An article by guest writer Wee Yeow Chin. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.
Trained as a botanist, I have always been involved in plants before getting interested in birds about fours years back. But I have been watching birdwatchers watching birds far longer that that. At a vulnerable stage of my working career, I was conscripted to fill the post of Hon. Secretary of the then Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch). I was then a newly recruited junior teaching staff of the then Department of Botany, National University of Singapore. As secretary, I had the opportunity of associating closely with the birdwatching members of the society. More than a decade later, I was pushed into the post of Ag. Chairman when the incumbent went on sabbatical. In that year, I had the privilege of leading the local branch into a fully national society, the Nature Society (Singapore). As its founding Hon. President for the next five years, I had close and personal dealings with birdwatchers.
In 1995 I stepped down from the post, a few years prior to my retirement from my teaching position in the university. In retrospect, I am glad I stepped down when I did. It is always to your advantage to move aside when you are doing reasonably well than otherwise. After an absence of some years from directly watching birdwatchers, I started watching birds. This came about when a female Asian Koel laid her egg in the nest of a pair of Common Crows lodged in the crown of one of my palms. The koel is a nest parasite and by not wasting time building its own nest and by getting other birds to incubate its eggs and brood its chicks, it can concentrate on the more serious job of propagating its species. Although such behaviour has long been known by birdwatchers in the western world, details were not locally documented after decades of watching birds.
Then a pair of Pink-necked Green Pigeons built a nest in one of my trees. Seeing the male always in the nest, incubating the eggs and brooding the chicks, set me wondering what role the female played other than laying the eggs. A search in the net as well as among local ornithological writings drew a blank until I chanced upon a book on British birds. There, I learnt that the female shares responsibilities with the male, except that she takes on night duties. Again, local birdwatchers were unaware of this, or if they knew, they were not sharing.
It suddenly dawned on me that local birdwatchers were more interested in watching birds than studying them. We generally know what birds we have and most birdwatchers can identify them in the field. But few were concerned with what birds do, other than fly, feed and breed. This realisation led me to abandon watching plants to the joys of watching birds.
Watching birds is a western phenomenon, one that has a very long history. It was brought to Singapore during the colonial years when British biologists were sent over to collect specimens to stock the museums of Europe. With them came colonial civil servants, not a few watched birds as a pastime. A handful of these nature enthusiasts set up the Malayan Nature Society and eventually a Singapore branch appeared on the scene. The society encouraged nature appreciation but birds became the main focus, being colourful as well as plentiful.
Birdwatching then was an informal affair. A few birders would get together to watch birds or indulge in mist-netting and bird-ringing activities. Only in 1984 was a formal Bird Group (BG) formed, with mainly expatriate members and a few locals, mainly undergraduates and academics. Organised guided walks and activities such as bird race, surveys and censuses were arranged in an effort to attract new members.
The leadership came from knowledgeable birders who had years of exposure to birdwatching in their home country Britain as well as in colonies like India and Hong Kong. Birdwatchers were encouraged to play the role of citizen scientists, collecting field data on bird behaviour. The data collected were published in an in-house newsletter, the Singapore Avifauna, which proved to be a valuable source of information on the avian fauna of the region.
Just before the society was re-registered as a Singapore Non-governmental Organisation in 1990, locals took over the leadership of the BG. Full of enthusiasm and eager to prove their worth, they did not heed the advice of the expatriate birdwatchers who gradually left to watch birds on their own. The leadership continued with activities put earlier into place. But with no further inputs from more experienced birdwatchers, members were led into a decade of recreational birdwatching. Activities became mundane and science took a backseat. It did not take long for new members to have ticked off the more common species of birds listed in their checklists. And in the absence of anything challenging to do, many simply allowed their membership to lapse. Contributions to the in-house newsletter slowly dried up. From a lively monthly, the Singapore Avifauna was transformed into an irregular quarterly. Interesting observations seen earlier were replaced with mainly sighting records and trip reports that carried lists after lists of birds purportedly seen.
Call for a New Approach to Birdwatching
Around mid-1990s an eminent ornithologist was invited to address local birdwatchers. He commented that there were eagerness among regional birdwatchers, especially the twitching genre, to simply add new species to a country’s checklist of birds, often based on casual sightings and a total lack of verification. He further urged birdwatchers to do more than simply look at birds, as there was a “need to know what the birds look like, where they live, what they eat, when and where they breed and so on.” There was then a dearth of information on the behaviour of regional birds. And although there was an earlier attempt at encouraging birdwatchers to record bird behaviour in the field, enthusiasm dissipated after 1990. Traditionally, such observations were always collected by birdwatchers, and the call was to remind them of what they were expected to do.
His call for a new approach to birdwatching in the region was not published in Nature Watch, the society’s magazine. His manuscript was then offered, and eventually published, in the Malayan Naturalist, magazine of sister organisation, the Malaysian Nature Society.
Bird Photographers and Birdwatchers
Digital photography became popular in the early 2000s and this in turn led to the popularity in bird photography. A group of photographers approached the society offering to join up and revive the then dormant Photo Group. Apparently they were rebuffed. The subsequent formation of a nature photographic society and a number of loose photographic e-groups saw bird photography flourishing beyond anyone’s expectation. This has forever changed the local birding scene. Photographers proved enthusiastic and focused while birdwatchers, after more than a decade of looking at birds, had mostly lost their enthusiasm. In no time photographers led the field in bird sightings and bird behaviour documentation.
Any new sightings saw hordes of photographers stalking the birds. Inevitably, disputes arose as photographers were accused of stressing the birds with their constant flashes, chatters and general lack of field ethics. What birdwatchers forgot was that the most conscientious of them started off being obnoxious in the field. It is with time and experience that one gradually becomes sensitive to the possibilities of disturbing birds, especially nesting birds. By not accepting photographers under their wings in the first place, birdwatchers lost a valuable opportunity to work closely with them and in the process, steer them to practice better field ethics. To the credit of photographers, their leaders are fully aware of the problems large crowds create and have set in place their very own codes of ethics.
An Alternative Bird Group
The failure of the BG to provide exciting activities short of simply looking, ticking and counting birds in the field, led to the eventual formation of the Bird Ecology Study Group (BESG) in 2005. This new group was to complement the existing bird group and provide a forum for birdwatchers interested in the study of bird behaviour. There was then an urgent need to introduce some science back to birdwatching, to the pre-1990s days when birders were actively observing birds in the field, not just looking at them.
However, getting the BESG formally recognised was a major hurdle. An alternate group posed a direct challenge to the BG’s monopoly on birds that had already been challenged by photographers outside the society. The BESG had the support of all but one member of the Executive Committee, the governing body of the society. However, not wishing to offend the powerful BG lobby, the then President consulted with the larger council members that included co-opted members, many allied to the BG. Naturally things dragged on and acceptance failed to materialise. It took the need of bringing the matter to an Extraordinary General Meeting that finally saw Exco members voting on the issue. So the BESG became an official activity group of the society.
The BESG started a weblog to propagate its aims of encouraging the study of bird behaviour, and so birdwatching entered cyberspace. The weblog began posting information that birdwatchers as well as nature enthusiasts were thirsting for and traffic increased by leaps and bounds. Currently, the number of visits to the weblog is fast approaching a million. Visitors come from all over the world, although locals make up about 40% with 37% coming from the US, UK, Australia and Malaysia. The weblog has proved to be one of the top five birding blogs in cyberspace.
Postings have always been regular and consistent, beginning with once in a day or two, increasing to daily or even twice a day. This is necessary as the volume of contributions from members as well as the public increased. So far we have posted more than 1,250 items of bird behaviour and contributions continue to flood in.
Impact of the BESG on Birdwatching
Four years after, the BESG has contributed much in terms of making birdwatchers aware of the different aspects of bird behaviour. With the help of photographers and birders, we have documented the different foods birds take as well as their foraging strategies. Data have also been gathered on nest types, which of the sexes help build them, the materials used, the nesting habits in terms of who incubate the eggs and brood the chicks, the length of the different stages, etc. Bits and pieces of information on inter-specific and intra-specific interactions of local birds were also received and posted. The weblog has in fact becomes an important database on bird behaviour that students, nature enthusiasts and even birdwatchers regularly consult.
So detailed are the observations that many of the posts have been consolidated and published in scientific journals. Obviously contributors are always acknowledged, many included as co-authors. We strongly follow the policy of giving credit where credit is due. In this way contributors will continue to share their images and observations with us.
In the process, we have made birdwatchers aware of certain of bird behaviour that are well known among their western counterparts. Two examples illustrate this. The first is anting. This is the phenomenon where certain species of birds pick up ants and place them onto their plumage. This is an unusual method of feather maintenance where the ants help get rid of microorganisms that damage the feathers. This was first observed in 1988 when a young nature enthusiast saw a Javan Myna picking up kerengga ants and placing them on its feathers. Each time it did this, it went into a curious dance, flopping around on the ground with wings outstretched. Local birdwatchers were totally unaware of its significance until 17 years later when BESG posted the account and made the phenomenon of anting common knowledge.
The second example involves birds casting pellets. Raptors and owls casting pellets of compressed bones, teeth and feathers of the preys they take are well known. Not so pellet casting by non-raptorial birds. Bee-eaters regurgitate pellets of undigested exoskeletons of the insects they eat. The pellets of kingfishers are similarly composed of bones and insect exoskeletons. Herons cast pellets made up mainly of mammals’ furs and birds’ feathers. But local birdwatchers were generally unaware of this until accounts began to appear in the BESG’s weblog. Then we received a series of images on birds in the act of casting pellets.
The 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Nature Society (Singapore) has voted in an Executive Committee that has proven to be proactive. The committee has deemed it necessary to rejuvenate the leadership of the various activity groups by encouraging long-serving leaders to give way to fresh talent. Hopefully, the society can then reinvent itself and move on to the next phase of dealing with the influx of young conservationists and nature enthusiasts. These youths have forsaken traditional organisations, operating independently as e-groups. Their energy and idealism need to be tapped and guided by more experienced practitioners, many of whom may not be all that net-savvy to be able to effectively interact with them on their turf. This is why older leaders need to move aside, taking the role of advisors and let younger members take over the leadership.
Organised birdwatchers especially, urgently need younger leaders to be able to confront the challenges ahead, whether as twitchers or citizen scientists. They need to touch base with the younger generation and work towards the same aim of enriching our knowledge of the bird behaviour of the region. This will be to the benefit of regional ornithology.
About the Writer
The writer is a botanist and author of numerous books on wayside trees, ferns and medicinal plants. His last book, published in 2005, is Plants that Heal, Thrill and Kill. He has since taken up birdwatching after his retirement from the National University of Singapore. He is currently managing the BESG weblog, http://www.besgroup.org, full time.