This paper, specially prepared by three founding members of the Bird Ecology Study Group (BESG), details the background to the local birdwatching scene, the different players through the years and the emergence of the BESG as the major player in the study of bird behaviour – until our break with the Nature Society (Singapore) in January 2012.
The second half of the 1980s can be considered the golden years of birdwatching in Singapore. The mainly expatriate birdwatchers who set up the Bird Group (BG) of the then Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), now Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS, managed to enthuse birdwatchers by their knowledge and leadership by example (Wee 2006b). Field observations of birds and their behaviour were published in the in-house newsletter, the Singapore Avifauna. The post-1990 years saw the gradual emphasis on recreational birding with the corresponding decline in field observations. As a consequence, the monthly newsletter became an “irregular” quarterly as less and less behavioural observations were received from the field (Wee & Subaraj 2009). Local birdwatchers thus embarked on a decade of “twitching” as they simply watched birds, seldom seeing beyond their plumage (Wee & Tsang 2008).
Two major players appeared in the early 2000s to change the dynamics of local birdwatching. The first was the sudden explosion of bird photographers. Eager, aggressive and focused, these photographers soon led the field in sightings and the study of bird behaviour (Chan et al. 2007a). Then in 2005, a second bird group, the Bird Ecology Study Group (BESG), was formed within the NSS (Wee 2006a). The objective of this new group is basically educational, with a subtle injection of science. This website was started, posting accounts of bird behaviour and accessible to anyone with an interest in nature in general and birds in particular. As the postings increased and the website became widely known, it attracted the participation of members of the public who began to pose questions and submit observations. Currently, the website is hugely successful and is proving to be a valuable on-line resource on the behaviour of local and regional bird species.
The two volumes by Wells (1999, 2007) on the birds of the region are glaring in their deficiencies on bird behaviour information. As far as status and population are concerned, there are supporting data. So are habitats and ecology. What need serious attention are breeding behaviour, social interaction and food habits. These show up on the weaknesses of past birdwatchers.
BESG has been reasonably successful in documenting behavioural studies, whether interpreting behavioural images showcased by photographers or encouraging birdwatchers to pay more attention to bird behaviour. Two examples illustrate this best. The first is the phenomenon of anting, something that is well known in the west. Until we posted an account in 2005, even experienced local birdwatchers were unaware of it (Wee 2008). Subsequent to the post, a number of reports of anting by Javan Myna Acridotheres javanicus were received from the field.
Casting of pellets is another example. Local birders have always been aware that raptors and owls cast pellets after swallowing preys. But none were aware that other birds, passerines as well as non-passerine, also cast pellets. A posted image of a Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus in the act of pellet casting (above) caught the imagination of birdwatchers as well as photographers that subsequently saw the latter documenting pellet casting by a Ruddy Kingfisher Halcyon coromanda, a Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis and a Tiger Shrike Lanius tigrinus (Wang et al. 2009)
From watching birds to studying birds
Studying and documenting bird behaviour open a new dimension of birdwatching, an aspect long forgotten by birdwatchers obsessed with just looking at birds. Encouraging birdwatchers to see beyond the plumage provides value-added activities that will definitely sustain their interests in birds (Chan et al. 2008, Wee & Subaraj 2009). After all, with only about 300 odd species of birds in Singapore, many coming only during the migratory months, it is not possible to sustain the interests of new enthusiasts for long. And without challenging activities, they invariably leave the society.
As we posted more and more observations, birdwatchers became exposed to the various aspects of bird behaviour. With awareness came the realisation of the need to observe and report these aspects, be they the different foods the birds take, the sites and structures of nests, the materials used in the construction of the nests, and breeding behaviour that includes which parent collects nesting materials, incubate, brood, feed the chicks, etc. Thus more and more birdwatchers, mainly beginners, are now becoming interested in these aspects and have been submitting their observations accompanied by images.
Collaboration with photographers
From the start, BESG worked closely with bird photographers, interpreting their images and posting them with accompanying accounts in the website. This new breed of bird photographers works independently, with their own network of contacts, ever since an earlier attempt to link up with the NSS was spurned (Wee & Subaraj 2009). They were leading the field in terms of new sightings, whether of new and rare species or in locating nesting sites, but no more. Now, the independent birdwatchers who roam the field with a camera or a videocam, are bringing back new behavioural traits.
Photographers were once considered a threat by birdwatchers and viewed with suspicion (Wee & Tsang, 2008). Not anymore. The urgent need for more colour images for websites, etc. has paved the way for closer cooperation between these two groups. So bird photographers are actively being courted by birdwatchers. This is a win-win situation as photographers can also benefit from birdwatchers’ knowledge of birds. And despite some resistance by traditional birdwatchers who find photographic equipment unaffordable and bemoan the lack of field descriptions (M. Hall, in litt.), a few of the experienced birdwatchers are slowly taking up photography and bringing cameras into the field (Tsang et al. 2009). After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Most of the regional ornithological publications were written during the colonial era or immediately after (Wee, 2006b, Wang & Hails 2007,). Post-independent Singapore paid scant attention to ornithology, with a handful of publications coming from the university, for example Ward (1969), Kang et al. (1990) and Councilman et al. (1994). Up to the end of the 20th century, birdwatchers contributed their limited share in scientific publications (Lim 1991, 1994; Ho & Supari 1997, 2000; Ng 1998). However, there were many short notes and informal write-ups in the newsletter, Singapore Avifauna, put out by the NSS Bird Group. And as with any in-house newsletters with restricted circulation, the information it contained could not always reach those who need it the most (Wee & Subaraj 2009).
The popularity of bird photography in the early 2000s and the formation of the BESG in 2005 triggered a sudden explosion of scientific publications on local and regional birds (Wee & Tsang, 2008). This was the direct result of photographers documenting various exciting aspects of bird behaviour that had not been observed or reported by birdwatchers previously. Thus the slew of publications after 2005 by mainly non-ornithologists on courtship behaviour (Chan et al. 2008; Tsang et al. 2008, Lim et al. 2009), breeding ecology (Cheah & Ng 2008, Lok & Lee 2008, Wee et al. 2008, Wee & Wang 2008, 2009, Teo & Wee 2009, Banwell 2009); aberrant breeding behaviour (Wee & Subaraj 2006, Chan et al. 2008), defense of a breeding colony of terns (Deng et al. 2008), and species accounts (Chan et al. 2007b, Lok & Subaraj, 2008, 2009, Lok & Lee, 2009, Lok et al. 2009a,b,c,d, Subaraj & Lok 2009). This in turn encouraged others to publish as well (Lim 2008, Tan 2008; Yong & Kasorndorkuba 2008, Yong & Lim 2008…).
See the list of BESG publications HERE.
After seven years in existence, the BESG has managed to collate nearly 2,500 write-ups on a wide range of bird behaviour. These have been posted in the group’s website that has attracted nearly three million hits from all over the world. Most of these posts came from observers voluntarily or with a little persuasion.
The major impact of the website has been educational. The information contained therein has significantly improved the knowledge of local birdwatchers on bird behaviour. Whereas previously they were mostly interested in simply looking at birds, now birdwatchers are slowly beginning to observe them. Similarly, bird photographers are now better able to appreciate the images they document. The website is proving to be a valuable database on local and regional bird behaviour. In fact it has given rise to many spin-off scientific publications based on the information gathered by contributors. This spate of publications has put into the public domain new as well as old unpublished observations that can only benefit science in general and ornithology in particular.
If the late 1980s is seen as the golden years of birdwatching, the 2000s may well prove to be the dawn of a new era if all interested groups can come together and work for the good of ornithology. The future for birdwatching in Singapore should be bright indeed, as the three groups – birdwatchers, photographers and citizen scientists – slowly but surely, move towards close cooperation.
We wish to thank bird photographers, in particular members of the web-based photographic forum, NaturePixels.com, who generously gave us permission to make use of their excellent images for posting in our website. The image of photographers is courtesy of Lena Chow; that of the Blue-tailed Bee-eater casting a pellet is courtesy of Liu Jianzhong.
YC Wee, R Subaraj & Richard Hale
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