Bidadari: A challenge to Nature Society’s birdwatchers…

posted in: Conservation | 40

Earlier this month I posted “Bidadari: Birdwatchers and the call for its conservation” on this website LINK. Among other points, I stated that the area is typically “park-like” and the birds that find refuge there will always have other such areas, and there are many in Singapore, should Bidadari be developed. This obviously ruffled the feathers of the Nature Society (Singapore)’s birdwatchers.

Alan Ow Yong, the Nature Society (Singapore)’s Bird Group’s [BG] immediate past Chairman, uploaded my post on the Saving Bidadari Facebook and labelled me “anti conservationist” LINK.

Most of those who commented were unhappy and angry, even becoming personal and abusive. Are birdwatchers unable to accept opposing views? Must everyone agree with the group on all issues? Should those who dare disagree be subjected to abuses? For the last few decades the BG’s leadership had bullied, harassed and abused whoever did not conform to their demands and ideas. They even removed one of their group’s Secretary and one Treasurer overnight, as well as others who were more knowledgeable. Obviously this is part of BG’s culture.

After frightening off all opponents, the the BG emerged as top dog in the local birding scene. That is, until 2005 when the Bird Ecology Study Group [BESG] appeared on the scene (Wee & Tsang, 2008) LINK. So now, BESG is offering an alternative view on conservation. And this has awaken the BG from its complacency. Unfortunately it is still as arrogant as ever.

Among the abuses and personal attacks was a lone voice of sanity. Tan Hang Chong suggested that those who shared negative views should also post such views on the BESG site. This would allow readers of BESG website to be aware of the BG’s views and hopefully generate a robust debate. He further suggested that if birdwatchers have points against what were written, they should “not resort to ad hominem attacks” – meaning “attacking an opponent’s character rather than answering an argument” LINK. Unfortunately, most were not in favour of having an open debate, preferring instead, to hide behind the apparent anonymity of the Facebook with their comments.

Below are my replies to the comments and accusations made in the Saving Bidadari Facebook:

1. That I have no conservation credentials
To date, NSS can claim only two conservation successes. Sungei Buloh was when government acceded to the society’s request to conserve an area. Richard Hale’s delicate handling of negotiations as founding Chairman of the Conservation Committee closed the deal (Francesch-Huidobro, 2008; Wee, 1992; Wee & Hale, 2008). The second success was in getting government to back off from clearing a piece of nature reserve in Lower Peirce for a golf course. As President of the NSS, I accepted the challenge to save Lower Peirce, but only after Dr Ho Hua Chew, then Chairman of the Conservation Committee, declined to be directly involved (Francesch-Huidobro, 2008; Wee & Hale, 2008) (below).

During that same period, Dr Ho’s lobby for a number of minor habitats like Khatib Bongsu, Senoko and Marina South, all failed miserably. Why? There were not much merits in these areas. I was supposed to be a member of the Conservation Committee, but I was never consulted. There was never a question of me not supporting Dr Ho as we all did in our own ways.

Incidentally, Marina South was a disaster that resulted in NSS losing credibility (above). This was a habitat that could always be recreated. And the inability of Dr Ho to compromise in the case of Senoko saw the entire area developed (Wee & Hale, 2008). Unlike the generally lack of public support for these miscellaneous habitats, Lower Peirce had the support of the public as well as NGOs.

Of the above habitats not including Sungei Buloh, Lower Peirce would have more conservation merits than the areas Dr Ho championed. The former was legally protected as a nature reserve (and still is), with a forest cover of more than 80 years old. On the other hand, the miscellaneous habitats were wild growths that developed after the areas were left unattended. The bird numbers in all the habitats were about the same, except that in the forest habitat the birds were not visually and audibly obvious. Until today, birdwatchers remain emotional when a habitat exhibits plentiful birdlife, believing that such habitats are worthy of conservation, never taking into consideration other aspects of the flora and fauna.

If the above is insufficient evidence of my credentials, log on to the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research’s Digital Nature Archive of Singapore website at this LINK. There is no need to read my profile. But scroll down until after “References” where there are two videos. View the one by Dr Shawn Lum, the current President of NSS, and listen to what he says about conservation during my term as President.

Now, what are your conservation credentials, Alfred Chia, other than contributing to bird lists of this habitat and that?

2. Recreational birdwatching
There is absolutely nothing wrong with recreational birdwatching. When the late Clive Briffett started the Bird Group in 1984, he introduced recreational birdwatching to lure enthusiasts to the society LINK. Once new recruits became involved, they were encouraged to be citizen scientists to collect data on bird behaviour and in the process contribute to our ornithological knowledge (Wee & Subaraj, 2009). Clive was successful as can be seen in the early issues of the Singapore Avifauna, where, in addition to sightings, were snippets and articles on behaviour. Unfortunately, when locals took over the leadership and in the absence of guidance from the more experienced expatriate birdwatchers, activities became totally recreational (Wee, 2006). Happily, the BG has now slowly becoming more receptive to observing behaviour, thanks to a forced change of leadership some years back (Wee et al., 2010).

3. That I am an Armchair Birder
Yes, I am now an armchair birder. I had my time in the field in the 1960s when I was surveying the nature reserves. Not only did I walked nearly all the paths in these reserves, I also entered the forests in my transect work. When I was Secretary of the then Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch) from 1978 to 1990, I was actively involved in conducting field trips for members. And when I took an interest in birds in 2005, I did my share of fieldwork during the day as well as at night. But I was never a BG member, so I never rushed off whenever a rare species was sighted. After all, I have never been a twitcher. I also do not keep a checklist for ticking off all the birds that I encountered.

Not being a twitcher or a ticker, there is no necessity nowadays to go into the field. There are enough bird species visiting and nesting in my small garden for me to study bird behaviour. And it has been fulfilling to record and publish feeding, breeding and other behaviour that very few birdwatchers ever publish (Wee, 2005b, 2008, 2009; Wee & Wang, 2008). Had I spent all my time in the field chasing species, I would by now be able to identify many more birds, but then my contribution to ornithological knowledge would be the barest minimum.

Sitting in my garden and looking up a palm tree, I was even able to record the Asian Koel parasitising the nest of the House Crow. This was the first ever documentation of such behaviour in Singapore (Wee, 2005a). This was in 2005 when I just took an interest in birds. No birdwatchers had bothered to look for such evidence.

I assume Alfred Chia, being an ardent supporter of the BG, is in the field often. I am sure his has many checklists, all filled with numerous ticks (not of the arachnid kind). But do you ever have time to make serious studies of birds? Have you ever published your encounters with birds in scientific magazines? Alfred further claimed there is “falsehood” in my Bidadari post. So take courage to log in on this site and list out the “falsehood” or are you making the allegations out of bravado?

4. That Central Catchment Reserve is the most surveyed areas
Alan Ow Yong wrote in the Facebook that the Central Catchment Reserve “is one of the most surveyed nature areas in Singapore”. I am aware that the BG had made annual Bird Census since 1986 that include the catchment forests. Unfortunately Alan is unaware that during the ten years (1996-2005) that the survey was conducted and the results published, there was only a single year (2003) that it included this reserve, and only at the Upper Peirce Reservoir (Lim & Lim, 2009). Hopefully, subsequent surveys would also include this area. And I was surprised that the oldest segment of this reserve, MacRitchie forest, was totally left out. Were birdwatchers unwilling to take a transect through this thick forest?

As to the mid-year and fall migration bird censuses conducted during recent years, as well as the Raptor Watch, these involved casual spotting of birds along paths and those flying above. No participants actually entered the catchment forest proper.

Before Bidadari was made popular by KC Tsang LINK, birdwatchers’ disinterest in the area was because they thought there were no worthwhile birds there. From their various surveys, they know that there are migrants around and above the catchment reserve. Yet no attempts have ever been made to thoroughly survey these forests. So would birdwatchers take the challenge to enter the catchment forests, not just walk along the paths, to undertake surveys on the abundance of migrants there?

5. BESG challenges Bird Group
This post is intended as a reply to the attacks by the NSS’s birdwatchers et al. We urge them to somehow find courage to lock on the BESG site and debate the issues of Bidadari. I have also made a short posting on Saving Bidadari Facebook to invite those who made comments for a debate. However, if leaders and members of the Bird Group (and others) suddenly find they have misplaced their pair of couroupitas and thus cannot accept the challenge, then I rest my case.

Happy birding everyone!

YC Wee
April 2013

Francesch-Huidobro, M., 2008. Governance, Politics and the Environment: A Singapore Study. ISEA, Singapore. 395 pp.
2. Lim, K. C. & K. S. Lim, 2009. State of Singapore Birds and Bird Habitats. Bird Group, Nature Society (Singapore). 402pp.
3. Wee, Y.C., 2005a. Look, what came out of the crow’s nests. Nature Watch 13(1): 22-25.
4. Wee, Y.C., 2005b. Foraging a closer relationship with Pink-necked Green-pigeons. Nature Watch 13(3):16-22.
5. Wee, Y. C., 2006. Forty years of birding and ornithological research in Singapore. Birding Asia 5:12-15.
6. Wee, Y. C., 2008. Anting in Singapore birds. Nature in Singapore 1:23-25.
7. Wee, Y. C., 2009. Observations on the behaviour of the yellow-vented bulbul, Pycnonotus goiavier (Scopoli) in two instances of failed nesting. Nature in Singapore 2: 347-352.
8. Wee, Y. C. (ed.) 1992. Proposed golf course at Lower Peirce Reservoir – An environmental impact assessment. Nature Society (Singapore). 80 pp.
9. Wee, Y.C. & R. Hale, 2008. The Nature Society (Singapore) and the struggle to conserve Singapore’s nature areas. Nature in Singapore 1: 41-49.
10. Wee, Y. C. & R. Subaraj, 2009. Citizen science and the gathering of ornithological data in Singapore. Nature in Singapore 2: 27-30.
11. Wee, Y. C. & K. C. Tsang, 2008. The changing face of birding in Singapore. Nature in Singapore 1: 97-102.
12. Wee, Y. C. & L. K. Wang 2008. Breeding behaviour of the zebra dove, Geopelia striata (Linnaeus, 1766). Nature in Singapore 1: 75-80.
13. Wee, Y. C., K. C. Tsang & R. Subaraj, 2010. Birding in Singapore and the challenges of the 21st century. Nature in Singapore 3: 53-58.

40 Responses

      • Kim Mosabe

        What competition? There isn’t any. BG watch & count birds; BESG studies bird behaviour. There is no conflict of interest. They compliment each other & enhance bird knowledge. Why should BG have a “DOG-in-the-manger” attitude towards BESG? Perhaps, the suggested debate would clear up the stale air. Tolong lah, jangan berkelai seperti anak2 kecil-kecilan lah….

        • YC

          I totally agree with you but they want to be the only group dealing with birds in Singapore. They want to be the top dog. Oops, I hope LKS does not make another police report against me for mentioning “top dog” that he finds offensive… And hey, you should also stop using the word “dog” as he may also find it offensive and makes a police report against you.

    • Kim Mosabe

      Hey Baba YC: Don’t scare me, OK. I didn’t call anyone a DOG. All I said was “DOG-in-the-manger”. Does that warrant a police report against me?

  1. SY

    what do ‘have misplaced their pair of couroupitas’ mean? cannot understand meh.

  2. SK

    YC, the roaring silence is quite deafening! And you gave them too much credit by sizing them against couroupitas. I believe Adenantheras may be more of an appropriate size. 😀

    • YC

      Hopefully this is the calm before the storm. So I will wait patiently for the roaring silence to break. In the meantime I have entered the cat’s (definitely not lion’s) den and posted my comments to prick their couroupitas. Well, maybe you are right and they are adenanthera, but I prefer muntingia – softer outer covering.

    • Kim Mosabe

      Alamak! From dangling couroupitas to adenantheras. Ha, ha, ha!!! That’s an enormous shrinkage! Bahasa Melayu kata: Buah couroupita
      sudah menyusut!

  3. YC

    My apologies to the Nature Society (Singapore) for earlier reporting that it is their Facebook that the abuses appeared. Actually it is the Save Bidadari Facebook. Corrections have already been made.

  4. See Toh Yew Wai

    Please keep your conflict with NSS BG out of the Saving Bidadari FB Group. This FB group (independent of the NSS BG) was started by like-minded bird photographers with the objective of creating awareness of this area which we hope could be conserved. KC Tsang may have, as pointed by you, discovered this area but it is the bird photographers who uncovered the vast diversity of bird species it hold.

    You may not share our vision of conserving Bidadari but it is apparent to me that this is primarily due to the long-standing feud between you and BG who is support its conversation.

    Please do not use Bidadari as the battleground for your conflicts.

    We, bird photographers, just wanted our playgrounds to remain so that we could enjoy our hobby and we are definitely not interested in the personal disagreements between you and BG.

    • Q

      See Toh, to be fair to Prof Wee, you should also then leave a note at your Saving Bidadari FB page to the NSS BG people who started the mud-slinging in the first place. Prof Wee has his point of view regarding conservation, and he aired his view openly here at BESG. The NSS BG group, instead of engaging Prof in a debate here, chose to take the issue to the Saving Bidadari FB group and made comments about him behind his back. In a fair debate, Prof has the right to rebut any allegations made against him in social media. Bird photographers may be neutral on the issue and are lobbying to conserve Bidadari. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you allow the FB group to be a platform for one-sided criticism, then be prepared to also allow the party who is being criticised to have his fair say. If you are not interested in personal disagreements with Prof Wee and BG, then perhaps you should delete all the offending posts from both sides on your Bidadari FB group and continue with your “peaceful lobby” to keep Bidadari.

      • TrueNatureLover

        Either that or make it a secret group. So that one-sided arguments are not reveal to the general public which may paint incorrect pictures.

        Having that said, this page should be hidden from public as well. Since names are mentioned.

      • See Toh Yew Wai

        I have requested the admin of the group to remove all unconstructive postings from the group.

          • TrueNatureLover

            Ball is in your court now. Thanks.

        • Q

          Thanks, See Toh. I believe you’ve earned the respect of the reasonable people in the group. Peace be with you.

  5. YC

    I have the highest respect for bird photographers. However, have I have the right to answer their charges and abuses?

    • TrueNatureLover

      I am having difficulty reconciling “high respect” to “calling people intellectually-challenged”. Please enlighten me. Thanks.

      • BESG

        Yes, I have high respect for Bird Photographers. But that person is a birdwatcher. Should you be able to prove otherwise, I am more than willing to apologise.

        • TrueNatureLover

          Ok. Fair enough. I hope you have high respect for birders too.

          • BESG

            Yes, some but not all… it’s the entrenched group culture.

        • See Toh Yew Wai

          Most bird photographers are in a way birdwatcher only that we replace the bino with our camera/lens (although some still carry a bino with them). We are interested in shooting as many different types of birds in Singapore and even overseas. Beside number of species to collect, we also wanted bird in flight shots, food in mouth shots, nesting shots, feeding shots, an array of shots of adult (male or female if there are difference in plummages), juvenile, breeding and non-breeding birds. We also always try to get improvement shots of our earlier collection of images unless we had already closed shop on that species ie we are already fully satisfied with the existing images.

          In most instances, we are also list-chaser. When I was informed of the sighting of a female von Schrenck’s Bittern at Pasir Ris Park last month (lifer for me), it took less than 30 minutes to rush down there from Toa Payoh driving range (our carbon footprint can be pretty big). I even gave up a whole basket of balls to a stranger. The bird was among the mangrove roots when I arrived on scene but I took a couple of record shots first. Then I waited for her to move to the open to get unblocked shots. Once I have enough decent shots of the bird, I left the place. The next day, over 15 photographers were at Pasir Ris Park mangrove boardwalk trying to get a clean shot of the bittern.

          Our passion in shooting birds is the same as birdwatchers. Without a target (like shooting the most number of bird species in Singapore or elsewhere) we would not be able to sustain our love for this hobby.

          I do not understand what is wrong being a recreational birdwatchers. Sometime I visit the field with just my bino as I do not want to lug my equipment around. I just want to enjoy my hobby and do not know what wrong with doing that. If you want me to observe behavior of normal garden birds (we used the term lupsup birds), I would have given up the hobby and spend most of my weekends and public holidays golfing instead.

          By the way, I am a digiscoper. I am also a birdwatcher first and photographer second. I always try to get a good look of the bird first (either from my bino or scope) before attempting to capture its images. But I share the same passion of shooting birds as the bird photographers.

          • BESG

            As I have always maintained, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a recreational birdwatcher (BW). Unfortunately my decades of exposure to BW were those from the Nature Society – and they always claim that they are more than recreational BW. My experience had been anything but positive. When digital cameras became popular in the early 2000s, a new breed of BW emerged – those who document birds with their cameras. These are the people who made tremendous contributions to ornithology, albeit unknowingly. BESG benefited tremendously from the generosity of these new breed of BW, especially those allied to Nature Pixels. But not the BW from the NSS who, since day one, put every obstacles in our way. I suppose joining the group turn members against us, and I suppose we against them. I find independent BW are different from those allied to a group.

  6. TrueNatureLover

    I agree that you have to right to answer charges and abuses. However, there should be a proper venue for it. Also, calling people intellectually-challenging suggests that you’re not in the right mind, probably furious too. That statement among others make us look like school kids.

    • BESG

      I disagree on your second point. I have known that person for about 30 years and I am not the only one who has such a view. Only he has the capacity to make the comments that he did. Should you require examples, let me know.

      • TrueNatureLover

        Please be fair also. There are many people in that forum. Can you be 100% sure that all the people that are reading your message know about you knowing him for 30 years, etc, etc?

        If there are people who didn’t know the background, they would probably view this as juvenile fights.

        So, I will stick to my statement, even if you disagree. 🙂 I’m just helping you (I’m a busybody, yes) by letting you know how some people will view your statements. You are free to ignore of course.

        • BESG

          Appreciate your opinion. Thanks. Anyway such comments will soon be deleted.

          • Michael Kors

            Thanks for finally writing about > Bird Ecology
            Study Group Bidadari: A challenge to Nature Societys birdwatchers < Liked it!

  7. Moses Tang

    Frankly, as a member of the emerging & unaffiliated group of simply “hobbyistic” birdspotter/birdwatcher/birdlover etc, we are direct beneficiaries of the efforts of NSS BG, BESG and the Bird photographers. Personally, I have seen how rapid urbanisation has changed the face of Singapore during the last few decades with very little natural heritage left for future generations. However, I have also seen how our “wildlife” have been able to adapt to the changing “green but unnatural” landscape. It takes all parties (interest groups, academics and government)concern to work up a long term sustainable green plan for the “happiness,prosperity and progress for our nation”

  8. YC

    It is most unfortunate that birdwatchers stayed away, refusing to debate issues. This is understandable, considering the anti-BESG edict declared by an avian cleric that forbids such interaction. However, it has been refreshing interacting with bird photographers. Thanks you.

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