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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Attack on the Black-shouldered Kite’s nest

Attack on the Black-shouldered Kite’s nest

Meng and Melinda Chan, together with two other photographers, were out around the Lim Chu Kang cemetery area on the morning of 6th March 2005 to document the arrival of the male Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus caeruleus) bringing food to the female who was usually sitting in the nest incubating her eggs. The large nest of twigs sat firmly lodged between the end branches of a tall tree, totally exposed all around.

What they witnessed was a sad spectacle. The presumably female bird was perched on a branch near her nest, calling loudly.

This was unusual, as she was always in the nest, guarding her eggs from the constant threat posed by the many House Crows (Corvus splendens) that were around.

The bird then flew to a further branch to join its newly arrived mate. They remained there, not returning to the nest. This was again strange, as they seldom, if ever, left the nest and its contents unguarded. Were the birds stressed in any way? They must have been!

As Melinda described it later, “Our hearts sank when we watched helplessly what was unfolding in front of us.” A gang of four House Crows suddenly appeared. As there were no adult kites around, the crows launched a concerted attach. In Meng’s words, “The crows came in waves, like Japanese kamikazi pilots flying their planes in a series of attacks.”

The crows swarmed over the nest, screaming loudly. They zoomed in one by one to fly off with the contents, including a fully formed embryo and egg shells.

Meng and Melinda then realised that the adult kite they saw earlier, crying out loudly, was in fact crying in sorrow, knowing that the eggs would not complete their cycle and they would not see any nestlings.

Not too long later, when Ming and Melinda returned to the scene, they found the abandoned nest collapsed. But eight months later (November 2005), they found a pair, possibly the same pair, nesting again at the same location, but on a different tree. The crows were a constant threat and the kites had to fight them off all the time. As it was the rainy season then, they did not have much chance to monitor the nesting. The very last time they saw the nest, it was abandoned and was in a bad condition, probably another failed attempt at nesting.

Our bird specialist, R. Subaraj has this to say: These are fantastic dramatic shots that show clear proof of the threat the introduced House Crows pose on native birds. A flock of crows is quite capable of driving a kite off it's nest to raid it. From one of the image, you can see that the Black-shouldered Kite is actually quite a small raptor compared to the corvid. As our grasslands shrink and the crow population increases, it becomes more and more difficult for the Black-winged Kites to successfully raise a brood. This in turn is a serious threat to the species in the long run.

Note: A detailed account of these kites and their antics when the parent birds arrive with food is given elsewhere by Hilary Hoe.

Text and images by Meng and Melinda Chan.


Friday, April 28, 2006

White-throated Kingfisher and the lizard

White-throated Kingfisher and the lizard

On 2nd April 2006, Johnny Wee was at Venus Drive when he spotted a White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) perching on a branch of a nearby tree. Apparently it was intensely eying a lizard on the ground nearby.

Johnny continued: "Its head feathers were fluffed erect and the pupils of its eyes were dilated to the maximum such that the eyes appeared white. Then suddenly the bird launched towards its prey. I was not able to see exactly what happened as my vision was blocked by the grass around. The bird then picked the dead lizard and returned to a nearby perch.

"The lizard was most possibly dead when the bird brought it back to the nearby perch. After all, its body was clearly pierced through by the bird’s beak as a result of the initial attack. The bird then flew off with the lizard between its beak."

This kingfisher is a typical sit-and-wait predator spending long periods perched on a branch high above ground. While surveying the surrounding for prey, its head may be bobbing or its tail wagging. Once a potential prey is spotted, the bird swoops down to the ground, landing feet first, seizes the animal and return to the same perch or a nearby perch.

Text and image by Johnny Wee.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An encounter with a Lesser Coucal along the ECP

An encounter with a Lesser Coucal along the ECP

"I was just looking at the information regarding the Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis) from Ria Tan's webpage. This is one bird that I have not seen in a long time.

"When I first moved to Loyang in 1987, it's distinctive three-note call was what haunted me. It was a sound that I used to hear as a kid in my grandma's place that came from the sprawling field of lallang grass (Imperata cylindrica) beyond the boundary of our large colonial bungalow. It was beyond my territory.

"Looking out from my bedroom window in Loyang Valley, a similar big expanse of lallang filled the landscape that was part of the old Selarang Camp. A few dead trees in the middle of the lallang and that was all there was. You can even hear the lallang blades swishing in the wind. It was here that I caught my first sight of the coucal. The final link of the haunting call to the bird was when I saw it call from the dead tree in the middle of the patch.

"I really liked the graceful way the bird flies – effortlessly, just above the lallang and then just dropping right into the thick of it and disappearing.

"Since then, whenever I hear that haunting three-note call, I would park myself at the window, scanning the lallang for a fleeting glimpse of the coucal.

"After they cleared the lallang and rebuilt the camp, I heard the call no more.

"Years passed. In 1999 I was on a cab from Changi Airport on the East Coast Parkway heading towards town. Just as we reached the point where Tanah Merah Golf Club and Laguna Golf Club border the ECP, I saw a bird attempting to fly across the expressway heading for Tanah Merah's side of the ECP. The distinctive gracefulness of the flight was unmistakable, as well as its tendency to stay low even in flight. That was its mistake.

"From the back seat of the cab, I was crossing my fingers. Its projected flight path took it right into the path of the taxi. I knew it was not going to make it. Anxious seconds passed. This was closest I had ever been to a coucal and yet I wished it was further away. The bird never knew what hit it. It hit the top right corner of the windscreen and as I turned back I wished it had hit harder. The poor bird was in its last throes of death right in the middle of the ECP. Its bright chestnut plumage that I so admired was a tangled mess flapping in the centre of the road. I wished its last moments had not been so drawn out.

"It was about that time that I had first thought of realising my lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. I sat in the taxi and thought that the bird's dramatic end was a sign for me to forget about becoming a pilot, that you are definitely not going to make it. If it was some pigeon or mynah, I might not have taken it seriously. And if it was a crow I probably would have gone straightaway to buy a lottery ticket. But the coucal, a bird that I so admired and have not seen in ages, was a different story."

Contributed by Jeremy Lee, image by Ashley Ng.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Attacks of the House Crows

Attacks of the House Crows

Following Si Guim's account of his encounter with House Crows (Corvus splendens) when he simply looked at the injured bird, Timothy Pwee had a similar but more serious experience:

"Saturday (22nd April) was Earth Day and I spent the afternoon helping the Singapore Environment Council's Waste to Wow! interschool competition. After the competition at around 6pm, I was headed down Victoria Street to the newly reopened National Museum of Singapore for a movie (Film Festival). That was when I got hit from the back! Now, I've been dive bombed by crows before, but this is the first time I'm been hit full force by one. Retreating to a safe distance, I tried to spot the nest (which I presumed the silly crows were defending) in the trees. It took me a while before I spotted a third crow in the bushes near the ground.

"Watching the crows, I realised they were attacking every other pedestrian. Especially loved the sight of a large tough-looking young man who got hit. He stood there for several minutes glaring at the crows. Several tourists exiting a nearby hotel got attacked too.

"I tried several times to grab the grounded crow which I suspect is a fledgling. However, I was driven back each time by the two guardian crows who would repeatedly attack my head and shoulders. Think I was hit about a dozen times. At least one of the strikes on my shoulders left a stinging cut though no blood was drawn. My shoulders have another three or four red lines that don't hurt. My scalp was a different story. There I have at least two cuts though I didn't realise it till much later when I found my hair had little scattered clots.

"Around nightfall, I made a final attempt at the bird with the help of a manager from the nearby hotel. While the manager fended off the attacks, I tried to grab the grounded crow with a tee-shirt. However, the bushes were too thick and I got tangled in the branches. The grounded crow promptly hopped out onto the road and immediately got rolled over - Ouch!

"Should I have left it alone? Well, its guardians were attacking passers-by initially - at least my attempts to catch the grounded crow made the crows concentrate their attacks on me, sparing the passing people. Also, after nightfall, I'm sure the grounded crow would have fallen prey to a sewer rat.

"Well, it's now destined to become a specimen so its death has some meaning at least."

Note:"I forgot to add that after the crow got run over, one of its guardians landed to check it for a moment before flying back into the trees. I then waited for the next break in the traffic to grab the corpse - and promptly got attacked again. On the other side of the road, I put the corpse into a plastic bag and walked back across the road, expecting to get attacked again. However, the other crows seemed to have lost interest once the corpse was bagged."

Text and images (left fledgling, right adult) by Timothy Pwee. You may wish to check Tim's link.

Comment by YC: This is an exciting account of sustained attacks by crows on passersby. I am sure Tim has the dubious honour of taking the most number of hits by these crows. Unlike Si Guim's experience, extremely mild, to say the least, these crows assumed that anyone and everyone who were around were potential enemy. No body language involved here. Thanks Tim for an exciting account. Must have been exciting for you too.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Crows and body language

Crows and body language

Goh Si Guim had a most interesting encounter recently with House Crows (Corvus splendens). While he was walking along Lorong 4 Toa Payoh, he noticed an injured crow hopping on the ground with one wing limp. Being a naturalist that he is, he turned his head to take a second look. The next moment he was startled by a loud squawk and a smack on his head. A diving crow succeeded in its mission of distracting him from its injured comrade. In the interim, the injured crow rejoined the others who were all screeching around it in a protective way.

Si Guim was relieved that there was no loss of his hair nor did the strike draw blood.

The interesting thing was that there were many other people around the injured bird, all not paying attention to it except Si Guim.

From this experience, Si Guim now believes that crows are very protective of their kind. He wonders whether these crows can read body language. Did they interpret his looking at the injured bird as a sign that he was going to do it harm? After all, they left the others alone, those people who simply ignored the injured bird.

His other experience was at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve where he was once pounced upon by a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradisus). But that did not end in a bull’s-eye.

Note: My experience with a House Crow’s attack was when I handled an Asian Koel’s (Eudynamys scolopacea) fledgling (left) that emerged from a pair of crows’ nest in my garden. The fledgling landed on the ground during its initial attempt at flight and I managed to catch it to take a close-up shot. It was then released but its loud screaming attracted about a dozen crows overhead, all screaming loudly, so much so that all the neighbours came out to investigate what was happening. My further attempt at photographing the fledgling while on the ground was thwarted when the crows dive-bombed me, one missing my head by centimeters. Wisely I retreated indoors and the fledgling went into hiding. The screaming crows eventually left the scene and peace prevailed. YC

Thanks, Si Guim for this most interesting account. Images by YC.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Excitement around the TV aerial

Excitement around the TV aerial

Television aerials are always mounted on the roof of houses or at the top of high-rise blocks for best reception. As such, they are found at the highest point of any location, whether a cluster of low-lying houses or a Housing Board estate.

Birds like to perch on any tall structure, whether the tallest tree around or the tallest man-made structure, in this case the TV aerial. Here, the birds get an excellent view of the surroundings, whether to just rest between flying from one point to another, to keep a look out for prey or just to group before going to roost. These aerials are favourites with mynas and starlings, grouping in the evening before flying to their roosting trees.

TV aerials are also useful points to look for birds. Just last month I was pleasantly surprised to see a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris convexus) perching on a TV aerial around my low-rise estate. These large birds regularly visit the gardens of houses to look for fruits and insects. On another occasion I was witness to a pair of Javan Mynas (Acridotheres javanicus) mobbing a Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) perching quietly on my neighbour’s TV aerial. The latter soon flew off.

In February, Hung Ban Tang reported seeing a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) perching on a TV aerial mounted on the roof of the 24-storey block of apartments next to his condomonium. A few moments later the falcon suddenly made a dive towards a small flock of rock pigeons that flew close by his bedroom window. Unfortunately the falcon missed its prey and made a big loop round to return back to its perch on the aerial.

Input by Hung Bun Tang and YC, images by YC (top, centre) and Tang (bottom).


Thursday, April 20, 2006

The House Crow and the bat

The House Crow and the bat

On 19th April 2006 we had a posting by Angie Ng about how a House Crow (Corvus splendens) attacked and surgically cut up a rat. Gloria Seow, a member of the Nature Society (Singapore), read the account and sent in her encounter of these crows with an unfortunate bat.

“I am a member of NSS and I've been following your blog closely. Very interesting read so far, good job!

“Anyhow, since the topic has turned to crows and their hunting instincts, I am compelled to relate an encounter that I had with them. I was cycling through a quiet street flanked by landed properties on both sides (in Singapore) when I spied a group of about 6 House Crows in the middle of the street, pecking furiously at something. I stopped my bike out of curiosity and as I walked over to see what the commotion was about, the crows flew off en masse, unveiling their victim - a small bat that looked next to dead.

“The crows were apparently pecking at the bat's throat, which was mangled and bloodied. There was nothing I could do to help the poor bat, which I believe had been systematically hunted by the crows. My theory is that it was probably napping in the mango tree (the incident happend at around 11am) when the crows decided that it was going to be their next meal.

“After snapping a few shots of the bat with my camera phone, I had to step aside for a passing car, and when I returned, the bat had apparently reared itself into a L-shaped 'sitting' position, when previously it was lying flat on the tarmac. It was probably reacting to the prospect of being crushed by the passing vehicle.

“I did not stay to watch the crows finish off the little bat, which I'm sure would have been what happened after I left.

“I'm not surprised that crows are hunters too, given their advantage of having a larger built than most other birds, their huge beaks and their sheer numbers. The explosion of the crow population in Singapore also points to the abundance of food sources, which I'm sure cannot be just due to the rubbish left lying around, after all, Singapore is supposed to be CLEAN and green.

Warmest regards, Gloria Seow”

Our bird specialais, R. Subaraj has this to say: The bat in the photos appears to be a Common Fruit Bat (or Lesser Short-nosed Fruit Bat), Cynopterus brachyotis. This is quite possibly our commonest local bat and is widespread in all habitats. They are often the colony found roosting under palm fronds or epiphytic ferns.

The crows are efficient hunters, though scavenging where ever possible is much easier. There are many accounts of crows attacking and killing a variety of animals, though more often than not, they would target the old, sick, weak or young.

The House Crow is the introduced species found commonly throughout most of Singapore, particularly around the more urbanised areas. It is largely a scavenger but is also a true opportunist. Often, when some birds like herons nest communally, the crows will take up residence nearby and steal eggs and chicks when the adults leave the nests unguarded. As a result, the large populations that exists in parts of Singapore pose a real threat to native bird populations. The fairly recent colonisation of Asian Koels (Eudynamys scolopacea) provides the first known biological control in Singapore for this feral species.

The native crow of Singapore is the Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos). This is a much larger species and is all black without the grey on the neck that the House Crow pocesses. It has an impressive bill and a prominent bump on the head. It is also different in call and flight. This species is usually in pairs (unlike the flocking of the House) except when roosting for the night. They are far less common and largely occur in the less urbanised areas including our forested nature reserves. While they are proficient scavengers too, they are also effective hunters. I remember seeing a pair of Large-billed Crows chased a fruit bat, that they had probably disturbed from roost, at Khatib Bongsu some years back. Recently, I have realised that they are not above trying new things too when I watched them trying to hawk flying termites!

Thanks to Gloria Seow for the post and Subaraj for the comment. Images by Gloria.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The House Crow and the rat

The House Crow and the rat

Angie Ng reports a most interesting encounter her husband had with a rat: "When I first noticed House Crows (Corvus splendens) in the Angsana tree (Pterocarpus indicus) outside my apartment window, they were sharpening their beaks on the branches and plucking the leaves. And I wondered why they were doing that! Then my husband related to me an incredible incident he witnessed some years ago in Redhill.

"He was about to cross the road to catch the train when he was stopped by a huge rat cutting across his path. Even before the rodent could reach the other side of the road, a House Crow suddenly appeared.

"It dive-landed on the rat’s back, pressing it down. When the startled rat turned its head to look up at what had pinned him down, the crow plunged its sharp bill right through into its eyes (and brain?). Deadly paralysing! Then it hopped aloft and as the rat rolled onto its back - or did the crow roll it over - the crow with legs apart, landed onto the rat’s belly. Again the sharp beak plunged in, and with a quick slicing motion, slit open the belly. Another plunge and its bloody beak pulled up and out some entrails!

"It flew off with the first beakful when passing traffic interrupted its meal but returned when the road was clear again.

"I wonder whether we could train our House Crows to clean up our streets and marketplaces of rats?"

R. Subaraj finds the account most interesting but added that crows are effective hunters when not scavenging.

Image of crow by Hung Bun Tang and of rat by YC.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Bee-eaters and pellet casting

Bee-eaters and pellet casting

Singapore has two species of bee-eater, Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) and Blue-throated Bee-eater (M. viridis). The former is a very common winter visitor while the latter is a common resident but a rather uncommon winter visitor. These birds, as their names imply, specialise on bees, often caught on the wing. They also eat other insects of the same hymenopteran group as well as other groups of insects. But they seldom eat ground insects.

The bird normally perches on a high vantage point where it can keep a keen lookout for flying insects. Once it spots an insect, it sallies forth, catching and bringing it back to its perch to be processed. This involves striking it against the branch to stun it and rubbing it against a hard surface to remove the sting and venom sac. Once the insect has been properly processed, it is tossed in the air and immediately swallowed.

Bee-eaters regularly regurgitate pellets containing the indigestible remains of the insects they eat. It has been reported that the fresh pellet is blackish and about 1-3 cm long.

In an earlier posting I mentioned witnessing a Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) regurgitating a pellet. Ardent birder, Cheong Weng Chun was quick to confirm, and so was Jianzhong Liu who sent an image of the bird in the act of pushing out a pellet from its mouth. By any account the image is awesome. I always find it interesting that photographers are the ones who notice and provide evidence of such details, not the normal birdwatchers. Why? Because photographers click, wait to click again and wait some more. And birders aim the binoculars, ID the bird and move away. The latter thus miss the most of the juicy aspects of bird watching. I have said before and I say it again. Birders should seriously think of becoming photographers...

In the meantime I have managed to obtain a series of images of the Blue-tailed Bee-eater caught in the act of casting a pellet. They are displayed here, courtesy of photographers Meng and Melinda Chan. Thank you both for agreeing to share with others your exciting series of images.

Meanwhile Jianzhong Liu has alerted me to a thread in a Taiwan forum on pellet casting by a shorebird.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Birds and glass windows - 2

Birds and glass windows - 2

Part 1 of "Birds and glass windows" gives the background to this interesting post. In Part 2 here, we continue the discussion from the rest of the interested birders on their personal encoounters.

Tian Soo has this to say: “Yesterday while reading your messages on birds and windows, a little Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) smashed right onto my window panel. It's neck was twisted and died half hour later. Are they that aggressive when driving other birds away or does it simply thought the reflection on the window was clear blue sky? Now I can hear the other birds calling 'CooCoo' CooCoo'”

Yap Kim Fatt responded: “Birds don't commit suicide unless driven by humans to do so. It is not uncommon for birds to fly into glass windows, either maim or kill themselves. It got misled by the transparent glass and tried to fly right through it. A long time ago, a water bird (don't know name - it had long legs, long slightly curved bill, feathers off-white with brownish spots) flew into my glass window one evening, possibly attracted by the bright light and broke a wing. I nursed it back to health & let it go its merry way.”

Replied Tian Soo: “I think in my case the room is dark so it sees the reflection of the sky and continue its journey. If it sees itself as another bird I don't think it will crash onto it at this force. Other birds peck at my window everyday. In KF’s case it cannot see the clear glass between the light and itself. I am curious. If they can make these mistakes, there should be lots of dead birds along Shenton Way and Raffles Place with all the tall buildings and glass windows.”

According to YC, birds apparently cannot recognise themselves in a mirror. So when a bird lands in front of a glass window with the background darkened, it sees its reflection. Thinking there is a rival in front of it, it batters against the window pane in an effort to dominate it. Come to think of it, Yellow-vented Bulbuls regularly peck on my bedroom windows.”

Ong Kiem Sian has this to say: “Usually when they fly into glass window it is because they cannot see it as a structure in front. I work in Raffles Place and often see the clouds/sky reflected on the big glass panels of the high-rise buildings. There were several cases of birds dying this way, hitting against building, becoming unconscious and died or somebody could rescue it if the injury was not too bad. I experienced years ago a cuckoo flying through my green chain link fence (not very high may be 5-6 feet high) and the bird got stuck, damaged its wings. Despite feeding and caring it finally died.

“When birds peck on windows or mirrors it is seeing its own image and not recognizing itself. Years ago when I walked home from work, an oriole used to fly to the side mirror of a car. It perched on it and looked at its own image and pecked the mirror. I never had time to go home and take my video. It happened several times and it always returned to the same car."

The final word comes from bird specialist R. Subaraj: "Pecking at windows is more of a territorial behaviour and many birds do it. As for collision on glass, especially one way mirror windows during the day when the light is coming from the outside, this is a matter of the bird mistaking the reflection of the open space as clear passage. Fast-flying birds are particularly prone and both the escaping prey or attacking predator can meet with a similar fate. Night-flying migrants are particularly vulnerable to all the city lights and glass buildings.....many must crash into buildings at Shenton Way and other places but our army of super-efficient cleaners probably sweep them away before we have a chance to encounter the carcasses. There are many records of stunned, injured or dead birds found at buildings, homes and many were migrants. Some migrants reported or handed in to the bird park include pittas, Black-backed Kingfisher and bitterns."

...and even the large Rhinoceros Hornbill (B. rhinoceros) is fascinated with its reflection.

We wish to thank Tian Soo, Yap Kim Fatt, Ong Kiem Sian and R Subaraj for their input. Images by YC.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Birds and glass windows - 1

Birds and glass windows - 1

On 27th February 2006, Philip Tatham wrote: “During the last three months, one, and now a pair of, Red-whiskered Bulbuls (Pycnonotus jocosus) visited our apartment block on Jalan Hang Jebat (off Portsdown Road) and spent hour upon hour, almost every day, pecking at our windows. There are six flats in the block and as far as I can tell, the bulbuls peck at all the windows of all the flats. At first we were very worried the birds were trying to get in so we had to switch off the ceiling fans but it seems the birds were only interested in their reflections and ignored the wide-open windows (unlike the mynas, who nest above the windows and perch on the window frames and windowsill all day long). Is this a territorial thing or a breeding matter? And are the Red-whiskered Bulbuls feral, escapees or lost?”

This posting attracted much attention from readers. Jeremy Lee reported seeing Yellow-vented Bulbuls (P. goiavier) attacking the side view mirror of a car. “Some years back a whole flight of starlings crashed into my window pane" he added. "It was a whole series of bangs that I had initially thought was thunder. When I saw the trail of saliva/blood on the window, I checked the flower pots outside the window and there were about eight birds lying on the ground. Only two were still alive and a bit dazed. The rest probably died on impact. Our windows are quite large and it is not difficult for the bird to mistake the reflected image for the real thing.

“The funny thing is that these birds get 'tunneled' when they are distracted. Especially for birds with their eyeballs on the side of the head (as in most non-predatory birds). In aviation terms...we call it CFIT...Controlled Flight Into Terrain. This is a situation when a perfectly flyable aircraft gets flown into the ground because the pilots are disorientated or distracted by some other issues in the cockpit.

“In a place like Shenton Way, the birds are probably out in the open and have a big view of what's ahead. So they are more able to distinguish the glass from the overall picture of the environment ahead. In an environment where greenery is closely meshed with man-made stuff like large windows, things can be quite different.

“Imagine a bird dashing through familiar territory and is suddenly chased by a raptor or some other silly bird cuts into their path and they take evasive action, and then suddenly lock onto a nearby reflection for a safe flight path, they may just make a mistake that will cost them their lives.”

Patricia Thong wrote: “It is perceivable that birds mistake the reflection of the blue sky on windows and fly straight into them. I have observed Collared Kingfishers (Todiramphus chloris) flying into my neighbours' windows on bright sunny days. Eventually, my neighbours had to place an "X" on their window using tape to prevent that.

“However, I have also observed an inexplicable behaviour by Collared Kingfishers that dived into the trunk of large trees at the MacRitchie Reservoir Park. Surely there is no confusion with reflection, whether of sky or self here. Has anyone else observed this behaviour or would like to suggest an explanation?”

[R Subaraj has this explanation: "As for the diving kingfishers at MacRitchie that crash into trees, I think that they are hunting for lizards or big bugs on the tree trunks and those that crash get it all wrong or more likely, get blinded by the sun before crashing."]

Angie Ng has this to say: “I have witnessed this fascination by the male Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker (Dicaeum cruentatum) with its own reflection on my window panes too. It was just a month before I moved house. The FP kept flying at its reflection and wouldn’t go away. At times it stood at the bottom edge of the glass pane and 'peered' into our room; it often stayed for more than an hour each time! When I opened the window to invite it in, it hopped onto the sui mei (Wrightia religiosa) and then away. I did wonder if it knew we were leaving the place.

“My SBFP wasn't crashing into the glass; it was flying/trying to get through. When it couldn't, it stood waiting patiently and looking in. It could have been a dozen times trying since it was there when I woke up and still there when I had to leave to run my errands.

“Some years ago, I was entertained by a peacock apparently enjoying itself jumping up and attacking its reflection on a highly polished car. The parked car sustained some serious scratches from its claws; wonder if the driver knew who did it!”

Watch out for Part 2 where others join in the discussion.

Thanks to Philip Tatham for bringing up the subject and to Jeremy Lee, Patricia Thong and Angie Ng for participating in the discussion. Images by YC.


The mempat tree

The mempat tree

There is nothing like a mempat tree (Cratoxylum formosum) with its crown covered with new reddish pink growth and pale pink flowers to brighten a road. The tree fronting my house was leafless for about a week before it turned into an attractive tree just before Christmas last year. These trees do not shed their leaves together as each has its own schedule. A tree first sheds its leaves and remains leafless for days before the colourful new leaves slowly emerge together with the flowers. I have always admired the tree at this very stage. As the leaves expand in size they turn green and at the same time the flowers develop into fruits.

There are a few semi-parasitic plants growing on its branches. These round-fruited mistletoes (Macrosolen cochinchinensis) are easily seen when the tree is leafless but with the leaves growing back, they can still be discerned if you look hard enough.

The crown of the tree is a hive of activities, the various fauna being attracted by the fruits of the mistletoe plants and the nectar-filled flowers of mempat.

The flowers of mempat as well as those of the mistletoes attract bees, butterflies and of course birds. Various sunbirds find the flowers of irresistible because of the nectar they exude. These include Crimson (Aethopyga siparaja), Olive-backed (Nectarinia jugularis) and Brown-throated (Anthreptes malacensis) Sunbirds. The Oriental White-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus) visit for the mistletoe fruits, the mempat nectar as well as the flowers.

The tree is also popular with Yellow-vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus goiavier) that visit for the insects that are attracted to the flowers. These birds also eat the mempat flowers, probably for the nectar they contain. They are also attracted to the tree because of the mistletoe fruits.

Input and images by YC.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Do birds recognise people?

Do birds recognise people?

Calvin Lo of Yishun posted a most interesting account in Club Snap that I have got his permission to have it posted in the blog.

“About a week ago, I managed to save a juvenile Long-Tailed Shrike (Lanius schach) from the claws of the cat. Initially, I was worried that it would not survived because it continued to flutter carelessly to the ground quite often even though there were many cats roving the area.

“Fortunately, of late it grew wiser. Joeyao spotted it again and tried to approach it carefully with his camera, but this time it flew away before he got the chance to get near. Well, I was kind of sad that I would not be able to approach it so near any more.

“But yesterday evening, to my pleasant surprise, the little fellow appeared before me again. Instead of behaving skittishly as reported by Joeyao, it actually allowed me to move as close as 3m from it. In fact, for a while I was so near that I had to dismantle my tcon before the camera could focus properly. Managed to take about 10 over shots before it said goodbye to me. Don't think it was due to evening because the light was still bright enough for it to see me very well.

“So...I'm just puzzled, Do birds recognise people?”

Calvin Lo, 28th February 2006. Image also by Calvin.

Our bird specilist R. Subaraj has this to say: “Pet birds including mynas seem to recognise their owners and many animals in the wild have been documented to recognise specific people. It would therefore be nice to believe that this is indeed the case here too. The moral of the story is....'Be Kind To Animals' for they may truly appreciate you as a result. Well done Calvin!”


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tales of a Rhinoceros Hornbill

Tales of a Rhinoceros Hornbill

Kwek Siew Jin, a member of the Nature Society (Singapore), had an exciting encounter with a Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) while out walking with a group of friends in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve one day. Below is Siew Jin's account of the encounter:

“On 6th January 2006, our group of four hikers was on our normal weekly walk, this time going through the former turf club to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

“On reaching Senapang Road at about 11am, I noticed a pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos (Dicrurus paradisus) flying around in an agitated manner and heard a loud honking noise coming from the tree tops. Within a short while a big bird that I recognised as a hornbill (but not which one) flew across an open space in the forest, chased by the pair of Drongos. I was thrilled to see such a large and beautiful bird in our forest! I chased and caught up with the birds when the hornbill landed on a tree and began to eat the fruits from the branches.
“Taking photos of the bird from below the tree with the hornbill hopping around plucking fruits was not easy, especially in the low light and without a long lens and tripod. However, it was certainly an experience to see this beautiful bird and to hear its loud honking calls. I only identified it as a Rhinoceros Hornbill when I got home and looked it up in the bird guide book.”

Ong Hui Guan similarly wrote on 19th March 2006: “I read about your project in Nature News. I shot a picture of a Great Hornbill on 18 Dec 05 - the bird flew into Dairy Farm Estate late afternoon. It visited Dairy Farm Estate subsequently with a partner a few weeks later and the two birds also hung around Bukit Timah Hill for a while - not sure if it is still there”

Comment by YC: This species is an escapee that has been sighted on an off in Singapore for some years now. See here for other sightings and here for an account of its possible mate.

Input by Kwek Siew Jin and Ong Hui Guan, image by YC (top) and Siew Jin (bottom).

An excellent video of a male Rhinoceros Hornbill feeding its family sealed inside the nest cavity, filmed in Thailand by our very own Prof. Ng Soon Chye, can be viewed here.


Monday, April 03, 2006

Intelligent Little Herons

Intelligent Little Herons

Con Foley was witness to the incident of the Little Heron (Butorides striatus) using pieces of bread visitors fed to ducks to fish at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and added: “A bit of googling reveals that this is a well known, documented and researched behavior, and Little Herons and their cousins in North America and elsewhere exhibit this behavior all around the world. They didn't just learn it in Singapore, too bad. Actually, using bread is done because it is easily available in the Botanic Gardens, but they will use any small piece of leaf, bug, twig, etc, as bait to catch fish. From what I've read, Little Herons are one of the few "tool using" birds that will use a tool to accomplish a task. A bit more googling reveals that it has been reported that Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) also exhibit this behavior, although I haven't seen it. At the Botanic Gardens my observation is that the juvenille bird would do this, but the adult wouldn't be bothered. You can tell the birds apart by coloration.”

Hung Bun Tang wrote in on 14th Nov 2005: “It is exciting to know that someone has observed the baiting behaviour of the Little Heron. Thanks Subaraj and Jacqueline for sharing. I did a little search and found an article on "The feeding behaviour of North American herons." The following paragraph from the article by JA Kushlan should be interesting - it mentions the baiting method of the Green-backed Heron (same as Littlie or Striated Heron, I believe)."

Stand or stalk feeding: In stand and wait a heron stands motionless in water or on land waiting for prey to approach. There are two basic postures. In upright posture the body is held erect, head and neck are fully extended angled away from the body. In crouched posture, the body is held horizontal to the perch or the water, legs are bent, and the head and neck are partially retracted. Upright stand and wait is epitomized by the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) while crouched stand and wait characterizes the Green Heron. Intermediate postures may also be used. Several variations of stand and wait behavior are recognizable. In bill vibrating, a heron in crouched posture stands with bill tip submerged in water and rapidly opens and closes its bill creating a disturbance that attracts prey. This behavior is probably what Buckley and Buckley (1968) called tongue flicking. In baiting, a heron feeding by stand and wait places bait in the water to attract prey to its feeding location. Lovell described the Green Heron as persistently returning bait to a position under its feeding perch. In standing flycatching, a heron using stand and wait behavior catches flying insects. In gleaning, a heron picks prey from objects above the ground or water.

Tang further added: “It should be interesting to record such behaviour of birds on video. I have seen someone using a digital camera with a video mode connected to a spotting-scope. What I have now is a digicam with a teleconvertor attached. Ong Kiem Sian's setup (spotting-scope + video camera) is also inspiring. I really want to try out this "videoscoping" technique to capture bird behaviour in movie.”

Input by Con Foley and Hung Bun Tang, image by YC.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

The beautiful bottlebrush trees

The beautiful bottlebrush trees

Bottlebrushes (Callistemon spp.) are endemic to Australia where there are about 25 species. These shrubs to small trees are popularly grown as garden ornamentals for their attractive flowering bunches that look like bottle brushes. These ‘brushes’ are made up of numerous small flowers conspicuous in their long stamens, each tipped with a golden anther. The botanical name, Callistemon, comes from the Greek word kallistos (most beautiful) and stemon (stamens).

A few species of bottlebrushs have been introduced into Singapore, grown in gardens and as wayside plants. These are all with red flowers. C. citrinus or common bottlebrush has upright branches while C. viminalis or weeping bottlebrush has branches that cascade down. Both have red flowers found at the tips of branches. There are other species with yellow and green flowers. The narrow leaves of these plants contain a fragrant aromatic oil that can be detected if they are crushed between the fingers.

Bottlebrushes are excellent bird plants. Their flowers secrete copious nectar that attract sunbirds, mynas and Yellow-vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus goiavier).
The leaves are a favourite food of the caterpillars of an unidentified butterfly or moth that in turn serve to attract birds to these trees. However, unlike sunbirds, mynas and bulbuls, the Common Ioras (Aegithina tiphia) are attracted to the plant when it is in season because of the caterpillars. The caterpillars normally congregate at the ends of branches, weaving the leaves together to form a protective cocoon. This strategy is not always full proof, as can be seen from the image (second down) where the Iora was found using it’s beak to dig into the cocoon to get at the caterpillars.

Although bottlebrush trees are not indigenous to Singapore, they have been around long enough to attract wildlife. As such more should be planted in gardens, parks and along roadsides. These plants are also attractive in their shape and colourful flowers.

Input by KC Tsang and Johnny Wee; images of bulbul, iora and caterpillar by KC and of male Purple-throated Sunbird (Nectariniua sperata) (bottom) by Johnny.


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