A week in Singapore - March 2-9, 2019
Having totally failed to book a tour to Jordan early enough to get a place, we saw a flight deal with Qantas to Singapore. (£400pp return). Renting an apartment (very nice, Alocassia Serviced Apartments, three minutes from Stevens MRT station and one stop from the Botanic Gardens) cost another £550, so not an overly expensive holiday. We travelled by metro and bus and ate in hawker centres and food courts. I'd recommend an EZ card for travel if staying for more than the three days a tourist card covers for use on public transport. This was not primarily a birding holiday, but we seem to have spent quite a lot of the time doing just that...
After the usual long and mildly uncomfortable time that is long-distance flying we arrived at about 6:30pm, so the only birds seen were the ubiquitous Javan Mynas.
Day 1 - Botanic Gardens: One thing we didn't realise is that Singaporeans go running and practice other forms of exercise before work, so the Gardens were pretty busy at first light! The Gardens are really rather special, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a broad range of habitats, from formal gardens to forest trees by the way of lakes and wetlands. The commonest birds were Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Asian Glossy Starlings. Olive-backed Sunbirds, Tree Sparrows and those ubiquitous Javan Mynas. I won't be mentioning them again, just assume that those species are everywhere.
The park has a healthy population of pigeons, on this first visit there were Pink-necked Green Pigeons, along with Spot-necked Doves and feral pigeons. High in the trees was a solitary Blue-throated Bee-eater. Above the trees, swiflets were hunting insects (mostly Germain's Swiftlets I'm led to believe).
The lakes and ponds yielded adult and juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons, White-breasted Waterhen and a Common Kingfisher. A couple of Collared Kingfishers also put in an appearance. Red Junglefowl were noisily all over the place. Ashy Tailorbirds are also pretty common, while Koel were heard more often than seen. Magpie Robin were both seen and heard.
The more dramatic birds seemed to save their appearance until the last, a pair of Blue-rumped Parrots shot past us, while two feral Yellow-crested Cockatoos were busily shredding a tree. The finale was a point-blank Oriental Pied Hornbill (the only one of the trip) which was engaged in some serious excavation of an earth bank.
As we left a single Brahminy Kite flew over, Not a bad start.
Day 2 - Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve: Up at some ungodly hour to take the bus to Kranji MRT Station (you can also get there by metro). Here you change buses and here we got just a little confused. You see, Google maps told us to take the 925C to the wetlands and there is no 925C except on Sundays... So, we hung around for a while until some lovely man told us to take the ordinary 925 and get off at the end of the line at Kranji Park Carpark B. Because of our early start it was rush hour for the industrial/business parks along the route so we boarded the bus with approximately 20,000 commuters - you may need to use moderate force... With a nice mixture of mudflats, mangrove and forest, this is a good place to spend the morning. The paths are pretty smooth or boardwalked, so getting around is no problem. The local birders and photographers are very friendly and gave us plenty of advice and ID help (and put us on to an Abbott's Babbler). We rapidly added two more Sunbird species, Brown-throated and Copper-throated. Black-naped Orioles were everywhere, along with Ashy Tailorbirds. We were a bit late for migratory species, but there were was a large flock of Whimbrels on one of the mud flats, along with Little, Intermediate and Great Egrets. We also picked up a Milky Stork, although I'm not sure of its status. A couple of Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots flew across the path in front of us. There were singles of Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Common Sandpiper, Osprey and Brahminy Kite. Collared Kingfishers, House Crows, White-breasted Waterhen, Magpie Robin, Pacific Swallows, Pink-necked Green Pigeons and the ever-present Swiflets were common. There was also a small flock of Black-headed Munias by the visitor centre. One of the highlights of the visit was an adult Smooth-coated Otter dozing on the path. There were bats and Long-tailed Macaques in the visitor centre and a lot of Water Monitors, including a large, very pregnant female.
Day 3 - The "Southern Ridges": This is an interesting area, mixed manicured parkland, some more forested areas and a truly weird and wonderful end stop. We walked from Mount Faber park, via Hort Park (Hort is short for horticultural, not someone famous) through most of Kent Ridge Park and ending up at the Haw Par Villa. Mount Faber Park is accessible from the HarbourFront MRT station via a whole lot of steps. Those who don't fancy some serious exercise can start at the other end at Kent Ridge MRT.
Apart from a good walk and some nice views the birding wasn't bad. Black-naped Orioles seemed to be just about the commonest birds around (OK, they weren't really, but the colour and noise makes them very obvious). High on the treetops were Orange-breasted Green Pigeons, House Crows and singles of Dollarbird and Rose-ringed Parakeet. A very showy White-breasted Kingfisher was hunting something on the ground while there were a few Collared Kingfishers about as well. A single Brown Shrike and an Asian Brown Flycatcher lurked in the bushes. Common Tailorbirds where, well, common, as were Magpie Robins. While we saw a few Koels, a Greater Coucal was only heard. Red Jungle Fowl (aka "bloody chickens") and Zebra Doves fed on the paths. We finished the birding part of the walk with a very nice Lineated Barbet.
In my opinion the Haw Par Villa is unmissable. It has a wonderful and frankly bonkers set of sculpted tableaux recounting Chinese legend and a very educational trip to Hell. If you walk the same way we did, you can access it via Vigilante Drive and South Buona Vista Road (head downhill). I'd advise catching the #200 bus and getting off at the Haw Par Villa Stn stop. We walked and it was a long, hot experience. To cap the day we had a flyover Grey-headed Fish Eagle low over the park. There's an MRT station at Haw Par Villa, making getting back to town easy.
Day 4 - Back to the Botanic Gardens: While the day was spent mostly in town, we popped into the Botanic Gardens and added Pied Imperial Pigeon, Common Myna, Grey Heron, Dark-necked Tailorbird and Yellow Bittern. A personal highlight was a single Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker.
Day 5 - Bukit Timah Nature Reserve: Not only Singapore's highest hill, but a good-sized area of forest. It's easily accessed from the Beauty World and Hillview MRT stations. From a birding point of view this was our biggest (only) disappointment. What we had failed to realise is that this is a very popular place for walking and running - before work. Some of the tracks are quite tough, lots of very steep steps in 35C heat and the usual high humidity. We even met a really nice local guy who was doing circuits as training for trekking in Nepal. So, plenty of bird call, but nothing in sight. My advice would be to go on a weekday - after everyone has gone to work. Leaving via the Dairy Farm National Park (contiguous) for the Hillview MRT, we did manage to pick up a Common Flameback and an Emerald Dove as well as a troop of Long-tailed Macaques.
Day 6 - The Chinese and Japanese Gardens: Basically replicas of traditional Chinese and Japanese Gardens in the middle of Jurong Lake, these provided some of our best birding among really quite beautiful surroundings. (Take the East-West line and get off at the Chinese Gardens MRT).
We were greeted by a Brahminy Kite taking off from one of the extensive lawns, followed by a very confiding Little Heron, which seemed to actually pose for photographs.
In the near distance an adult White-bellied Sea Eagle cruised past. We quickly added Asian Brown Flycatcher, Pied Fantail, Brown-throated Sunbirds, Common and Collared Kingfishers and Black-naped Orioles. There was a lovely little Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker tapping at a tree. We saw a number of people with long lenses who, seeing that we were similarly equipped, all told us that there was an Orioles nest complete with chicks just across the bridge. We soon saw the shooting gallery and joined it for a couple of minutes. The photographers seemed to be keeping a reasonable distance and the Oriole parents didn't seem fazed by their presence.
The Lotus Pond in the Japanese Gardens gave us Common Sandpiper, a Pond Heron species (non-breeding plumage, so can't pin it down further) White-breasted Waterhens and Yellow Bitterns. There's a heronry in the tall trees full of Grey herons nest-building and an Egretry in the lower trees.
In the evening we spent an hour in the Botanic Gardens without much reward until we picked up a Stork-billed Kingfisher and a pair of Banded Woodpeckers at point-blank range. Photography was difficult in the very low light, but we persevered and got some reasonable shots.
Day 7 - Palau Ubin: Given that we weren't flying until 11:45pm, we decided to go to Changi Village and take a boat across to the island of Palau Ubin. (We took the Downtown line to Tampines East then caught the #29 bus, but other routes are available).
This is a beautiful island, with good tracks, some nice forest and boardwalked mangroves and shore. It's a popular destination and we were there on a Saturday... You can hire bikes cheaply from the pier or village (we did the latter). Before we got the bikes we walked the "Sensory Trail" and picked up a White-rumped Sharma. Once on the bikes birding wasn't really an option - hey, we had to concentrate, it's years since we've ridden. Parking the bikes at the Chek Jawa Wetlands visitor Centre, we walked the trails and boardwalks and scaled the Jejawi Tower for some canopy birding. On the coastal boardwalk we were treated to a fantastic mid-air dogfight between a juvenile White-bellied Sea Eagle and a juvenile Brahminy Kite. The eagle was busy eating something it had picked up and the kite was unsuccessfully trying to rob it. The tower provided some good views of hunting Blue-throated Bee Eaters. In the bike park, Macaques were raiding water bottles and any food that had been unwisely left in the panniers, followed on the ground by a rather morose Wild Boar sow and well-grown piglet.
White-bellied Sea Eagle and Brahminy Kite
Returning to Changi we had lunch in the Hawker Centre (excellent) and then returned to town to pick up our luggage and get ready to go to the airport.
Conclusion: So, why go to Singapore? Although Singapore is officially the "most expensive city in the world", it was actually a cheap holiday, although you can make it as expensive as you like, try staying in a hotel, eating, drinking and shopping down by the waterfront! The people we met were all unfailingly helpful, friendly and kind. Singapore is safe, very safe: People were leaving phones on the tables in food courts; photographers would put £1000s of pounds worth of gear on a bench and walk around the corner and you never felt that slight frisson walking around at night. Some people might find it all a bit sterile, but it makes a nice change.
Apart from the birding, there are some great sights and places to visit, so non/casual birders can have an equally good time. Note that we were very, very, lucky with the weather, although it was hot and extremely humid, we had very little rain and none when we were birding. Of course we tried to do everything as early as possible to avoid the hottest part of the day. Singaporeans do the same, places like the Botanic Gardens are open at 5pm!
The birding, while not world-beating, was easy and there was always something to see. Getting to all the sights was quick and cheap on the excellent public transport system. Local birders and photographers were always willing (and eager) to point you to interesting birds and animals. I'd like to say thanks to all those we met and talked to. We didn't cover all the classic spots, but there may well be a "next time".
"Let loose the Kraken!"
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