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!)

Monday, 2 June 2014

Butterfly Colours - Orange

Interestingly, the colour Orange derives its name from the orange fruit (citrus sp) and not the other way around. While there is no butterfly group known as 'the oranges', orange is one of the most common butterfly colours, except for in Swallowtails (papilionidae), where it is usually only found in small spots. The colour is bright and often symbolises fun and entertainment. For butterflies, orange is often used as a warning colour, like red and yellow. Many milkweed butterflies, such as the ever-popular Monarch, use this colour to advertise their poisonousness. 

(Left to Right, Top to Bottom)
The Leopard, Common Tiger, Fluffy Tit, Common Posy, Cruiser, Burmese Lascar,
Common Sailor, Yamfly, Tawny Coster