Chinese Pond Heron and its status

posted in: Heron-Egret-Bittern | 14


In March 2007, the appearance of a Javan Pond Heron (Ardeola speciosa) in Darwin, Australia, had Aussie twitchers in a flap. The bird was apparently blown in from Indonesia with Cyclone George and subsequently took up residency in the northern suburbs. News of its presence spread quickly and twitchers from all corners of Australia flew in for a glimpse.

This year, also in March, the Javan Pond Heron was sighted at Singapore’s Lorong Halus (left). As expected, the appearance of the heron had our local twitchers in a similar flap.

The bird was in its breeding plumage and this confirmed its identity without any dispute. In the absence of this plumage it is extremely difficult to differentiate it from the Chinese Pond Heron (Ardeola bacchus).


The Chinese Pond Heron, on the other hand, is an uncommon winter visitor and local birders are familiar with it (right). Not so the Javan, reported in Lim (1997) as a probable vagrant. However, its earlier occurrences have been challenged by Wang & Hails (2007) who believe that the status of the Javan was, at most, “uncertain”. The earlier sightings in breeding plumage, were photographed at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in October 1994 and again in March 2003. Our field ornithologist Wang Luan Keng believes that these birds could be escapees from the zoo, which has some free-flying specimens.

For reasons unclear to us, the Javan Pond Heron was recently added to the checklist of birds produced by the Nature Society’s Bird Group Records Committee (see reference below). Now, if a species is a new record for the country, there should be proper documentation published somewhere. Birders would like to know whether the sighting in Sungei Buloh in 2003 convinced the Records Committee that the bird was a genuine wild species and the rationale for its acceptance. If not, was it a subsequent sighting? And by whom and when? Maybe I am not aware of such publication/s?

Pond herons that visited Singapore in the early years were always wearing their winter plumage, thus they were mostly assumed to be Chinese Pond Herons. However, some of the recent (post-1997) sightings were in their breeding plumage, thus making their identification as Javan Pond Herons more creditable. Apparently, more and more sightings of these birds in their breeding plumage have been reported during the recent years.

The probability of the Javan Pond Heron sighted at Lorng Halus being a wild bird is great, considering its location, away from the zoo and birdpark. The fact that there were clear images of the bird removes any doubt that it was a Javan. Images are now playing an important role in birding. For one, any reasonably good photographer can make an impact on new sightings, while in the past there would always be doubts until an experienced member of the Records Committee personally saw the bird.

It should also be noted that Lim’s field guide and checklist are popular publications for the lay birdwatchers, whose main interest is identification. On the other hand, the annotated checklist of Wang & Hails is a scientific document written for ornithologists and scientific-minded birders. The annotated checklist was peer reviewed and The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology where it was published is accepted by the scientific community as an international journal of repute.

YC Wee & Wang Luan Keng
March 2008
(Images by Lee Tiah Khee)

1. Lim, Kim Seng (1997). Birds – An illustrated field guide to the birds of Singapore. Sun Tree, Singapore.
2. Lim, Kim Seng (2007). Pocket checklist of the birds of the Republic of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore) Bird Group Records Committee.
3. Wang. L.K. & Hails, C. J. (2007). An annotated checklist of birds of Singapore. Raffles Bull. Zool. Suppl. 15:1-179.

14 Responses

  1. Ding Li

    It might be interesting to note that a significant part of the data in Wang & Hails, (2007) was obtained from amateur birders like us who submit records from our birding sessions, whether or not it is peer reviewed. As is the case in many other countries. We just cannot, and shouldn’t be too quick to draw the line between what is scientific and what is laymen because too much of ornithological knowledge nowadays are found by laymen out in the field while many many scientists are busily publishing papers or working in museums.

    This recent article in Bioscience 58, 2008 might be of interest..on the role of volunteer “citizen’ scientists.

  2. YC

    Agreed, Ding Li. Wang & Hails obtained data from amateur birders, just as David Wells had to depend to them for his two volumes. However, peer-reviewed publications tend to be transparent in their treatments of data while popular articles tend not to be so. Thanks for the link. Maybe I can get something out of it for a post.

  3. YC

    Thanks to Ding Li, I am able to read about Citizen Scientists in the US who help collect field data for ornithologists and other scientists.

    The situation is similar in Singapore. And DL is correct in saying the Wang & Hails (2007) depended on these volunteers for materials. Both authors managed to obtain most of the info needed from Singapore Avifauna as they wrote their manuscript from Singapore. Wells (1999, 2007) was not so fortunate as he operated from UK. He was not able to get copies of SA, even when he wanted to subscribe to it and despite the fact that he was listed as the publication’s adviser. Whatever few copies he got (1991 editions onwards) were mostly smuggled to him by Dr Ho Hua Chew and Sutari Supari. Volunteers do a great service helping to accumulate field data, but these need to be made available to researchers. Hopefully, the situations will change later this year.

  4. Ding Li

    On the contrary, there is a tendency for researchers to hold data until it appears in journals or books. So hopefully researchers (eg wells)should do likewise too.

  5. YC

    I have no problem when people keep their data to themselves, even when they are not able to make use of them. But to do so and at the same time boast to all and sundry that Avifauna was widely valued by Dr David Wells is nothing but hypocritical. Maybe Dr Ho forgot that his chairman gave instructions not to send issues to DW? And Dr Ho forgot that he himself smuggled copies to DW?

    Check out:

  6. Ding Li

    I do not see why there is should be this hooha with wells and wells and wells. There is more to ornithology than a handful of dusty old records i’m sure. Birds of the thai-malay peninsula is long out. I just hope that all this squabbling and waxing lyrical about one or two vagrants will soon end and everybody get their binoculars out into the field to educate, observe birds and lobby for conservation. Species don’t wait for bird lovers-conservationists-ornithologists squabbles. Species are going extinct!

  7. YC

    We just cannot sweep past misdeeds and irregularities under the carpet. We need to confront them heads on so that they do not continue to occur. We need to do things according to rules, otherwise our credibility will be questioned. And this will not be good for conservation and birding. Finally, we need a more enlightened leadership. Hopefully, you can help see these realised.

  8. Kok Hui

    Perhaps letting bygone be bygone, and new leadership who can look beyond the past will make the local birding scene more amicable and sharing of bird info more prevalent.

  9. YC

    This is what we have been asking for the last two years. Until new, enlightened leaders are put in place (no lingering leaders), it is difficult to move on.

  10. Ding Li

    True that leadership change is needed but clearly the amount of targeted ‘attacks’ on individuals or organisations is unacceptable. The current state of politicking amongst Singaporean birders, ornithologists and photographers put the entire singapore birding community to shame! People should wake up and realize how much more they can do for conservation united than as fragments!

  11. YC

    Yes, a shameful and disgraceful affair! We need change and fast. Only a new clean slate of enlightened leaders can lead us into a new era of local birding.

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