Letters to the Editor
RAMBLINGS OF A BIRD-WATCHER
All of us have a hobby in order that we can recuperate and revitalise our body, mind and spirit. For me, this has been bird-watching. Actually it started as interest in marine biology when I was a student in Raffles Institution, when a small and unusual Society called the Raffles Museum was formed. It was more a natural history Museum. I gave up playing rugby for the rigours of field trips into the coral reefs, the littoral zone and the mangroves to study and collect specimens. One of the more memorable trips still remain etched in my mind, when we camped in Pulau Salu. The night sky was one of the most beautiful I have seen, with the entire galaxy on display. The waves were bathing the rocky shores ever so gently. Then the fishing line went wild, and we hauled in a large and beautiful coral grouper (garoupa). The rest of the group wanted the fish for the cooking pot, but I won the day and it went into our formalin jar instead!
That was when I joined the Nature Society, then the Singapore branch of the Malayan Nature Society. The hard-core members filled me with awe, including a huge and bearded man who buried himself in the mangrove mud in order to pbotograph the mudskippers; he turned out to be none other than our very own Dr Ivan Polunin, who later taught me preventive health in medical school. It was in my medical school days that I went out on field trips with the Bird Study Group. There I learned to appreciate the wonders of avifuana, and how delicate and precarious their existence has become. We trekked through leech-infested jungles to set up mist-nets at 5a.m., braved the torrential rains in the jungles, suffered the persistent mosquitoes and shared a comradery seen only amongst people who shared unusual experiences together. There were moments when nature bared her soul and her beauty to us, and that made up for all the difficulties, the labourious flight of a large flock of Hornbills from one end of the tree-line to the other, the misty and serene silence of the jungle at first light before she wakes up with the chorus of bird songs.
Later, I took over the Chairmanship of this Group, and carried on bird-ringing in almost all kinds of environment. We conducted a study of waders by ringing them along the sludge pits of the Serangoon Sludge Treatment Works, and we had to man the 10-feet tall mist-nets right through the night as the waders fly by night, taking our dinner and breakfast along with the aroma of the surroundings. One of the birds ringed, a Curlew Sandpiper, turned up near Melbourne, in the nets of the former Chairman of the Group who had migrated to Australia. That was one of the first records that this species flew down the S.E.Asian corridor from the plains of Asia to Australia.
While on the subject of the sea, I was witness to the struggles of the small Barn Swallow as they wing their way through the vast South China Sea during their migration in mid-1976, buffeted by the strong Monsoon winds and not being able to rest or roost for days on end. These observations, done on board a Republic of Singapore navy ship as a naval medical officer (national-service) during a midshipman training cruise resulted in one of my early scientific papers (Malayan Nature Journal, 1978; 31:67-73). But most rewarding of all is the blossoming of many of my young bird-watching colleagues into ardent amateur ornithologists, and many are still active in the Nature Society (Singapore).
Then there was a break in my encounters with nature, when I started my traineeship. Career took priority. I went into reproductive biology, and started the in-vitro fertilisation programme. My training and experiences in infertility and in the laboratory became useful later on when I extended my research into assisting reproduction in endangered species. After 17 years I began to feel the pull of nature again, and the need to return to the jungle. But Singapore has changed dramatically and many good areas for nature have been destroyed or degraded to such an extent that the fauna has become very poor. So began my little contributions to conservation by applying my knowledge in infertility and in-vitro fertilisation. My attempts to initiate in-vitro fertilisation in birds and then transfer the embryo into surrogate eggs did not proceed far as much more time was needed than I could afford. However, my experiences with electro-ejaculation came in useful; I did a longitudinal study on the sperm in 3 captive Southern Pied Hornbills in the Jurong Bird Park over 11/2 years, collected by electro-ejaculation. Now we are helping the Singapore Zoological Gardens by collecting sperm from species where fertility is in doubt.
“Why bird-watch?”, you may ask. Birds and butterflies are the two most
obvious forms of animal life that are beautiful yet fairly easy to see
and are still abundant in areas that have been developed. Birds are also
aesthetically pleasing, coming in the most wonderful combination of nature’s
paint-brush. Their songs form an integral part of many societies, including
ours; all local medical graduates know of the coffeeshop in Tiong Babru
just a stone's throw from the former medical faculty in Outram Road, where
song-birds are brought there in the morning (albeit in cages - bird songs
in the wild are even more wonderful!). Their flight lift the spirits, and
provide hope to mankind; the symbol of peace is a white dove in flight.
Identifying them in the field is a challenge, as they can be very difficult
to spot. But most of all, they bring us closer to nature; after all, in
evolutionary and anthropological terms, our origins were from the primates
that once roamed the surface of this earth along with the myriad of wildlife
then. This link may be particularly relevant in Singapore, where the relentless
pace of development has resulted in changing the face of Singapore from
a scene with kampongs, rubber trees and slow streams, to one with multistorey
HDB blocks, air-conditioned shopping complexes and MRT stations. Our children,
our future may not see wild pigeons; they may not have even seen the domestic
pigeon, which comes from the rock dove.
As we become more aware of our own environment, we should take a more active role in taking care of it. Singapore is considered a global city, yet we have very rich natural habitats in our midst. This is unique, with its vast tropical biodiversity, and as such is worth keeping them as they are. While Singapore may not have sights like Sungei Selangor where the entire river bank is lit up with flashing fireflies at night, the mangroves in Sungei Buloh are still home to some fireflies. All ecosystems are complex and unique, starting from the micro-organisms in the soil and water. Hence, once it is destroyed, it cannot be recovered. Even when parts are transplanted, its uniqueness can never be recreated.
However, there is tremendous pressure on the environment in landscarce Singapore, understandably so. Hence, all the more important that environmental laws are in place, especially when there are so many developments and industries around. For example, land runoffs have resulted in serious depletion of marine life in our coastal waters. All of us must also play our role, as even the smallest meaningful act goes a long way when done by a substantial number of people. I strongly feel that the success of maintaining a good balance between nature and our human environment will go a long way towards our survival, as much as good government ls necessary for the survival of a nation.
I hope this little brief of my experiences with and thoughts of nature will awaken the hidden feelings we all have for nature and our environment. This takes many forms, from the feeling that we have a belonging with our land and our country; a need to porter in the garden; a feeling of wonder when we go to the Jurong Bird Park or the Singapore Zoological Gardens; to the feeling of rejuvenation when we are bathed in the beauty of our countryside and jungles. I encourage you to take your family to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve where you may be able to see the Fairy Bluebird or the Sungei Buloh Bird Sanctuary to see the Egrets preening or fishing; for the more adventurous, you may wish to cycle along the many tracks in Pulau Ubin. However, you may need to go with someone who knows the fauna and flora of the area in order to enjoy the trip maximally. In my experience, the best guides for nature are members of the Nature Society (Singapore).
A Large-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus)
President, Nature Society of Singapore