Tag Archives: wildlife

Birds of Assam, India

2018 has been declared the ‘Year of the Bird’. This is a collaborative effort between National Geographic, National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International, and several other organizations, and marks 100 years since the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  This American federal law from 1918 makes it illegal to hunt/kill, capture or sell migratory birds, and over 800 species are included in this list.

As far I am concerned, every year is the ‘Year of the Bird’! Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the state of Assam in northeast India, and got to see many bird species for the very first time. Given that nearly a third of Assam’s geographical area is covered by forests, it is no surprise that the state has the highest bird diversity in India, with over 800 recorded species.

To give you a little bit of a background, my journey to Assam was prompted by a slowly disappearing tradition – Bodo weaving. The Bodos are the indigenous people of the state and weaving is one of their prized traditional skills. I was based with an absolutely remarkable non-profit called the ant, which (among several other rural development projects) has been able to tap into the traditional knowledge of weaving among Bodo women, and create livelihood opportunities for them. The women are commissioned to weave fabrics, which are then fashioned into garments and sold in India, and exported internationally as well. (More about ‘the ant’ soon.)

Visiting different villages with members of ‘the ant’ team meant that I got to see a lot of birdlife en route, as well as in the villages. But on most occasions I didn’t have my ‘birdie cam’ (Nikon Coolpix P900) with me and so, sadly, there are no photographs of the hornbill I glimpsed while traveling on bike from one village to another, the beeaters and other species of passerine birds that lined-up neatly on power cables, the colourful kingfishers near the rivulet, the distinctive-looking Hoopoe, the Rufous Treepie and several more species whose names I have yet to figure out.

I did however, manage to photograph a few common birds around ‘the ant’ campus. Here are some of them:

Blue-earred Barbet

The colourful Blue-eared Barbet

Crested Serpent Eagle

A Crested Serpent Eagle seated on an electricity pole

Chestnut-tailed Starling

A Chestnut-tailed Starling

Jungle Babbler

The super-noisy Jungle Babbler! You will hear it long before you see it!

Indian Roller

An Indian Roller preening itself

White-Rumped Shama

A male White-Rumped Shama

Black Drongo

The Black Drongo does a great service to farmers by feeding on insects & pests

White Wagtail

A White Wagtail (‘baicalensis’ sub-species) – several species / subspecies of wagtails are winter migrants to Assam

Cinereous Tit

A Cinereous Tit

Red-vented Bulbul

The ubiquitous Red-vented Bulbul

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret – As the name suggests, this bird usually accompanies large, grazing animals like cattle.

Slender-billed Oriole

The picture is out of focus but you can tell why this bird called a ‘Slender-billed’ Oriole

During my time in Lower Assam, I made one quick visit to Manas National Park and saw a few more birds there as well (blog post on Manas coming soon).

I’m confident my recent trip to Assam was the first of many to come, and I can’t wait to add to this list of birds. Stay tuned!

For more of my birdwatching posts, please click here: Singapore, Sulawesi (Indonesia), Seychelles & Amsterdam

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A new life for abused elephants at Wildlife SOS, India

Think back to the last time you had a paper cut. Painful, right?! Or got punched in the face by a bully. Now imagine a lifetime of such pain and abuse – relentless, day in day out, and a million times worse. That is the life of a captive elephant.

So while that elephant ride may seem innocuous, the reality behind how the elephant got there, is anything but.

Taken from the wild at a very young age, tortured into submission by a horrendous ‘breaking of the spirit’ process (which involves beatings, starvation, confinement and other forms of subjugation), and then for decades – chained, forced to work, poked and prodded with sharp hooks, blinded even sometimes. The elephants suffer grievous injuries on their spines from carrying people, on their legs from being constantly chained, on their feet from walking on hard terrain (like concrete / tarred roads), not to forget the emotional and mental trauma. These magnificent creatures have no escape till the day they drop dead.

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Some of the tools used by handlers to control elephants

The Asian elephant is listed as ‘Endangered’ by IUCN. Yet an estimated 16,000 elephants are in captivity across 11 Asian countries; of which about 3,500 are in India alone.

I recently visited Wildlife SOS (WSOS), an absolutely remarkable non-profit in India that rescues and rehabilitates captive elephants. I had met the WSOS founders, Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani, way back in 2014, and was in awe of the fact that they had rescued every single ‘dancing bear’ (over 620 in all) from the streets of India. In this 400-year old barbaric practice, sloth bear cubs were snatched from the wild and their muzzles pierced with a hot metal rod (without anesthesia), to insert the control rope, and their wounds were not allowed to heal. When the handler tugged the control rope, it would cause an insane amount of pain to the bear, making it writhe in pain, which was seen as ‘dancing’. In addition to rescuing the bears, WSOS also rehabilitated the owners of the bears – a nomadic community known as kalandars. They were provided with monetary support, alternative skills training, as well as education for their children, in exchange for a written promise that they would not indulge in the trade again. This holistic approach, along with the herculean efforts involved, lead to the surrender of the last ‘dancing bear’ in 2009 and the practice was completely eliminated in India.

The rescued bears are housed and cared for in 4 different centres across India, the largest one being in Agra. So whenever you plan to visit the Taj Mahal, I highly recommend that you add the WSOS Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF) to your itinerary. I could spend forever watching the antics of those adorable bears!

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Kajal, a rescued bear at ABRF, enjoying a snooze in the sun

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Chottu relishing the honey his caretaker has smeared at the very top of his ‘enrichment platform’

Back to elephants! During my visit to the WSOS Elephant Care and Conservation Centre (ECCC) in Mathura, not too far from Delhi/Agra, I got to spend time with the rescued elephants housed there. The elephants are extremely well looked after, and what is truly commendable are the efforts made by the WSOS team to understand the personality and likes-dislikes of each elephant, in order to make them as comfortable as possible.

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Do not disturb! It’s sugarcane time!

I loved every second of my time at the ECCC – the walks with the elephants, the feeding sessions, watching them play with their enrichment toys and how they interacted in their small groups. This experience was (once again!) a reminder of the fact these animals possess an incredible intelligence, that we as humans need to learn to respect.

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Phoolkali (in front) & Maya, two of the several elephants rescued by WSOS, out for their daily evening walk

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I often wondered what the elephants were thinking or what they could remember of their horrible past

These elephants still bear the scars (both physical and mental) of their decades in captivity but now thanks to WSOS, they will live out their lives being free, and just being elephants! ❤️

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Bijli (L), Chanchal & Laxmi (R) enjoying their time together

Tourist demand for riding elephants is a major contributing factor to elephant captivity. There’s a lot we can do to change the situation:

  • Don’t support elephant captivity in any form – don’t ride them anywhere or watch them in a circus or feed a begging elephant. The same holds true for all other wild animals as well.
  • Create awareness: Use every opportunity on social media (or any other form of media) to speak up for elephants and other captive animals
  • Volunteer: Organizations like WSOS welcome volunteers. If you love working with animals, especially elephants, this is an experience you will never forget! At WSOS, you can also divide your time between the ECCC and ABRF. Read more here http://wildlifesos.org/volunteer-with-us/
  • Donate: There are so many ways you can financially support organizations like WSOS. Organize a bake sale to fund raise or buy their merchandize (https://www.armtheanimals.com/collections/wildlife-sos-collection) or pick something else that works for you from these options (http://wildlifesos.org/donate-2-2/) Every little bit counts!

Elephants belong in the wild and need to remain there!

If you’ve visited an organization that rescues captive elephants (or any captive wildlife for that matter), please leave me a comment with your experience. I would love to visit them someday 🙏🙏🙏

South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony (1950-2012) in his book ‘The Elephant Whisperer’ said “…..until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.” Amen to that!

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An oasis in Mumbai’s concrete jungle – the Sanjay Gandhi Nat’l Park

Growing up in the western suburbs of Bombay (now Mumbai), the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) was the venue of my annual school picnic for many an academic year. But despite the yearly visit to the park and its proximity to my parents’ home, I had no inkling about the ecological value of this ‘national park’, till very recently.

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Map of the SGNP

As one of the few national parks in the world located within city limits. I’ve been told SGNP is 35 times the area of NYC‘s Central Park. But the comparison is quite unfair – the former is a naturally occurring forest, the latter a man-made park. But I digress!

In a space-starved city like Mumbai, the SGNP is a refuge for the city’s inhabitants. You have to be at the entrance gate at 6am to see the incredible number of people who use the park for their morning run/walk or simply just to socialize.

Having lived away from India at a stretch of nearly 7 years now, every trip back to Mumbai has included a quick visit to the forests of SGNP. Home to nearly 600 species of fauna and over 1,300 species of flora, SGNP is best visited in the monsoons when the foliage is lush, the streams are gushing and the verdant hillsides are streaked with small waterfalls. Sadly, most of my recent visits to the SGNP have been in the last quarter of the year, when the forest is dry and appears sparse as compared to its monsoon avatar.

The most remarkable aspect of the SGNP is that it has the highest leopard / carnivore density anywhere in the world (40 individuals in an area of 104 sq.kms.), in a city that also has one of the highest human population densities in the world. This unique cohabitation of humans and a big cat species, has garnered a fair bit of international attention, including that of the hallowed National Geographic, which thankfully has helped the leopard’s cause.

I’d be ecstatic if I spotted a leopard (from a reasonable distance of course!) but the creatures being nocturnal in their habits, are impossible to spot during the day. I’ve had to make do with leopard droppings and their pee markings, along some of the trails I’ve visited in the park.

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A section of the Bamboo Hut Trail, which stretches about 12kms (start to finish)

The SGNP website (https://sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in) has lots of great information about the park and its flora and fauna. Sign on to the SGNP FB page (https://www.facebook.com/SanjayGandhiNationalPark/) for updates on upcoming treks and workshops. You may also contact the Nature Information Centre of the SGNP for a special tour request (https://sgnp.maharashtra.gov.in/1127/About-NIC).

Also within the SGNP limits are the Kanheri Caves, a spartan (yet stunning!) cluster of Buddhist rock-cut caves, some which date back to the mid-3rd century BCE. There are a 100+ of these caves and the exact number differs based on which source you refer to. However, all sources agree on the fact that the name ‘Kanheri’ comes from the Sanskrit word Krishnagiri, meaning ‘black mountain’, alluding to the basalt mountain from which the caves are carved. Once a major Buddhist centre, the complex is a protected archeological site today. Best visited with a knowledgeable guide.

The forests of SGNP also support two (of seven) lakes that provide potable water to Mumbai – Tulsi Lake (completed in 1897) and Vihar Lake (completed in 1860). The forests serve as a catchment area for these two lakes and play a crucial role in ensuring water supply to the city.

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View of Tulsi Lake (in the foreground) and Vihar Lake (partially visible in the background)

Both lakes can be clearly seen from Jambulmal, the highest point not just in SGNP but also in the entire city, located 468 meters (1535 ft) above sea level. Given the key role the lakes play in the city’s water supply, direct access to them is restricted and requires special permission.

The SGNP is revered as the ‘green lung’ of Mumbai. However, it is no match for the rapid development in this bustling metropolis. Hopefully, Mumbai’s citizenry will continue to value this last vestige of forest, and preserve the city’s fragile and last remaining connection to nature.

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View of the concrete jungle beyond park limits

I leave you with a few pictures of the fauna I’ve seen along the Shilonda and Bamboo Hut trails of the SGNP……

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A Green Bee-eater enjoys the sun

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A male Purple-rumped Sunbird, a species endemic to the Indian subcontinent

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A Long-tailed (Rufous-backed) Shrike

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A female Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, also known as the Yellow-throated Sparrow

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The Southern Plains Gray Langur, known locally as the Hanuman Langur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A handsome male Chital, also known as the Spotted or Axis Deer. The metre-long antlers are shed (and re-emerge) annually.

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A Brahminy Skink (also known as the Keeled Grass Skink) hidden in the foliage…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The nest of the Crematogaster Ant (made with dry leaves, saliva and mud) resembles a pagoda and is hence called a ‘pagoda ant nest’

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The maze-like exterior of the Harvester Ant nest prevents the entry of water into the dwelling

Baronet

The Baronet Butterfly

Blue Pansy

The Blue Pansy Butterfly

Oriental Common Sargeant

The Oriental Common Sergeant Butterfly

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Above the treetops at MacRitchie Reservoir Park, Singapore

Up until a few months ago, I was living in sunny Singapore. Since then, I have moved continents, to the land of canals and krokets, Amsterdam, and find myself trying to make sense of a very fickle spring.

When I think about my time in the Little Red Dot, I’m happy I was able to capture different facets of the city, via my articles for PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. So here is, the last of these nuggets from the city I called home for nearly 6 years.

My article in the May-June’17 issue of PASSAGE encapsulates my many wonderful memories of the MacRitchie Reservoir Park in Singapore. Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

2017_May-June_MacRitchie

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

I’d like to reiterate that when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb wildlife and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old saying goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

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You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Pasir Ris Park

Birds of Singapore

The Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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Memories of Pasir Ris Park, Singapore

I was reminded by a fellow-nature lover that today, March 3rd, is World Wildlife Day. So the timing of this post couldn’t be any better! 🙂

Following my much loved blog post on Pasir Ris Park, I had the opportunity to share some of the pictures once again via a photo feature in the Mar-Apr’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

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(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

Once again, I’d like to emphasize that when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb creatures and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old saying goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

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For my original post on Pasir Ris Park, please click here.

You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Birds of Singapore

Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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A Walk in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Singapore

One of the first forest reserves established in Singapore (1883), the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, is the largest remaining tract of primary rainforest on the island. It was closed to the public for two years for some much-needed restoration work and reopened on 22nd October ’16.

Overjoyed to be back in this thriving rainforest, I wrote a quick piece for the Jan-Feb’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. Presenting my first article in print for 2017…..

2017_jan-feb_btnr

I cannot emphasise this enough – when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb creatures and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the very ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old adage goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

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You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Pasir Ris Park

Birds of Singapore

The Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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Wildlife in an urban jungle – Pasir Ris Park, Singapore

Don’t let Singapore’s glitzy urban appearance fool you. The city is teeming with incredible wildlife, if one knows where to look. With over 300 parks and 4 nature reserves, there are several places where Singapore’s native wildlife thrives.

This weekend, hubby and I decided to check out the Pasir Ris Park, in the northeastern part of Singapore. In addition to many family friendly facilities, this beach park also includes a 15-acre mangrove forest. A short boardwalk enables visitors to explore the various sections of this mangrove forest.

Just as we were entering the park via the Pasir Ris Park Connector, a family of noisy otters jumped into the waters of the adjacent Sungei Tampines – right before our eyes! Such a pity I didn’t have my camera ready but it was definitely a sign of things to come.

We spent the entire morning at Pasir Ris Park, enthralled by the rich biodiversity of the place. Here are some of the creatures I did manage to photograph….

(Please click on the image to see an enlarged version.)

Lunch time at Pasir Ris Park!

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A lizard lunch for this Paradise Tree Snake

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Almost halfway done….

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Spot the lizard in the snake’s belly!

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Headed up the tree for a post-lunch siesta

The Sleepy Hornbill

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After much looking, we managed to spot an Oriental Pied Hornbill hidden in the foliage

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Here it is, dozing off….

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Seems like a full blown nap now! 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water Monitor Lizards everywhere!

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Here’s one basking high up on a tree…

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Another monitor lizard enjoys its afternoon swim. Notice how the limbs of the monitor are drawn close to its body while swimming. It navigates the waters using its tail.

Other residents of Pasir Ris Park

(includes pictures from subsequent visits)

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The striking Black Baza is a small sized bird of prey and is known to perch for long durations on the bare branches of tall trees.

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After much debate by experts about the exact species of this bird, the verdict is that it is a Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, meaning it is a cuckoo that resembles a drongo

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Notice the keyhole-shaped pupils of the Oriental Whip Snake, which enables snakes of this genus to have binocular vision

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A Yellow-lipped Water Snake in search of newly moulted crabs

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One of the most vocal residents of Pasir Ris Park, the Red Junglefowl, the wild ancestor of the domesticated chicken.

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A Black-crowned Night Heron out and about during low tide

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A Little Egret walks around the dry channel of Sungei Tampines

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It’s yoga time for this Grey Heron!

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A Sandpiper by Sungei Tampines

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A Striated Heron waits patiently for a catch, in the mangroves by Sungei Tampines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The skittish Ashy Tailorbird was by far the hardest to photograph

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A male Flameback Woodpecker in the woods around the mangroves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The gender of a Laced Woodpecker can be identified by the colour of its crown – the female has a black crown while the male has a red one.

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A Blue-tailed Bee-eater takes a break

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Oriental Magpie-Robin foraging on the ground

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A female Common Iora, with pollen stuck on her beak after feeding on nectar

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A pair of Yellow-vented Bulbuls pose perfectly for this pic!

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A male (with pink neck) and female Pink-necked Green Pigeon, scan their surroundings

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A White-throated Kingfisher enjoys the surroundings from its prominent perch

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A Collared Kingfisher awaits its meal by Sungei Tampines…

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A Scaly-breasted Munia rests for a brief second

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A Mud Crab steps out of its burrow in the mangroves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Red-eared Slider (also known as Red-eared Terrapin) in the waters of Sungei Tampines

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A Giant Mudskipper in the mangroves of Pasir Ris Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Who knew there were jellyfish in the waters of Sungei Tampines???!!!

There are many creatures that I haven’t yet managed to photograph – the otters of course, the Stork billed Kingfisher, the Common Kingfisher, the raptors that fly overhead, the many skittish birds hidden in the foliage. These call for yet another visit to Pasir Ris Park.

I leave you with this Pasir Ris Park Guide I found online. Happy visiting! And don’t forget to let me know what you spotted!

Lastly, I cannot emphasise this enough – when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb creatures and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old saying goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

*********************************************************************

For my article on Pasir Ris Park in the Mar-Apr’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore, please click here.

You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Birds of Singapore

The Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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Tangkoko Nature Reserve, Sulawesi – A Birdwatcher’s Delight!

A couple of months ago, when hubby suggested he wanted go diving in the Lembeh Strait, my first reaction was to look for it on the map.

Located off North Sulawesi (Indonesia), Lembeh Strait is famous in the diving community as a ‘muck diving’ haven, where all kinds of weird and wonderful underwater critters like octopi, sea horses, nudibranchs etc, abound.

Only much later did I realise that our trip to North Sulawesi would bring me right back in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace. Between June and September 1859, Wallace spent time collecting specimens from around North Sulawesi. The below map from his book, The Malay Archipelago, shows his route across North Sulawesi.

ARW_route

Interestingly, in the North-East corner of this map, is ‘Limbe Island’ (what is known today as Lembeh Island). Lembeh Resort on this very island was our home for the week that we stayed in North Sulawesi. (More on Lembeh Island and diving in the Lembeh Strait, in an upcoming post. )

One of the main objectives of Wallace’s visit to North Sulawesi was to collect specimens of the maleo bird. Maleos, which are endemic to Sulawesi, are highly endangered today and rarely seen.

We had hoped we would spot a maleo during our day at the Tangkoko Nature Reserve (wishful thinking on our part!) but we had no such luck. We did however manage to photograph nearly 30 species of birds, most of which are found only in Sulawesi, as well as endemic mammals like the endangered black crested macaques, bear cuscus and the spectral tarsier.

Tangkoko Nature Reserve is accessed from Batu Putih village (which can also been seen on Wallace’s map). If you decide to stay on Lembeh Island (like us), after the ferry crossing to Bitung, the drive to Batu Putih takes little less than an hour.

Batu Putih can also be reached from Manado but the journey takes much longer (about 2 hours), than if you were coming from Bitung.

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The black sand beach of Batu Putih 

I leave you with some pictures from our day at Tangkoko Nature Reserve. It’s a goldmine of endemic species and a must visit for any nature lover!

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The stunning male Sulawesi wrinkled hornbill

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We almost missed this Green-backed Kingfisher (endemic to Sulawesi)

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Another species endemic to Sulawesi – the Yellow-billed Malkoha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A striking specimen of the Sulawesi Drongo

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A male Ashy Woodpecker, busy at work. Also endemic to Sulawesi.

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A pair of Sulawesi Scops Owl asleep in a bamboo grove

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A family of Black-crested macaques with a newborn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These macaques are critically endangered and only about 5,000 individuals remain in their original habitat in North Sulawesi.

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A Sulawesi Bear Cuscus high up on a tree branch

The Bear Cuscus is a small bear, similar to the koala. Very little is known about these bears but what is known for sure is that it’s a marsupial – the female carries the baby in an external belly pouch.

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A pair of White-rumped Cuckoo shrikes spotted in the mangroves off Batu Putih village (endemic to Sulawesi)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Great-billed Kingfisher resting in the mangroves (endemic to Sulawesi)

At the end of that really long day in Tangkoko, my legs were riddled with bites (insect/mite/whatever the hell can bite through my pants) but the sheer joy of seeing these magnificent creatures first-hand surpassed all discomfort! I know I will be back for more! 🙂

With that, we headed back to the comfort of our cozy resort on Lembeh island, just in time for another of those glorious Lembeh sunsets!

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Another sublime sunset over Lembeh Strait!

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Tracing the footsteps of A. R. Wallace in Singapore

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the British naturalist and co-propounder of the evolutionary theory of natural selection, arrived in Singapore on 18th April 1854. This was the start of his long, 8-year stay in Southeast Asia.

In Singapore, from the Dairy Farm area alone, Wallace is believed to have collected over 700 species of beetles. Today, a 1km track in the Dairy Farm Nature Park, named the ‘Wallace Trail’, commemorates his time in Singapore.

I explore the Wallace-Singapore connection in my article for the Nov-Dec’15 issue of PASSAGE (the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore).

Wallace Trail, Singapore

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

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You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Pasir Ris Park

Birds of Singapore

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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