All you need is a pair of binoculars, walking shoes, and friends.
The tiny green bird flutters in front of me, surprised as I am by our sudden cross-species encounter. I was walking out to my balcony when it came out of nowhere and almost crashed into my face. The creature backpedals frantically in the air, and for a second we stare at each other, inches apart, before it flies away. I note its black throat, its slender, downward-curved beak, the yellow-green underside and the glossy blue feathers around its eyes. It is an olive-backed sunbird, a pretty little flyer that I recognize from my old birding manuals. Until now I had never seen it in the flesh.
This incident happens quickly, but I am delighted to discover that some of my old instincts remain. I was able to quickly list the bird’s features and make a positive ID. These are the reflexes of a special type of nerd — the kind that likes to hide behind bushes and observe our feathered friends. You see, I was an obsessive birdwatcher when I was a teenager in the Philippines, until I had to give it up as other concerns got in the way. This little run-in with the sunbird takes me back to 25 years ago — I feel the urge to start chasing birds again.
The Garden City
Fortunately, I now live in what many consider to be a birder’s paradise. Singapore may be one of Asia’s most developed countries, but it is also among the greenest, with four nature reserves and over 300 parks dotting its 724km2 territory. Singapore, with its “City in a Garden” approach to urban planning, manages to infuse its concrete jungle with plenty of wildlife habitats.
Indeed, most roads on this island are tree-lined, and air-pollution is a rare phenomenon. And over here, one is never far from a park, nature reserve or a patch of plain, undisturbed jungle. I decide to go all-out in my birding and give myself a little challenge: spend the next two days birdwatching around Singapore, and see how many species I can spot.
To get acquainted with the local birding scene, I browse a few interest groups on social media (Singapore Birders on Facebook is particularly active). I even manage to dig up a guide to birding hotspots on the Straits Times website. In a few hours, I have all the tips I need to start my solo expedition.
As any bird nerd will tell you, the best times to go birdwatching are the early morning and late afternoon, when our favorite creatures are most active. The next day I am out at sunrise in one of the island’s most popular birding spots: Pasir Ris Park.
Located right next to an MRT station, this 70-hectare reserve combines jungle, mangrove and coastal habitats with jogging tracks, camping sites and even barbecue pits. It’s also connected to a greater network of green spaces via a “Nature Way” — a foliage-lined public pathway that replicates the natural structure of forests. I saunter into the park grounds and take position by a mangrove channel. Armed with a camera and a telephoto lens, I begin watching and waiting.
It doesn’t take long for my feathered friends to make their presence known. First are the birdcalls puncturing the dawn: a kingfisher’s loud shriek, a wild dove cooing, a bunch of unseen mynahs chattering in the bushes. Then as the first rays of sunrise hit the treetops, they begin to appear. A squawking parrot — possibly a white cockatoo — zooms overhead, followed by a pair of huge, slow-moving grey herons. On the brackish shoreline below, white-breasted waterhens quietly poke through the mud. I note these down on my species list, and set out to see what else I can find.
On the park’s coastal side, more birds await. I follow a pack of red-breasted parakeets as they raid palm trees for their ripe areca nuts. An oriental pied hornbill perches on a nearby branch, and gamely watches me as I train my camera on it. Back among the mangroves, I quietly stalk a white-breasted kingfisher, who simply stares at me when I get within eight meters (I swear I see it yawn). And there is a rufous-tailed tailorbird weaving its nest out of leaves and spiderwebs right behind a park bench.
Barely two hours have passed, and my list of sightings has swelled to over twenty species. The birds keep showing up, and it is so easy to spot them that it feels like I am cheating. As midday approaches, I rest with a few local birders whom I met at the park. One of them is Andre Raharja, a retired engineer who comes here almost every day to photograph birds. “Singapore is so small that all the birds are in one place. And we have no countryside, so you can expect the wildlife population to be concentrated,” he says, explaining the bountiful bird count. “Our government is also doing a good job in preserving their habitats. This park, for example, is surrounded by roads and buildings, but its mangrove forest has been carefully preserved,” he continues. This commitment to the environment is championed by the country’s National Parks Board, which is tasked with creating and conserving green havens for both humans and wildlife.
Completely gone to the birds
Stoked by the morning’s “harvest”, I am raring to see what other species await elsewhere in this city. In the afternoon I head west to the Southern Ridges, where I follow an elevated walkway through two kilometers of secondary forest. This stretch of jungle is just a small part of a contiguous “green corridor” that connects ten kilometers of public parks. Never mind if the light rains yield a low count — the sight of an uncaged and uneaten red junglefowl (essentially a wild, native chicken) rustling through the undergrowth is enough to make it worthwhile.
But of course, more birds parade in front of me the next morning at another spot. Located on the northern edge of Singapore, the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve — a 130-hectare biodiversity park — displays three different sunbirds (including the country’s unofficial national bird, the crimson sunbird), lesser racket-tailed drongos and a particularly sweet-sounding songbird called the Abbott’s babbler. From behind a ready-made blind, I join other birders in photographing egrets and redshanks in their muddy coastal environment. We all whisper excitedly as a white-bellied sea eagle flies by with a serpent hanging from its claws.
This is a bird-nerd overload, and I can’t believe my luck. Barely two days of birding and already my score is pushing forty — that is ten percent of this island’s total number of avian species. But then again, given the abundance of green spaces and the thriving habitats in Singapore, it is really quite normal to see such a large variety of birds. I stow my gear for the usual midday pause (birds don’t do much around this time of day) and prepare to close out my second birding day with a final excursion.
If the morning’s field trip took me to the outskirts, the afternoon finds me in the heart of the city. The 160-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens is known for its collection of heritage trees and thousands of plant specimens from all over the world. It also has its own lively community of resident birds, as I quickly find out. Here, I watch brilliant blue-tailed bee-eaters chill with equally colorful stork-billed kingfishers. And while I photograph swallows gliding over the nearby eco-lake, a jogger points me to a tamarind tree bristling with ripe fruit and bright yellow flowers — and a lively pack of blue-crowned hanging parrots.
I stay for a while under this tree, simply happy to once again indulge in my long-neglected hobby. I can’t believe that it has been almost three decades since I basked in the company of my feathered friends. Amazing, too, is the fact that I had lived in Singapore for so long without realizing how easy it was to jump back into it. My birding challenge ends at sunset with a final score of 53 different species. This number will quickly rise, though, because I won’t stop chasing birds in this garden city.
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Smile magazine.