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Friday, 20 June 2014

SINGAPORE SLING



Apart from the one occasion when Fay had stopped over for a day [returning from the UK with or son, Adam] we have only ever been transit passengers in Singapore.  It seems that no matter with which actual airline we travel, and in the past quarter century at least we have travelled with a number of different airlines [e.g. British Airways in the early days, QANTAS, Singapore Airways itself and more recently with Etihad] we always pass though Singapore – in transit.

In planning for the May 2014 trip to the UK we decided to consciously break the habit of a lifetime and take a stopover in Singapore.  We had intended to make it a two-night sojourn but Kim Seng’s commitment to birding in China saw us remain an additional night; that gave us three almost entire days and three nights.

We had learnt our lesson back in May 1997 when we did Hong Kong over four days without a local guide to help us through the birding maze; contrary to popular belief, not everyone in Hong Kong speaks English.  Our best piece of birding came as we neared the end of a park and ran across one of the park rangers, obviously a keen birder but with only a poor smattering of English.  In the few minutes we spent with him, he was able to put us onto gems such as Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus and Hainan Blue Flycatcher Cyornis hainanus.

Never again would we bird alone in an area where English is not the lingua franca and on the occasion of planning for Singapore we recalled the lessons of Hong Kong and browsed the Internet for local birding guides.  They abound but in the end we settled on Kim Seng.

Our arrival was rather less than auspicious and cost us continuity in the Bird-a-Day challenge [see previous blog].  It had been a long, tiring flight and at midnight it was too dark to bird effectively.  We staggered into our room, made ourselves the obligatory cup of tea and slept.


Sunday 01 June proved the point.  This had been our original date of choice in which to be guided around Singapore by Kim Seng but his prior commitment to China had forced us to fend for ourselves.  Not that we hadn’t done any homework to cover this contingency; we had the Botanical Gardens to explore. 



We did reasonably well on our own, even if the Asian Palm Swifts Cypsiurus balasiensis turned out to be the Edible-nest Swiftlets Aerodramus fuciphagus [ a Lifer] and, worse still, those Common Mynas Acridotheres tristis transmogriphied themselves into Javan [or White-vented] Mynas Acridotheres javanicus [another Lifer!].   Admittedly the Black Swan Cygnus atratus had us pondering awhile.  According to Kim Seng, like its counterpart, the Mute Swan Cygnus olor, introduced onto the nearby appropriately named Swan Lake, the Black Swan was purely an ornamental introduction into Singapore.  On the other hand, a passing resident assured us that the Black Swan had a nest with cygnets just beyond the grassy point.  If the swans are reproducing then surely they must at least be on the cusp of becoming a viable population and almost “tickable”. 
We decided against the tick.
 
However, our solo results paled into insignificance compared to the following day when we entrusted ourselves into the very capable hands of Kim Seng.  It reinforced the lessons of Hong Kong; a bird guide in hand is worth a plethora of solo birding attempts armed with only a fieldguide,  when you don’t speak the language and are not familiar with the local avian populations.

Kim Seng had an extensive itinerary set out for us:
0530                       Pick up from hotel
0600-1000            Central Catchment Nature Reserve forests
1015-1045            Breakfast [at local Indian-style café]
1100-1230            Bukit Batok Nature Park
1330-1415            Lunch [in Changi Village]
1430-1630            Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve [Singapore’s only wetland reserve]
1645-1800            Birding in Kranji Marsh
1830                       Back at hotel
Kim was a little late arriving which had Fay and I clock-watching and trying to plan a contingency plan should he not show.  We were standing by the hotel’s main entrance when he finally arrived so we promptly grabbed our bags and climbed aboard.  It was as we pulled up at the Central Catchment Nature Reserve carpark that I first realized that I had left my camera [the SONY A55 with a 70-300mm telephoto lens attachment] back at the hotel – on the lounge room table!
It took a moment to appreciate that it was perhaps already too late to ask Kim Seng to return to the hotel; the camera would be gone, along with dozens of undeveloped digital images.  Panic seemed to be the most immediate and appropriate response to the realization but I chose to emulate Zeno of Citium.  It was gone; I was on the threshold of a new birding adventure and I still had my pocket-sized SONY “Cybershot”, a handy little camera that had helped me out on a number of previous occasions.
After the second shot the battery petered out.
 
It was a long, gruelling day of birding which saw us racing around the Singapore countryside and at the end of which we had tallied 59 species; 30 were Lifers- once we realized that the Zebra Dove Geopelia striata had almost sneaked in under the radar as the Peaceful Dove Geopelia placida.  There were a further four that Kim Seng called: Asian Fairy Bluebird Irena puella; Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus; Lineated [or Grey-headed] Barbet Megalaima lineata and Rusty-chested Cuckoo Cacomantis sepulcralis but as they were all “heard only” birds, Fay and I have not included them on our joint LIFE LIST.  It is a self-imposed regulation we adhere to that a Lifer has to be seen to be included.  The Southern Boobook Ninox novaeseelandiae serves to illustrate the rule; first recorded as a “heard only” in December 1990, it was not added to our IFE LIST until eventually seen in March 1991. 
We have no qualms in adding any subsequent “heard only” records, as in the case of the Coppersmith Barbet Megalaima haemacephala , first seen in Goa on 26 November 2012 but “heard only” in Singapore on 2 June 2014.
At the outset, Kim Seng had advised us that a number of Singaporean birds would overlap with some of our Hong Kong [1997] and Goa [2012] species.  The Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis was an obvious double-up on Hong Kong, although back in 1997 we had only seen the bird skulking on the edge of extensive reedbeds at Mai Po whereas in Singapore the bird was no more than a metre or so from us, dabbling in a drain overflow.  The Chestnut Munia Lonchura atricapilla was another Hong Kong overlap.
The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo Dicrurus paradiseus was an overlap originally recorded in Goa.  Both the White-throated Halcyon smyrnensis and Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis were initially seen in Goa. 
A handful of Singaporean birds had previously been recorded in both Hong Kong and Goa: Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopa; Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius and the Oriental Magpie-Robin  Copsychus saularis while the Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri shares its billing with the UK, Goa and Singapore.
On the other hand, Kim Seng’s Zebra Dove turned out to be our own Peaceful Dove the Common Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica, Oriental Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis, Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris and Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus [considered a pest in Singapore] were originally recorded here in Australia.
On Tuesday 3 June I awoke to a touch of “Delhi belly” which effectively put all further birding at an end.  All that remained was to wait out the day until our shuttle service picked us up at 2000 hours for the return to Changi Airport- never straying too far from the nearest amenities block.  It would naturally have been exciting to report that while we sat in the hotel lounge, sipping endless cups of tea, a passing Himalayan Griffon Vulture Gyps himalayensis glided smoothly along Victoria Road. 
Only in our wildest fantasies.  The Javan Myna alone put in numerous appearances.
We boarded our scheduled flight, settled back in our seats, fastened our seatbelts and listened to the soft purr of the aircraft motors.  A moment later the captain asked us all to disembark as they were having slight problems with one of the engines.  We disembarked. 
Two hours further down the track we re-embarked, perhaps a little more  ingerly than we had originally embarked.
 
 

 
 
 

 

 
 

 

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

LOST DAY; END OF CHALLENGE





LOST DAY; END OF CHALLENGE



We’ve been back in Australia a week so its high time I put other chores aside to catch up on the blog, especially putting in at least a few concluding remarks about our sojourn to Scotland, Staffordshire and Singapore.

It is a totally absurd notion with absolutely no scientific merit to recommend it whatsoever, although perhaps a behavioural psychologist could use the data as part of a PhD dissertation into the metal make-up of birders – and even then it would be only a small subsection of the overall birding fraternity.  The brainchild of Florida birder Trey Mitchell, the idea behind the BIRD-A-DAY challenge was to see which of the participants could record a different avian species on each consecutive day.

In 2013 only four birders, all Americans, achieved the ultimate tally of 365 species.  Brennan Mulrooney of California had also completed the 366 needed for the 2012 leap year.  The highest placed Australian 2013 contestant, Alan Gillanders of Queensland, had tallied 352 consecutive days.  John Kooistra [another Queenslander] ended his 2013 challenge on 294 different birds while Stephen Murray [yet another top-ranking Queenslander] edged in with 254 species [a vast improvement on his solitary Torresian Crow Corvus orru of 2012].  On the other hand, Stephen was the only Australian entrant in 2012 which makes him the longest running Aussie BIRD-A-DAY competitor.

Having read a post advertising the 2014 BIRD-A-DAY challenge, Fay and I decided it might be something of a laugh to participate – a minor project in our first year of retirement. 
 
 

We even managed to plot out a basic strategy to guide us through the challenge by creating four bird categories:  Category 1, all those birds regularly seen in our own backyard; Category 2, all those species regularly seen in nearby locations [e.g.  Tarong National Park]; Category 3 covered those birds uncommon [e.g. Glassy Black-Cockatoo Calyptorhynchus lathami, added on 5 February] to rare [e.g. Franklin’s Gull Leucophaeus pipixcan on 29 January] in the immediate vicinity and birds in the rest of Australia while Category 4 was reserved for overseas species- we were, after all, about to embark on a jaunt to Scotland, Staffordshire and Singapore.

 

The crux of the plan was to avoid birds from Categories 1 and 2 for as long as possible – to be used only in dire emergencies.  Whenever and wherever possible, only Category 3 species were to be used until the end of April whereupon, by then being in the United Kingdom and later Singapore, Category 4 would come into play.  Post-holiday would be a time for reappraisals.


All went swimmingly through to 30 April.  We opened our challenge account with the Black-breasted Button-quail Turnix melanogaster and ended April with the totally unexpected Cockatiel Nymphicus hollandicus; .
The Category 4 [holiday] tally also started with a rather spectacular bang, the Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus at the RSPB’s Martin Mere reserve in Lancashire.  It was not only a superb way to open our UK account, it was a personal Lifer for both of us!
On 5 May we finally caught up with our 2010 nemesis, the Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos – the raison d’étre for us being on the Isle of Mull.  Lifer No. 2.
The following day it was the Corncrake Crex crex on Iona [of significant monastic history] and on 7 May, the White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla [which Fay and I had first seen back in 1997 during our sojourn to Poland].  We ended the Isle of Mull trip with crippling views of the Great Northern Diver Gavia immer which our American birding cousins insist on calling by the absolutely absurd name of Common Loon.
 
Staffordshire was as equally fruitful; all we had to do was to avoid using House Sparrow Passer domesticus and Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris – both readily available as Category 2 birds back in Australia.
As with all vacations and birding trips, the last day, 30 May, arrived.  It was time to part from family and friends and head back to Manchester Airport for the next leg of our journey, Singapore. 
 


Our last British BIRD-A-DAY was the
Common Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus.  Back in the mid-1970s, when Fay and I left Staffordshire to take up residence in Queensland, Australia, this humble bird was not considered to be an urban dweller, more a creature of the woodlands; of Cannock Chase where Fay and I did much of our teenage courting.  On our return in 2010 the Wood Pigeon appeared to have moved into the towns and during May 2014 it was as common, if indeed not more abundant, than the quintessential English garden bird, the European Robin Erithacus rubecula.
 
It had already been pointed out to us that BIRD-A-DAY could prove problematic for any participant crossing international time zones on any specific day.  There had been no difficulties on the outward leg; we left Brisbane on 30 April and arrived at Manchester Airport mid-morning on 01 May, an entire day in which to pick up the threads of our challenge.
The return journey was somewhat different.  On paper, scheduling clearly provided us with two, albeit small, windows of opportunity for our 31 May entry in BIRD-A-DAY.
We left Manchester on schedule at 2105 hours [9.05pm for the 24-hour clock challenged] with an Abu Dhabi ETA of 0720 hours on Saturday 31 May.    Piece of cake!  An entire day to pick up a Middle Eastern species.
Not quite. 
As transit passengers we never left the precincts of Abu Dhabi airport; indeed there was quite a hike from the arrival gate to the next departure gate and the Arab designers here obviously pride themselves on the near subterranean nature of their airport – not a window in sight to spot even a humble Laughing Dove Spilopelia senegalensis, one of the more common birds of the United Arab Emirates.
There then followed the inevitable delay; a connecting flight was behind schedule or someone had lost/misplaced their passport.  Time – and more importantly daylight- was passing away.  That first window of opportunity was narrowing.
It was while we were being bussed from the departure gate to the awaiting aircraft that we had the briefest glimpse of a solitary bird on the ground; a Common Myna Acridotheres tristis, the “flying cane toad”?  Alas, it was of no use as we’d already entered this species as a BIRD-A-DAY [7 February].
We departed the United Arab Emirates without an entry for Saturday 31 May.
While leaving matters a mite tight we knew that Singapore still offered the narrowest gap, a mere chink in the growing despair.  We were scheduled to arrive at Changi Airport at 2235 hours [10.35pm]; late but perhaps still light enough to pick up the avian cockroach of the Far East, the Javan Myna [aka the White-vented Myna, occasionally, Buffalo Myna] Acridotheres javanicus.
Another, never explained, delay put us over an hour behind schedule.  An arrival time of 2330, or thereabouts, would leave us with a mere 30 minutes in which to record an entry for Saturday 31 May.  Things were not looking too bright.
Remaining glued to the flight details console it soon became apparent that the pilot was gaining a little on that lost time.  Three minutes made up.  Four minutes made up.  Another minute lost.  Four minute made up.  And so on.
We eventually arrive at around 2320 hours and thankful our shuttle pick-up was already there, had been since 2230 hours.  We raced across downtown Singapore arriving at the Grand Pacific Hotel at about 2350 hours.  Ten minutes in which to spot tha we had registered the clock ticked over to midnight and beyond; it was Sunday 01 June.  We had dipped; our BIRD-A-DAY challenge was over.
 
POST MORTEM
Yes, it had been a laugh trying to record a different species on each consecutive day and certainly, during the first few months of the year, it had forced us out and about in search of Category 3 birds.  However, therein also lay its major downfall.  Even with both of us now retired, spending so much time in the pursuit of birds was beginning to tell.  The problem was that the best time for birding in Queensland coincides with the best time in Queensland for accomplishing outdoor work – and given almost 12 years of neglect there still remains an awful lot of repairs, renovations and unfulfilled projects on hand.
Will we participate in 2015?  Probably not; there are other more pressing and more scientifically-based projects on the slate.
 
 

 
 
 
 
 

 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Farewell to Sffordshire

Time is running out.  I had intended writing quite a comprehensive blog reflecting on our stay both in Scotland [soon to become an independent country?] and Staffordshire.  Matters have not panned out as well as hoped; I struggled to keep up while in Scotland and Staffordshire and I remain behind the eight-ball now at the tail end of the entire trip.

Kith and kin intervened on more occasions that we has suspected, all the more so during the last week of the Staffordshire stay, the second leg of the "Triple Ess" [Scotland, Staffordshire and Singapore] trip.

With family and friends in the background, Staffordshire was never going to be too fruitful in birding terms and could be viewed by the number of species not actually seen rather than the ones ticked off.  That would be negative; blood is thicker than a bird in the bins.

Scotland had provided more birding and the cementing of a developing friendship.  Keith and Jenny had been forced to pull out of the Isle of Mull trip but we caught up with them later at their Shropshire [the fourth ess] home.  Les and Sandy had stepped into the void and, at least on our part, Fay and I enjoyed their company tremendously.  I like to think that we had introduced them to birding with that Tawny Frogmouth behind the Redcliffe Golf Club; they have since become their own birders with a comprehensive knowledge of British birds. There is no doubt that without them our final tally would have been a mere shadow of what it currently stands at.

Rain during the final days didn't help but then for those with experience of the Melbourne climate, a few showers throughout the day is nothing worthy of note.

Farewell Scotland, farewell Stafforshire.  I doubt we'll be seeing each other again.