, he started swinging his arms back and forth, clapping when his hands met. Now, I am all too familiar with this clapping shenanigan that the local older folks call "exercise". Here was one prime example, just doing it at the worst spot! In an effort to get away from all that ruckus, I quickened my pace so the birds won't flee from me into oblivion. Reaching a bend in the trail, I heaved a sigh of relief as I thought I had put some distance between us. I raised my binoculars to search for my little birdies when the sounds of  clapping traveled to my ears. Very faint at first, but approaching. Definitely advancing. Cursing under my breath, I picked up my pace and moved quickly along the trail.

It had to be a blessing in disguise. Because I wandered to the end of the trail and into the reservoir park proper. There was a little pavilion at the end of a cobbled path that led to nowhere. I decided to take a break from walking, and also seek shelter from the bigger drops of rain that were now falling. Right next to the shelter were two huge flowering trees. One was the beautiful flame-of-the-forest, but I had no idea what the other was called. It had pretty clumps of orange flowers that looked like the ixora, but I didn't think the ixora grew on trees. This was my big birding break. I could hear a symphony of chirping, I just couldn't see the birds. For now.

I spent the next two hours sitting on the bench, propping my elbows up on my knees. Birding can be a tiring affair, as I have come to remember. Holding the binoculars up for an extended period of time causes the arms to burn. Really bad. And then you start to tremble, which is not good at all for looking through the binoculars. You need really steady hands. And then there is the disconnect between spotting a movement with your eyes, then raising the binoculars and trying to look for that same spot. I was only getting the hang of it by the end of the two hours. And then comes the challenge of trying to catch a glimpse of unfamiliar birds. If only they would stay put long enough for me to note their features for identification later on! As if teasing, these birds flit in and out of the trees, behind leaves or in the glare of the sun so you don't really think you'd seen what you saw. But patience always pays off. If you follow a bird long enough, sooner or later you'll get a good look, and bam! Field notes taken, image committed to memory. New bird for life list. Mission accomplished!

My two hours of hard work yielded sightings of a purple-throated sunbird - a beautiful bird the size of a hummingbird with a iridescent turquoise crown and bright red belly, and of course, its shiny purple throat. I also saw a common flameback. - a magnificent woodpecker in flight, with yellow wings with a bright red crest on its head. A common tailorbird that drove me nuts for the first hour as I could only hear it's incessant chuk-chuk-chuk, but could never spot it. When I'd finally seen it, you could only imagine the amount of satisfaction and relief flowing through my veins. Adding to my list are four female pink necked green pigeons, a crimson sunbird, a yellow vented bulbul, a black naped oriole, two barn swallows and a thousand mynas. Oh and three macaques.

The rain never did fall. I must have been in the area with 10% chance of precipitation.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Singapore - Singapore Zoological Gardens

I returned to one of my favorite spots in Singapore - the Singapore Zoo. The last time I was here was in July of 2010, when Justin and I celebrated our union, riding into the celebrations atop an elephant. When I was in school I had volunteered at the zoo for a short stint and was assigned to the elephants. That was when I fell in love with these gentle giants. They became my favorite animals and my dream job is to someday be able to care for them.

Today I visited my old haunt with one of my best friends, Elisa and her 6 month old baby girl Noms. We decided to start the day off with the Jungle Breakfast with Wildlife, where you get to dine alongside the Orangutans and take photos with them. About seven or eight Orangutans joined us for breakfast this morning, munching on leaves and sunflower seeds. Despite my experiences with the monkeys on Sisters' Island, I love these creatures. Watching the mother orangutan carry two young ones on her back, feeding and caring for them, it's such a sight to behold.

We managed to watch several shows including my favorite Elephants at Work and Play, walk around the zoo to see all the animals and catching them at feeding times. I thought it strange that the zoo was much smaller than I remember it to be, but everything probably seemed bigger when you were a kid. Still, there was a lot of walking, although we didn't mind. It was a beautiful day and the zoo was like a mini rainforest, paved with walking trails. There was plenty of shade from the towering trees and the occasional gentle breeze provided some respite from the island's unrelenting humidity. And Noms has been such a trooper even though we stayed all day from half past 8 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon!

There are too many different enclosures to choose from to call my favorite, but I do love the Primate Kingdom - the monkey enclosures, and walking through the Fragile Forest - you walk through a covered enclosure without any barriers between you and the creatures of the simulated rainforest. I also fed the giraffe and the elephants (naturally), carried a ball python, and came nose to nose with a fruit bat. The mandrill and its rainbow bottom tickled us, the chimps' resourcefulness commanded our respect and the scuttling rhino iguana gave us the heebie jeebies. I never cease to be amazed by Mother Nature's creations and how they evolve and adapt to this world we call home. I just feel sad that these creatures at the zoo had to give up their freedom in order to educate us humans, the greater and yet, lesser creatures, in the lesson of living in simplicity, harmony and contentment.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Singapore - Sisters' Island

This was a weekend of firsts. I spontaneously agreed to go camping with a group of people I did not know, save one or two. Which required me to change my other weekend plans around. Not difficult, but the old me would've just denied the invitation because of previous set plans. It was also my first visit to the Sisters Island, about a 40 minute boat ride away, off the coast of Singapore.

When we got to the island, we had a meeting so that everyone was on the same page. Actually, I was the only new kid on the block, everyone else had camped out on this island at least once or twice before. So this meeting was mainly for my benefit.

Mostly to discuss our plan of action against the audacious monkeys that live on the island. Nothing we did could put the fear of God in them. They attack in waves, they had strategies, and most of all, they could predict our ever predictable human behavior. Even as we first walked in from the pier to our campsite, the monkeys were sizing us (and our bags) up, plotting and scheming in their monkey minds how to raid and loot our rations. I felt like it was a scene out of Planet of the Apes as I walked past them. The plan was to have at least one person watch the food at all times. Even so, within the first twenty minutes of our arrival, the monkeys sneaked up on us and managed to take off with our precious bag of marshmallows. When that happened, it was all out war. No more sympathies for our very remotely distant relatives.

Second thing to consider - we had to set up our shelters for the night. Some were going to sleep in tents and the rest of us in hammocks. I was pretty useless with knot tying, so I looked on while everyone else got busy setting up the accommodations for the night. I wish I could say this was also a first for me, setting up hammocks, but alas I had to rely on my seasoned camper friends. Because it was such a last minute decision, I had no appropriate camping gear. My friend Tian generously loaned me a hammock. Yes, sleeping under the unpredictable open skies - also a first. Luckily, the skies were clear that night, and there was also a cool sea breeze that kept us in comfort all night.

We also had to collect firewood for the campfire. Fortunately for us, the local authorities have plans to turn this beautiful island into yet another touristy marine park (whatever that means, though it can't be good). So they've been clearing a lot of trees (stupid, why can't they leave anything well alone) and left a decent supply of firewood at our disposal. Very soon, we had a magnificent fire going, that would also last throughout the night.

A couple of the girls decided to show me around the island, and so we took a quick tour of the circumference, which only took less than twenty minutes to complete. It was a really small island. And quiet, which I appreciated. There was no one else, save the monkeys, and a pair of brothers who were also staying the night. They had kayaked from a beach on the mainland to Sisters' Island to fish and snorkel. The brothers became an integral part of our team, fighting the monkeys, guarding all our belongings.

During our free time, when we're not busy with camp "duties" or rendered useless in a food coma, we played with the toys my friends brought. My friends are poi performers, poi being a style of performance which involves the swinging of tethered weights in rhythmical and geometrical patterns. My talented friends swung poi lit on fire, but I was pretty happy using their practice tennis balls and LED staffs. I certainly do not have a death wish. It was difficult trying to coordinate the more complicated moves like the two or three ball weaves, but after a while of practicing, I got the hang of it. The trick is not to think too hard, or break down the technicalities totally, but to move with the flow. There is, I think, a natural body instinct or rhythm. Well, or maybe I am just a natural. Lol. I'm totally getting a set for myself to while away my free time when I get to California.

The food was just another amazing part of the weekend. We had Toby and Sophia's couscous salad, chia seed pudding, some grilled veggies topped with different types of cheese (absolutely divine), Barry's signature bamboo chicken, Greta's hummus and baba ghanoush and home baked chocolate cake. I really couldn't say we were roughing it out. In the morning, we had omelettes and maggi goreng (local instant noodles) for breakfast. And Guy's brewed-from-scratch chai tea!! What?? These guys are camping pros I tell you. I was suitably impressed. No wonder the monkeys hung around as much as they did. They knew these were no ordinary campers.

It was amazing to sleep under the stars. We hung light sticks on trees for fear it would get too dark, but the half moon shone so brightly we could've done without. I watched the moon set as I tried to fall asleep, wondering why justin and I missed out on camping opportunities the whole time we were in North Carolina. He had gone once or twice with his dad and his friends; we talked about taking the dogs with us, but we never did.

I was the first to wake. I wanted to watch the sunrise, do some morning yoga and meditation. Just as I laid my mat on the ground, I heard some cackling, turned around and saw about four or five monkeys invading our food station. We had covered and tied up the food with a ground sheet the night before, but one of the monkeys managed to reach under and had grabbed a tray of eggs. He broke two before I chased him away with a stick. This woke a couple of the guys and so they stayed on guard while I resumed my morning routine.

We did some acroyoga (another first!), swam in the sea, ate and drank some more before packing up our stuff. It was 5:30 in the evening when the boat arrived to pick us up. I had spent the entire weekend with no access to electricity or internet connection and I didn't even miss it. I think I just might survive off the grid in my upcoming Cali trip.

So grateful for this weekend, for friends new and old, for new experiences and for living life.