Sunday, 7 December 2014

A Rediscovery and The Prime Minister - UBIN DAY

Pulau Ubin: An offshore island from Singapore and our last kampung. It's Singapore before all the tall buildings went up - natural, wild and rustic. Last Sunday, we had a celebration of all things Ubin - organised by the amazing Grant Pereira and Ria Tan, Ubin Day 2014 saw a huge range of activities to bring the public closer to the heritage and biodiversity of the little island. Here's something you don't often see on your way to Ubin, a traffic jam!

ButterflyCircle was there to show some registered participants around Butterfly Hill and to teach them about butterflies. I was attached to a really wonderful group of students and their enthusiastic teacher, who were there to learn more in order to set up a butterfly garden. We saw some pretty cool things: a Mottled Emigrant came to lay eggs just in front of us, we found a number of uncommon butterflies and I got them to get right up close with the butterflies that were willing. One of the rarer species around was this form-agenor female of the Great Mormon.

This stunning giant was laying eggs on the pomelo bush and caught everyone's attention. The great mormon is polymorphic, so the female occurs in many greatly differing forms, some of which have not been seen in years. Better still, my group got to see something extremely special - a rediscovery! A strikingly patterned butterfly was flitting incessantly around a tree trunk and I knew straight away that we had something new. And it was - a rediscovery for Singapore, the Malayan Nawab (polyura moori)! It has been suspected to still be extant here and now we have the proof. 

The excitement, however, didn't stop there. We were extremely honoured to have a different kind of visitor to the hill, The Prime Minister of Singapore. He - along with his troop of bodyguards, cameramen and the press - came to find out more about the hill and it's fluttering inhabitants. We took him around on a little tour and shared our knowledge of butterflies with him. What struck me was how willing he was to talk to us and hear our thoughts. Here's me sharing some of the places I love to go for butterflies.

Photo by Mr Loke PF

He was also incredibly friendly and down to earth so after having a short discussion about butterflies, we just had to take some pictures with him. Yes, by pictures, I mean we-fies. It's not everyday that you get to do this! There I am, beaming from the back. As you can see, height is something I don't have very much of...

Photo by Lemon TYK, whose in front

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also announced at the opening of the event, several plans for Ubin which were mostly about preserving the rustic charm of Ubin and enhancing it. I think it is great that the government is getting involved in the conservation of natural places like Ubin. Hopefully, with events like Ubin Day, more people will understand and respect nature and maybe even get down to help in the race to conserve. I had an amazing time on Ubin Day, all thanks to Mr Khew for inviting me and of course, Mr Grant and Ria for their inexhaustible passion and energy. Here's to the wilderness!

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Male Banded Flower Mantis in Singapore!

Continuing from my previous post about the tiger orchids, here is one of my most exciting non-butterfly encounters: a small, delicate insect found hiding behind the giant orchid blossoms - a mantis. I was combing the orchid plant for butterflies when I saw it staring right at me. Encountering a mantis is quite unusual for me so I decided to look closer and take a few pictures.

It was an inconspicuous insect, only around 2cm long and given its intricate patterns of pink and green with whitish bands, it was surprisingly hard to spot from afar when it moved off somewhere else. Until I reached home, the little creature stayed a pretty mantis and nothing more but that changed when Mr Kurt cleared its identity. It was a Theopropus elegans, The Banded Flower Mantis and it was a male.

The banded flower mantis is strictly a forest dependent species and in Singapore, it is very rare. There have been a few sightings in the past that mainly come from the central catchment nature reserves. Surprisingly, no male specimens have been encountered here as of 2008 and I an unaware of any more recent records - possibly making this one the first!

Ferocious predators, these mantids are known to hunt a wide range of insects - flies, moths, grasshoppers and even katydids. I suspect this male had been lured out from the adjacent Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, where there have been previous records of females, by the flowering orchids which attracted a great number of insect prey. The females are over twice the size of the males and their colour ranges from green to a stunning pink.

I am still in shock, having seen such a rare and beautiful creature. It was pure luck that I encountered it. Interestingly, a female was observed around the same time amongst tiger orchids at a different location. It is encouraging to know that this lovely mantis is still breeding in the depths of our small forest patches and hopefully we would be able to study it better in the future.  

I owe almost all my knowledge of the banded flower mantis to this fantastic report, published in 2008 by T.M. Leong and Npark's S.C. Teo. It documents previous sightings and also follows the rearing of the mantid's eggs. I believe it may also be the only comprehensive report on this species from our little island so give it a read!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

On Hold

I'll be busy for the next three weeks with my examinations.The rest of the Tiger Orchis posts will come after that. Sorry about that!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

On The Prowl: Tiger Orchids

There are tigers roaming in Singapore - well, almost. Recently, many nondescript fern-like plants all over the island have been set ablaze by thousands of fiery flowers. These huge plants, some two metres tall, are tiger orchids - and they're in bloom. 

This spectacle only happens every four or five years and lasts for up to two months when it does. Many of the tiger orchids planted in Singapore flowered last year in May: our first flowering season since they went extinct in the wild here a long time ago. I'm guessing that these plants in bloom now are the ones which did not flower last year. In an effort to reintroduce various orchid species in Singapore, tiger orchids have been planted in many locations, one of them being my favourite haunt, Dairy Farm Nature Park.

The tiger orchid (Grammatophyllum speciosum) is the world's largest orchid species, in terms of the entire plant's size. Some specimens span over three metres wide and weigh close to two thousand kilogrammes! It is distributed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines, growing as an epiphyte (on trees - very strong ones given their weight) in lowland rainforests. However, they seem to do just as well growing on the ground. When not sporting metre-long inflorescencesthey appear like ferns; their leaves are thin and strap like.

The flowers grow up to about ten centimetres wide and are yellow, with dazzling crimson spotting, and smell wonderful; soft and sticky-sweet, of ylang ylang and mangoes. It is no wonder there were so many bees swarming around the flowers purposefully. Quite a few joggers were drawn to take a whiff and admire the sheer number of flowers too. 

With the end of this flowering season, the tiger orchids will become adorned with dangling seed pods and hopefully a few of the billions of minuscule seeds released will drift in the wind and settle in a crevice on a strong tree, waiting to start a new generation of tiger orchids. And until the next flowering season, the orchids will be much quieter and plainer, dressed only in dull green leaves. 

PS: Over the next few posts, I'll share some of the (just as exciting) critters that the orchids attracted.

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Malay Dartlet

It stirred up quite a bit of hype when it first appeared in Singapore in 2011; Serene Ng, Senior Biodiversity Officer of the National Biodiversity Centre of Nparks took a picture of a strange skipper - dark ochreous brown with clearly defined orange patches on both wings. It was a Malay Dartlet, a new discovery! I remember rushing over to the place it was found the weekend after the news reached me. I never got the shots I was after during the time that the Malay Dartlet colony was there but just recently, three years later, I saw it again - and this time it came to me.

I was shooting some moths attending to an array of Leea indica flowers, when a skipper began circling the bush at rapid speeds. I was shocked to see a Malay dartlet when it landed - I was in Dairy Farm Nature Park; far away from where it was discovered so many years ago. It was shortly joined by yet another Malay dartlet. They stopped at each flower for just a few seconds before moving on to the next but always came back to the same few favourite blooms. After five or ten minutes of feeding, they would fly off somewhere to sunbathe or rest in the shade.

It is encouraging that this rare butterfly has spread across the island and is no longer confined to a single grassland. However, it is not all that surpising on hindsight. The Malay dartlet caterpillars feed on a common grass, Ottochloa nodosa, that is found in many places here. Regrettably, I did not scout the area for that grass. Having two of them there could mean that they are breeding nearby. I will just have take note the next time! And for a window into the Malay dartlet's fascinating life history: Uncle Horace's wonderful post.

PS: It's been a while since I've posted! Sorry for those two dead months. School's getting busier and I will be taking my exams in a few weeks. Oh well.

Saturday, 21 June 2014


Barbets are some of the most colourful forest birds in South East Asia, with splashes of red, green, blue and yellow on their heads. They are distant relatives of the toucans and like them, their diet is largely fruit based. Somewhere along the line of Singapore's industrialisation, most of our barbets went extinct and now there are only three extant species surviving. I have seen two of them recently. This is the first, the Coppersmith Barbet.

The coppersmith barbet is by far the commoner species and it lives in parks and gardens.It is a small bird, about 16cm in length, with a disproportionately chunky bill. The word 'barbet' comes from the barb like bristles at the base of their beaks. It is a dark turquoise-green bird with patches of yellow and red on its face. This one was observed bringing food to its nest hole on the underside of a branch.

Every ten minutes or so, one of the parents would fly in and deliver berries. The chicks were rather old already, for younger chicks are fed with more insects. The nest is in the centre of the picture below.

It was very thrilling to watch the chick's head pop out from the nest each time the parent came by to feed it. From afar this bird is actually difficult to spot due to its predominantly green plumage and its habit of sitting still for long periods of time. It is much more often heard than seen, its call being a continuous tunk tunk tunk that has been likened to the sound of a coppersmith at work.

The next barbet is our sole forest barbet, the Red Crowned Barbet. It has an even more pronounced Quattron-colour scheme but is still well camouflaged in the forest canopy. It is a much larger bird, usually about 27cm in length, mainly apple green with its head adorned with bright blue, red and yellow. It has the same bristles as the coppersmith barbet. I encountered this one along a forest trail.

I initially thought it was trying to swallow a large unripe berry but then realised that it was eating an arboreal snail! This barbet has been known to take a wide variety of food items. However, it is strictly a forest dweller and is restricted to the Central Catchment and Bukit Timah nature reserves. Here is a closer view.

This barbet frequents areas with dead trees because they prefer to nest in soft rotting wood. There are very few nesting records and I believe there have only been two in Singapore; one in 1979 and one in 2006. Like all barbets, they are drawn to fruiting trees, especially fruiting figs. I was lucky to see this one just above my eye level; they are known to be canopy feeders and rarely descend to the middle storey of the forest.

The last of Singapore's three barbets, the Lineated barbet, is not so colourful, being brown and streaky, with green wings and belly and a patch of bare yellow facial skin. It is a rather new bird here which spread from Indonesia in the late 1900s. I unfortunately do not have any pictures of it. So there we have it, the RBGY birds.

Barbets of Singapore Part 2, by Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research
Barbets of Singapore Part 3, by Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research

Two brilliantly comprehensive studies of the coppersmith and red crowned barbets 
respectively, from which I learnt all I now know about barbets.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Sky Blue

It was a sad and wet wash-out day until a small but brilliantly blue piece of the sky fluttered in front of me. It was one of our more oddly named butterflies, the Sky Blue, Jamides caeruleus.

I find it strange that where there are thousands of butterflies with 'sky blue' uppersides, this one took the title. There's no doubt, however, that it deserves the name. When it flies, the bright blue upperside almost glows. It didn't open its wings for me but it did give me a glimpse of the stunning blue when it shuffled its hindwings up and down.

The sky blue is an uncommon forest butterfly in Singapore but can be found around flowering Yellow Saraca trees (saraca cauliflora), their larval host plant. The caterpillars feed on the orange-yellow flowers, which grow in large clusters around the trunk and the larger branches. Here is a beautifully detailed account of the butterfly's life history. 

The sky blue has a fluttering flight and usually does not fly above a metre, staying close to the ground, unless it is very disturbed. I initially thought this one was a Glistening Caerulean (J. elpis), a close cousin of the sky blue. The two are superficially similar and only after close scrutiny and consulting the butterfly expert, Dr  
Seow, did I find out it's real identity. 

Photographing it was another challenge but fortunately it stayed very still even when there were countless joggers running past it. I even managed to coax it onto my finger! Unusually, a lady walking by came to see what I was shooting. More often than not, people would look over when they see a boy with a huge camera aiming at some leaves but walk by when they can't see what about the leaves is so interesting. Lucky for the lady, who took lots of pictures of it on her phone; you don't often run into a sky blue!

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Banded Leaf Monkeys!

In Singapore, the word 'Monkey' often refers to the ever common Long Tailed Macaque. They are found in every corner of our forests and have now spread to urban areas too. Many of us forget that we actually have another species of monkey - the critically endangered Banded Leaf Monkey, which was at one point in time thought to be extinct in Singapore.

During the mid 1980s, the population of banded leaf monkeys hit a low of around 10 individuals; a single troop deep in the forests of the central catchment nature reserve. Their future seemed bleak. However, four years ago, National University of Singapore student Andie Ang found that the monkeys were hanging on and that the population had grown to about forty individuals. There was hope.

The banded leaf monkey is dark grey with with paler lips and a grey underside. Their tails are often even longer than their body length. it is an arboreal monkey and unlike the long tailed macaque, it rarely descends to the ground. Being very shy, they are hardly seen. I was exceedingly excited when I encountered this small group of about four monkeys passing through the forest. I initially thought they were the usual macaques, but when I looked up into the canopy, I saw black monkeys! The group seemed to be on the move in search of food.

It's a relief to know that they are still surviving. However, I think that there isn't enough awareness about their story. While research is quietly going on in the background to uncover more about them so as to conserve them, people need to know about them. The banded leaf monkey is Singapore's reminder that nature is fragile and needs to be respected.


Saturday, 7 June 2014

Another Good Day

It looks like the hot weather is here to stay. My recent visit to Dairy Farm Nature Park was quite eventful, even though I spent most of the time hiding in the shade from the merciless sun. A fair bit of the activity was actually at the entrance of the park, where the human traffic was very high! The first butterfly was a pristine Malayan Sunbeam.  

When I accidentally disturbed it, it flew down to the concrete pavement to puddle. Every few seconds, someone would walk past and frighten it, making it difficult to get a picture of. There seems to have been quite a few sightings of sunbeams recently.

After a while, it got tired of all the people walking by and retreated to some taller shrubs, way out of my reach. 

There were a number of Malayan Eggflies at the entrance too. Their caterpillar hostplant, Pipturus Argentus (Australian Mulberry), must grow nearby since I always see them flying there. The Malayan eggfly occurs in different forms. This one, with a whitened patch on the hindwing, is form nivas.

The females of this species are known to guard their eggs, which they lay by the hundreds, until they perish. Malayan eggflies are highly territorial insects and constantly fly out to attack intruders to the "air space", including other individuals of the species. This can be quite a nuisance for butterfly photographers, for they sometimes get excited by falling leaves! This is another form, form anomala.

Where the cyclists were washing their shoes, this little Fluffy Tit came down to puddle. Its long feathery tails were fluttering in the wind. Unlike the sunbeam, it was not  at all bothered by the presence of people walking by.

After spending quite some time lying flat on the ground and shooting it, I walked up the main dirt road all the way until I hit the flower patch at the top of the hill. It was disappointingly quiet and besides a few monkeys, there was hardly anything to see. I watched this male Common Mormon chase a female relentlessly for a while.

She eventually grew tired of him and sped off. Later, I found her feeding at a cluster of pagoda flowers. She must have been very tired and hungry from being chased by the male and spent a long time at the flowers to re-fuel.

Back at the entrance of the park, there were numerous little blues puddling on the road. They were wary and flew off at the slightest disturbance. When puddling, they also hardly stood still and were crawling around a fair bit. This male Pointed Line Blue was one of the more cooperative models.

Looking back at my pictures from Dairy Farm in 2009, when my family and I first visited it, the nature park seems to have always been a great place for butterflies. I think its very close proximity to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve allows it to have a great range of forest plants and trees, which helps to attract butterflies; they usually stay near their caterpillar host plants. I can't believe that I've been butterfly-blogging for five years already. Onward!

(This is near the entrance, in 2009. It still looks the same!)