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.

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