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Australia & Singapore: Singapore

30 September to 4 October 2017

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction & General Singapore Darwin area Cairns area O'Reilly's Lady Elliot Island

We spent 4 nights in Singapore, as the day time Silk Air flights to Darwin (bookable though Singapore Airlines) were quite infrequent - only departing during the week on Wednesdays. We did some birding on all three of the days, but were also general tourists for some of the time, especially in the evenings. Without a car, we used taxis which were fairly inexpensive (one of very few things in Singapore that was!) and the very impressive MHT (metro) system - the nearest station to our hotel was a c. 10min walk away.

The government website gives full details of all the nature reserves in Singapore and was a good place to find info such as maps, opening hours etc - see . The small booklet - "Birds of Singapore" by Yong Ding Li et al also had short sections on all the main birding locations.

Prior to the visit, I had been in touch with the local birding guide Kim Seng Lim about a possible day or half day of guided birding, but for one reason or another this didn't work out, so we were self guided all the time.

On Friday evening, 29 September, this mega trip got underway as we boarded a Singapore A380 night flight from Heathrow to Singapore, which departed about 1hr late at c. 23:00 (due to the strange excuse of crew delayed by traffic in London!) but arrived on time some 13+hrs later at 18:10 local time, which made for a very short Saturday indeed! Having had a delay free transit through immigration and rapid baggage collection we emerged into the arrivals hall to find there was a long queue for the taxis but it moved quite quickly. It took about 20mins to reach the front, and then a further 30min to reach the compact but pleasant Wangz hotel. Here we were greeted by their very welcoming staff before heading quickly out for a hasty dinner in a Chinese restaurant very close to the hotel. We then had a further night to try to get some sleep!

Birding from the room's balcony the next morning at dawn was quite productive with distant Black-naped Oriole, Javan Minah, Olive-winged Bulbul, Swiftlets overhead (probably Bachman's) and an Olive-backed Sunbird briefly much closer. The very humid conditions were however quite problematic for optics - they immediately got fogged up with condensation the moment they were taken outside from the room with its A/C on!

As expected in Singapore, the weather was warm and humid but there was rarely any full sun so it didn't get too hot. It rained every day, particularly in the afternoon, especially on the first day.

Here is a chronological account of the birding sites we visited in the 3 full days we had at our disposal.

Singapore Botanic Gardens
This site, which was only a short taxi ride from the Wangz hotel, seemed like it might be a good introduction to Singapore birding on our first day, and had been featured in several birding blogs etc. Although we arrived quite early in the morning at the main (Tanglin Gate) entrance at the west end of the gardens, it was already thronged with people - it was of course a Sunday morning. We came across an impressive, quite large lizard almost immediately as it walked across the path, ignoring all the onlookers that quickly gathered. Unfortunately my attempts at photography were rather hampered by the fogged optics problem I had experienced earlier on the hotel balcony. However it is amazing what can be done with Photoshop!

Somewhat further on we spotted our first interesting bird - several Asian Glossy Starlings in trees just outside the Orchid gardens. Going inside we found various sunbird species feeding on the numerous orchids including this most impressive Crimson Sunbird and Brown-throated Sunbird.

Clouded Monitor Crimson Sunbird
Clouded Monitor lizard Crimson Sunbird (click to enlarge)
Brown throated Sunbird White breasted Waterhen
Brown throated Sunbird White breasted Waterhen

There was also a Yellow vented Bulbul in the Orchid garden and we came across a few White-breasted Waterhens by the Orchid Garden entrance, just as we were leaving. Nearby on the Symphony Lake there was a nice White-throated Kingfisher quite close in to the shore, but thereafter things went downhill...

Olive winged Bulbul White throated Kingfisher
Olive winged Bulbul (click to enlarge) White throated Kingfisher(click to enlarge)

With the weather threatening we headed east through the gardens fairly quickly, aiming for the Eco Lake where I was expecting to see various interesting water birds. We saw nothing en-route there and unfortunately nor was there anything to be seen at or on the lake either. It then started to rain heavily, so we took shelter, along with loads of other people, in a pagoda overlooking the lake until it eased off a bit.

From here we had a distant view of a Brahminy Kite flying past and some rather closer Waterhens, but that was about it. With the weather not looking good we made an early departure via the MHT station having seen only a handful of species. Perhaps later in the year is better for winter visitors, and all the people around on this Sunday morning certainly didn't help much either. Or maybe we just weren't persistent or sharp enough to find the birds here - but they certainly weren't making themselves very obvious!

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
This site is one of Singapore's best known birding sites and boasts an impressive list of 200+ species. It is a fair distance outside of the City, without any easy public transport connections, so we got a taxi both ways to/from the Wetland Centre (not the Visitor Centre) that took about 30mins. To return there was a helpful board with numerous taxi company numbers on, and we asked the man at the reception area by the car park which was the best number to ring. A taxi duly appeared very shortly after our call. No problem!

On arrival reasonably early in the morning the place was quite quiet, but the pond in front of the Centre already had some dragonfly activity (and later we saw a Water Monitor there as well). We then headed through the centre towards the tidal pools that looked a promising place to start and were quickly "adopted" by a local who seemed keen to show us around, and point out birds - especially some Storks that came from the local zoo, and were hence of no interest to us! But he also found us an Asian Koel. There are several hides on the circular path that goes round these pools which were largely disappointing to us, as they only had very familiar waders such as Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank etc, although Pacific Golden Plover was more interesting but not a lifer. Not really what we were after at all! However one hide gave us distant views of Scaly-breasted Munia and round the far side (our "guide" having left us) we found some nice birds - Malaysian Pied Fantail - on the path in front of us, and a Pink-necked Pigeon sitting quietly in a tree. There was also an Ashy Tailorbird and an elusive passerine turned out to be a wintering Arctic Warbler - that I had only seen once before - in Northern Norway in 2015!  A mega distant White-bellied Sea Eagle was also spotted (the first of many on this trip).

Malaysian Pied Fantail Pink necked Pigeon
Malaysian Pied Fantail Pink necked Pigeon (click to enlarge)
Ashy Tailorbird Water Monitor
Ashy Tailorbird Water Monitor
Yellow-Barred Flutterer Variegated Green Skimmer
Yellow-Barred Flutterer Variegated Green Skimmer

Having spent most of morning on the loop round the tidal pools, with fairly thin pickings for a site with a list of over 200 species, we returned to the Centre and managed to get some food from the vending machines there. We the tried the short Mangrove Boardwalk which produced brief, obscured views of Asia Paradise Flycatcher and Collared Kingfisher. Having been told that the track down to the other Visitor Centre was unlikely to be productive, we then returned to our hotel, having been somewhat underwhelmed by this site.

Bukit Timah
This site is one of two in Singapore that still holds significant amounts of forest, and again has an extensive list of species. Getting a taxi straight after an early breakfast to this site, I was somewhat taken aback by the steepness of the main path up the hill that is at the centre of this reserve. Also, even fairly early on a Tuesday morning, it was very crowded with people. The steep walk up to the summit, along a tarmac path, produced very little sign of anything avian, although a fair amount of song could be heard from within the dense foliage on both sides of the path. The only bird seen turned out to be (looking at the photos afterwards) an introduced Black-crested Bulbul. Apart from some Mynahs, there was little of interest either at the summit (height a not insignificant 163m), other than some monkeys.

Looking at the map, it seemed worth trying a longer return route- using the "yellow" path down towards Dairy Farm Road. However we didn't realise until too late that this route was graded as "difficult" - presumably because of its steepness and very tall steps. At least this path was considerably quieter than the main "highway" and near the bottom we actually found a small collection of birds, the best being the only woodpecker of our entire trip (including Australia) - a Common Flameback, together with some more obscure passerines which we decided were Streaked Bulbuls. Open reaching the road, we decided to head east towards the MHT station via the Diary Farm Nature Park. This was a pleasant, quiet open bushy area with some trees. We even came a across a local birder who had, earlier seen all sorts of things, but not us! All we could manage was a Common Iora and a female Pink-necked Pigeon. Thereafter we returned to our hotel by MHT.

Monkey Pink-necked Pigeon
Monkey Pink-necked Pigeon (female)

Overall, Singapore was somewhat disappointing bird-wise and the weather was mixed with plenty of rain which didn't help. There was a lot of disturbance at two of the three sites we visited. Our species tally for the 4 days was an unimpressive c. 35 - whereas I had hoped for a total closer to 50. Apart from those outside the hotel on the first morning, few of the more interesting species gave themselves up easily. The best bird was probably the briefly obliging Crimson Sunbird in the Botanic Gardens our first morning. Photographically it was difficult to get good bird shots, which is why many of the above are of other wildlife! Still it was an interesting place to stop off at en-route to Australia, and the 3 days there allowed for some recovery from the effects of jet lag.

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Wangz Hotel This hotel has an unusual circular design but was quite compact with very welcoming, friendly and helpful staff. Our room, with balcony, was fine and there was a nice roof-top restaurant for breakfast - which could be taken outside, weather permitting. It was not centrally located however but was within a 10min walk of the nearest MHT station and was only a short taxi ride away from the bay area. Expensive, but then most reasonable Singapore hotel are! Recommended.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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