Spotlight on Singapore Big Year, a year’s worth of bird race!

Serious business birdspotting ST 13 Jan 2013

Serious business birdspotting 1 ST 13 Jan 2013

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Winged fancies

Record 265 species spotted during first-ever S’pore Big Year, a year-long bird-spotting race – Grace Chua

As 2012 waned, a motley group of birders with cameras, binoculars and field scopes craned their necks at a tiny dot circling in the sky.

They alternated between an excited buzz and reverential silence.

Could the circling dot be a rufous-bellied hawkeagle, a rare winter visitor to Singapore? No- it was merely a more common osprey.

Four of the birders at Kranji Marsh were taking part in the first-ever Singapore Big Year, a year-long bird race to spot the most species in a single year.

The day before, one of them – veteran birder Lim Kim Chuah – had struck gold, in a manner of speaking.

The 50 year-old had spotted a yellow-vented flowerpecker, a shy brown forest bird identified by a flash of yellow beneath the tail, at the top of Bukit Timah Hill.

It was the 262nd species he had spotted in the year.

More than 370 species of birds either live in Singapore or pass through on their way to parts south or north. This is perhaps more bird species than there are serious birdwatchers.

A Big Year is a numbers game, an informal practice started in the 1930s when American birdwatchers began crisscrossing their country in search of new species.

By the end of last year, eight of the 15 .Big Year participants had surpassed the previous one-year Singapore record of 247 different bird species.

Mr Lim’s elder brother Kim Seng; an outdoor education lecturer at a polytechnic, set that record in 2005 on a solo Big Year.

“When we got a lot of people together we actually found more birds,” said the 53-year -old of his record being broken.

Different birds arrive on the island at different times of the year, and prefer different habitats – so it helps to have a group that knows where and when to spot them.

A rule of the game is that you cannot just hear the bird – you have to see it or it does not count.

But it is all self-reported, based on an honour system. “Don’t bluff yourself, (because) nobody’s going to care whether you do,” said Mr .Alfred Chia, a 52-year-old marketing manager.

Two of the Big Year birders, however, had set themselves even harder challenges.

Biotechnology firm owner Francis Yap, 43, had to photograph every bird or it does not count, while private tutor Andrew Chow, 52, insisted oh sketching them.

The year began with a hike through the Central Catchment Area, and the hunt was on.

The 12 men and three women who took part went to great lengths, driving to Choa Chu Kang to hunt for a Siberian stonechat spotted at a canal and plunging into the wilds of Seletar in search of a dumpy migratory waterbird known as Baillon’s crake.

They also made sacrifices. Once, Mr Chia had just arrived at a church wedding luncheon, given his hongbao and had yet to take a single bite when he got word of a green-backed flycatcher sighting.

Ms Yong Yik Shih, 41, legal counsel for a small trading firm, warned over coffee with this reporter: “If I get .an alert right now, I’m off!”

In the end, Mr Lim Kim Seng topped the list again,with 265 bird species.

The Lim brothers, two of five siblings, got their birding start growing up in a Sembawang kampung and competing with each other.

Mr Yap, who picked up photography nine years ago when his daughter was born, has been snapping photos of birds for about two years.

The families of serious birders are tolerant, sometimes even encouraging. “It’s important that you chase your own dreams,” said Mr Yap’s wife, Madam Lim Mui Soon, 39. “Plus, it gets him outdoors.”

The children show the occasional interest.

Mr Yap’s nine-year-old daughter is “quite observant”, said her mother, and likes nature, though she is not inclined to join the more rugged hikes.

But Mr Lim Kitn Chuah’s 16-year-old daughter prefers to chase a more rarefied breed: the K-pop star.

Unlike their counterparts elsewhere who are highly competitive about their spots, Big Year birders, here are uncommonly generous: they share sightings via Facebook; text message and WhatsApp.

“If you are too competitive it can be just a numbers game,” Mr Lim Kim Seng said.

Instead, the birders are also interested in bird ecology and behaviour, documenting the rare-bird sightings, population distribution and whether certain birds were arriving earlier or later than usual.

In any case, last year’s record may be hard to surpass.

“It’s more challenging as Singapore becomes more urbanised,” he added.

For instance, the former Bidadari Cemetery – home to rare birds like the Japanese paradise flycatcher – is slated for development into a Housing Board estate.

Bird populations have also changed over the years. “Ten to 15 years ago the Asian koel was a rare sight,” Mr Lim said.

Last year, a writer to The Straits Times Forum Page complained that the bird’s distinctive “ko -well, ko-well” call disrupted his sleep every morning.

The birders are already plotting the next Big Year, possibly next year, although some are taking a break.

The day after the new year began, Ms Yong posted on Faceoook: “Now that the Big Year has ended, and rest has come to many of us, I’m curious how many . birds you folks have seen since the start of 2013, 39 hours ago. ·

“I have seen a grand total of ONE.” , She had left the house only to go to work last Wednesday, she said.

(c) 2013 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

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