A FAMILY BIG DAY, a personal ‘bird race’

on 23rd October 2012

“The Nature Society (Singapore) Annual Bird Race was coming up once again and, according to the newsletter, this year’s theme was a “Big Day” in line with the “Big Year” being carried out by a few elite members of the society’s bird sub-group. This is an exercise to see who could see more birds in a year in Singapore…

“The annual bird race is different as it is like your annual marathon – for birdwatchers to challenge themselves and others in friendly competition, over a 24-hour period, to test their knowledge and abilities. Everyone needs to have some fun sometimes. This event was introduced into Singapore in 1984 by the old birding stalwarts, the late Clive Briffett LINK, Hugh Buck and David Bradford. I have been leading a team since 1986, except for a couple of recent years, where work commitment got in the way. As I enjoy the competition and take it as a serious test of my abilities, I have been fortunate enough to lead more winning teams than anyone and come in 2nd on the others.

“Due to medical problems, I had no real intention of taking part this year and my wife, Sham, was strictly against it, being concerned for my health. However, my two sons were very keen to take part and promised to carry my bag and scope to ensure that I would be alright. Serin (17), who has taken part and won with me twice before was having a break from his poly while Saker (12) was free to take part for the 1st time, having completed his PSLE (photo above shows Subaraj and family, taken in October 2006 when the boys were 11 and 6 years old). They just wanted to enjoy the day despite the need to do a more casual race at my pace. Sham then reluctantly called the NSS office to find out if the organisers would accept late entries and, after the office checked, we were told that there would be no problem. Anyway, this has always been the case throughout the history of the race and teams were even accepted and registered on the day of the race itself. We submitted our registration with all our names.

“Later that evening, we received an e-mail from the lady organising the bird race that the organising committee had rejected our registration, on the grounds of it being past the cut-off date! We were surprised but soon realised that the late reason was just a flimsy excuse to block our participation. They were willing to accept late entries when they did not know who it was but had rejected it when our names were officially submitted. “What a crock!” The bird sub-group has done many things to try and prevent me from winning, including announcing altered race rules just before a race, but I always took this as an added challenge. This was the first time that they had used a weak excuse to block my entry. The NSS office said that they could not do anything as this was the sub-group’s event and it was their prerogative! Well, I suppose it is their prerogative to act like cowards and block the competition and it is their prerogative to stoop to a new low to ensure that a member of their elitist inner circle wins the ‘big day’ race during their special ‘big year’.

“My sons were terribly disappointed and upset. On the first year when both of them were free to participate, they were not allowed to due to some old egos in NSS. This is a familiar story and the main reason that youngsters give for not joining our Society and forming their own nature groups. All power to these youths as these groups are working hard and making a difference in research, conservation and education.

“Not to discourage my sons’ enthusiasm, I suggested that we undertake an actual Big Day of our own. The term ‘Big Day’ (not days) refers to an event over one calendar day and not two days, like the bird sub-group was trying to pass off as a ‘Big Day’ with their theme for this year. It should be run from midnight to midnight! So we decided that we would do a Family Big Day on Saturday, October 20th.

“Sham, Serin, Saker and I left our home at 4.45am that day and headed for Upper Thomson. We planned to spend much of the early morning making stops around the accessible parts of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to locate nocturnal and diurnal forest and woodland species. I chose to minimise the walking so that I could last the day and Sham can be part of the family fun and still rest between driving. We made stops at Lower Peirce Reservoir, Sime Road, Bukit Kalang, Upper Seletar Reservoir Park, Mandai Track 15, all stops along the edge of the reserve, as well as Springleaf Nature Park. Interesting birds recorded included the internationally threatened Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus) and Straw-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus) (above, by Chan Wei Luen) at Springleaf and the locally threatened Buffy Fish Owl (Ketupa ketupu) and Greater Green Leafbird (Chloropsis sonnerati). Migrant highlights included Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus), Dark-sided Flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica) and Siberian Blue Robin (Luscinia cyane).

“Though recording the different bird species encountered was the main focus of a big day, we also took the opportunity to enjoy the bird ecological aspects and each other’s company. For example, a fruiting salam tree (Syzygium polyantha) at Bukit Kalang PUB service reservoir attracted a pair of rare Greater Green Leafbirds (Chloropsis sonnerati), Asian Fairy Bluebird (Irena puella), Olive-winged Bulbul (Pycnonotus plumosus), Red-eyed Bulbul (P. brunneus), Cream-vented Bulbul (P. simplex), Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus), Arctic Warbler (P. borealis), Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) and Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa dauurica).

“At 10.00am, we moved to Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve. We already had 70 species of birds. The drive there and the wetlands reserve added 30 more to bring our score up to 100 species just after noon. Sungei Buloh is an important high tide roost for migratory shorebirds from the north. Many continue to feed at the old prawn ponds as the tide rises, forcing them off the mudflats at Sungei Mandai. We observed Pacific Golden-Plover (Pluvialis fulva) (above, by TS Tan), Lesser Sand-Plover (Charadrius mongolus), Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), a Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica), redshank, greenshank and Marsh (Tringa stagnatilis), Curlew (Calidris ferruginea) and Common Sandpipers (Actitis hypoleucos), as well as egrets and herons. They were foraging, in their own styles, and bathing for all to observe and study.

“Between 12.40pm and 2.00pm, we visited a few grassy habitats in Neo Tiew, Murai and Tuas to pick up weavers, Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus), Pintail Snipe (Gallinago stenura) and other open country species. We also stopped for a half hour lunch at our usual Tuas watering hole. Between 2.00pm to 3.00pm, Sham drove us from the south-west to the north-east while we dozed off. We visited Serangoon and Sungei Tempinis for a few more open country and parkland species as well as freshwater birds like Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) and Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis). We then visited a couple of spots at Changi before heading to Changi Village to catch a boat to Pulau Ubin.

“The sky was now dark all around as we took the boat to the island. We had been lightly drizzled on a couple of times today but this looked worrying. As we arrived at Ubin, a heavy drizzle began but it did not last very long, thankfully. We took a van to Chek Jawa and, at 5.30pm, we were on the boardwalk enjoying the site of a receding tide exposing the varied marine inter-tidal habitats. A pair of international threatened Great-billed Herons (Ardea sumatrana) and an internationally threatened migrant Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes) waded about. Observing their very different feeding methods was most intriguing, with the patient approach of the heron and the more active, hectic approach of the egret. Sandy shorebirds arrived that included many Grey Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), 3 Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica) and others like Kentish Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) and Terek Sandpiper (Xenus cinereus). A Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) bathed in a tidal pool by the sand-flats. Overhead, White-bellied Fish Eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) soared (above, by Eddy Lee Kam Pang) and a Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) flew into the wooded knoll. Wild Boar came out to forage.

“After picking up a few birds near the main village, including the Spotted Wood Owl (Strix seloputo), we proceeded back to Changi Village for a leisurely dinner. Then we made a couple more night stops before calling it a night at 9.30pm. It had been a rewarding but tiring day and the boys thoroughly enjoyed it all; well so did I. Many good birds, fabulous behaviour observations and having fun as a family made it all memorable.

We recorded 141 species of birds*, which was good considering the slower pace, lack of much walking and stopping for both lunch and dinner, plus ending the night early. After learning about the winning team’s score at the bird race, which was held over the weekend, they were right to block us from participating after all, no matter how despicable. The bird race winning team had recorded, in 24 hours, just 120 species!

Subaraj Rajathurai
22nd October 2012

*Note: Subaraj scored (LINK 1 and LINK 2) at the 2006 Gotong Royong Bird Race, breaking the record set by Lim Kim Seng during the 1991 race with 5 more sightings. The Bird Group obviously had a good reason barring Subaraj from this year’s race – as seen from the results. And that reminds me of a story… LINK.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

12 Responses

  1. it is the joy of having each other in the race and not just winning it! how often do you get to see so many birders in a day? by the way, it would be a great achievement if someone can actually beat the GREAT MASTER Subaraj….hahahaaa, just kidding.

    * my last singapore bird race was years ago….can i join next year? 😀

    1. Agree! Top dog birdwatchers should encourage newer enthusiasts to win, rather than trying hard to win every year. In a way this discourages the newer members. If one is good and really believes that, there is no necessity to prove it year in and year out. I am sure you would be welcome to join next year, after all this year’s race was even open to the public. But try not to spot too many species…

  2. “Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes.”

    Peter F. Drucker (1909-2005) American writer and management consultant.

    1. Mr KS, how about this:
      “…the easiest way for me to grow as a person is to surround myself with people smarter than I am.” Anon.

  3. I participated in the SG Bird Race for the first time this year – forming a team with a Bird Guide from Indonesia (Boas Emmanuel – first trip to Singapore) and Con Foley. Our team, shorebirds, came in 2nd last in the advance category with 84 ticks. I adopted the wrong strategy of giving the central forest a total miss and together with the bad weather at the start of the race (we did not bother to look for nocturnal birds at all in the night going home at 7:30 pm), I reckoned this had probably cost us 20-30 ticks. We had also religiously sticked to the rule that all 3 members must have seen the bird with our eyes and agreed on the ID before putting it in as a tick.

    I am really impressed with your tally of 141 species in a single day! I am participating in the SG Big Year and only manage to see 242 species so far (in accordance to the list indicated in Nparks Website). You and your family had seen 58% of the species I had seen in 10 months in less than 24 hours. This really put me to shame.

  4. What does the NSS have to say about this? It certainly does not put them in a good light. I was rather disgusted to read about this.

    1. According to Subaraj, the NSS’s reply when he protested was that this was a Bird Group’s activity and as such it was the group’s prerogative. Subaraj will be back on Friday and I am sure he will respond to this.

      1. Hi Everyone,

        It is nice to have so much discussion generated from my article. Yes, it is indeed unfortunate that such petty and under-handed things still go on, even within nature circles. Somehow, most of it seems to involve the NSS.

        The answer that I received; that the lady organising the bird race was confused about dates when she initially said that they receive late entries; is simply weak and cannot be believed!

        The NSS has been weakened by allowing certain egos to rule the roost. There is so much politics that the really good work being done for the environment and conservation is by individuals and the various young groups.

        WILDSINGAPORE is in the fore-front and connects with all the nature groups on-line, while being an inspiration to all, especially the young! They lead by example and actions, rather than talk! Ria Tan, Siva, Zeehan and many others, including the large number of youths, are the true nature movement in Singapore!

        Personally, while I have enjoyed bird-racing all these years, I have always made sure that I introduce new participants into my team, for them to experience the event and draw inspiration from being out in nature. Only in recent years, I have tried to make it more a family affair and my son, Saker, would have been a new participant to the bird race, if he had not been prevented by the under-handed methods of a few major egos.


        1. This was exactly why we forced through a resolution in the NSS AGM some years ago to limit the tenure of a sub-group Chairman to three years. Prior to this, some leaders hung on to their posts, not allowing younger and more knowledgeable, as well as more energetic leaders to take over. Well, a few of these old and tired leaders were finally pulled down screaming but a few still refuse to effectively hand over leadership. Instead, they appoint themselves as Ag Chair, Vice-Chair or whatever, to become the power behind the throne. Well, in the absence younger leaders, the group can only drag on with old and tired activities ad nauseam – out of date and devoid of new ideas, all to the detriment of the main society.

          1. Though I appreciate the nobler objectives of NSS, somehow, I can’t understand why or how the likes of Sutari, can go on bird walks make soooo much noise, talking sooo loud, yet be able to still sight so many birds. Has NSS lost its original objectives, by going into political activities like that rail corridor, built brown,..etc,…& why is vice president Kok
            Peng’s travel company, the in-house travel agency that conducts its overseas trips ? Hmmmmm,,…?

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