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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
A Spectacle of Life in Sime Forest

By Dr Cheong Loong Fah
Photos by Lau Wan Soon and Goo Chuen Hang

It is October, the month when the forests of Singapore begin filling with myriad voices of birds that have flown in from the north, joining the chorus of resident birds. It was the prospect of seeing these migratory birds from temperate climes feeding alongside our resident tropical forest birds that lured us out to these grounds again and again. And it was in anticipation of seeing a spectacle of life that drew Won Soon, Chuen Hang and me out to the Sime forest one pre-dawn hour in October.

The darkness in the forest was lifting as we made our way to the MacRitchie reservoir. The resident Brown Hawk-owls and the Collared Scop-owls gave a few last hoots before they too subsided with the darkness. And, in the growing light of the morning, we saw a Dark-sided Flycatcher, busily making sorties from its perch.

We reached the water's edge ... the sky was still grey and the sun nowhere in sight. There was little wind in the air. A layer of mist hung over the water's surface, appearing like the slow out-breath of a land, still asleep. Every blade of grass looked as if dipped in dew ... and we could almost smell the forest that lay across the water.

Suddenly a dark form rose above the forest canopy on the opposite bank. The dark form materialised into a shape silhouetted against the still grey sky—a shape both majestic and unmistakable. A raptor! As this bird of prey circled the area just above the canopy with measured wing beats, it suddenly uttered a most bloodcurdling cry, startling us.

"Arrrrgh, arrrrgh ...... !" the eagle raised its voice again, as if something potent was stirring in its breast. Then it landed on a tree and, as we watched, it dawned on us what had urged this mighty bird to make its powerful cries. This raptor, one of our resident birds, was building a nest!

An eagle, a male, building a nest? What a symbol of life ... and renewal. It was a scene to be truly appreciated because the Grey-headed Fish-eagle has not been seen breeding for quite a long time, possibly due to competition from the White- bellied Fish-eagle.

Shortly after we heard the eagle's cries, the sun broke through the clouds. The day was, after all, to be fair. The wetland beside the reservoir now came alive with the flitting forms of many birds: a Lesser Coucal foraging on the far bank, a White-rumped Shama, watchful of our presence (behind a bush). Several resident bulbuls acknowledged the brightening day with their typical fluttering movements.

The soaring flight of
an eagle (here a White-bellied Fish-eagle) is
one of the most beautiful sights to contemplate

A Dark-necked Tailorbird invests the bushes with
its liquid notes

Striped Tit-babler
collecting nesting material

Purple-throated Sunbird keeps the still noon air brisk by its incessant activities

Chestnut-bellied Malkoha
skittering from branch
to branch

Juvenile Orange-bellied Flowerpecker
looking out, ready
to embrace life
As we stood drinking in the picturesque scenery, we caught sight of a most unusual bulbul. Our first migratory bird? Better yet ... there was a pair of them out there. (We saw them at intermediate range, in good light and for quite a few minutes).

How exciting it was to see these birds flitting among several low bushes in the wetland area ... and to wonder what forests they had passed through, what storms they must have braved winging their way here on their southward passage from temperate climes.

As October is the start of the migratory season, this pair would be among the earliest of migratory birds to winter or refuel here in our forests. We could not make an absolute identification but they moved like typical bulbuls. One bird remained on the same perch long enough for us to set up our 20-60 power scope.

Besides its blackish head, slightly crested, we spotted its yellow under tail coverts. The only bulbuls with such field marks are the Brown-breasted Bulbul and the Sooty-headed Bulbul. On closer scrutiny we eliminated the possibility that it was a Sooty-headed Bulbul because of its brown ear covert and its somewhat indistinct breast band. But we could not be absolutely sure it was a Brown-breasted Bulbul because the bird presented itself in such a way we could not see whether there was a whitish patch on its upper tail covert or white tips to its tall feathers (features of the Brown-breasted Bulbul). Alas too, the birds were too far away for us to hear their song ... even if they sang.

We stayed in the area until it was 8.30 am by which time these bulbuls had left. Will they return to this place, to this forest? It is our glimpses of things beautiful yet transitory that remind us of how precious and precarious all of life is.

Meanwhile the sun had been steadily climbing. Near the edge of the forest we saw seven to eight raptors soaring and circling in the thermal updraft. What a sight! By now the forest chorus of birds had subsided except for the lulling tremolo of some insects. The oppressive heat of the tropics had settled over the forest. Time for us to move on ....

A Real Oriental Dwarf!
We took the road leading to Upper Pierce Reservoir and parked where a rushing stream emerged from the Central Catchment area. We headed towards the area surrounding a large water pipeline. As we alighted from our car, we caught sight of a wisp of red flying past us, as if a playful child had run ahead of us, screaming and livening up the place. "Oriental Dwarf!" shouted Chuen Hang. "What, Oriental Dove?" a wave of confusion swept over us.

An Oriental Dwarf
Kingfisher, the rarest of
our kingfishers.
If it were to become extinct,
something of gladness
would go out from nature

Then we saw it—no longer a tantalising wisp or flash—but a real Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (or Black-backed Kingfisher) perched on a branch, just a couple of wing beats away. We could hardly believe our eyes and our luck at seeing this gorgeous bird that had winged its way here from some northern land.

The bird was rippling with colours, jewel colours that at the same time had a soft quality that rendered its beauty tender and ephemeral. Of course there is no one symbol of 'being'. Nature reveals her being in infinite forms and perfection. Our eyes roamed over the Oriental Dwarf until, once more, we sighed with admiration. Truly, it seemed as if the forest had taken on an enchanted quality. This splendid kingfisher gazed at us, alert but seemingly unafraid. By reputation, the kingfisher is a shy bird, so we almost felt like trespassers. Then we wondered if it stayed so still because it was weary; it may have just arrived after a long flight on some ancient air lane. After a while, it too left the forest to its quiet and heat ... as we did.

Dr Cheong Loong Fah is a lecturer in Electrical Engineering at NUS.

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