08 May 2010

Migratory birds and Mangroves at Sungei Buloh

Today is World Migratory Bird Day 2010! And Mendis gave a very educational talk about migratory birds at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.
He answered many basic questions such as, what are migratory birds?

Many birds migrate beyond their breeding grounds with predictable timing and destinations. About 19% or 1,800 of known bird species do this and are considered migratory birds.

The route taken by migratory birds is called a flyway. A flyway is the entire range of a migratory bird species through which it moves annually from breeding grounds to non-breeding areas. This includes resting and feeding places.
These flyways centre around breeding sites in the Arctic Circle! So this is a more proper representation of the global flyways.
Why do they go to the Arctic Circle to breed? While the summer is short, it is hot and lush, with lots of places to nest and abundant food for the chicks. The 'insect soup' that the chicks are fed on is regurgitated insects caught by the parents. Yumm! And in the Arctic Circle, the severe winter means there are no snakes, nasty monitor lizards and other tropical predators that abound in our part of the world.
Here's a variety of migratory birds. They look kind of boring when they are in our part of the world as they are not in their breeding plumage.
Migratory birds are more colourful in their breeding plumage but this allows them to blend right into the summer breeding grounds! I didn't know this!
How far do migratory birds fly? Shorebirds usually make long journeys even though some of these birds weigh as little as 15gms. Some travel more than 20,000km in a year. A single flight may be 4,000km or up to 11,000km, non-stop! During a 20-year lifespan a long-distance migrating shorebird could travel more than 400,000km!

Flocks of migrating shorebirds fly by day and night, over land and sea, at altitudes of around 3,000-8,000m. They adjust their altitude to avoid strong winds and take advantage of tail winds. They fly at speeds of 30-60km/hour.

When do they know it's time to migrate? These birds have an inbuilt body clock to tell them when it's time to migrate. The exact time to leave depends on the weather. Some birds seem to have an inbuilt barometer which allows them to detect weather changes!

How do migratory birds find their way? We don't really know how they do it. They probably use a variety of methods, including using the stars and an internal magnetic compass.

How do migratory birds prepare for the journey? Before migration, they gradually complete their moult from their boring non-breeding plumage and to replace the important flight feathers. They eat a lot and a layer of fat is stored to fuel their flight, while developing larger flight muscles. They may gain a third or more of their body weight!

They need to replenish their body fat by refueling along the way, stopping to feed for 1-3 weeks. These sites are called stopover or staging sites. Sungei Buloh is one of such staging sites.

Shorebirds must be well fed and in good condition to reach their breeding grounds and breed succesfully. Migratory birds are in fact, supremely designed for long distance travel.

Sadly, many migratory birds are threatened. In 2008, 11% of migratory birds were classed as threatened or near-threatened. The latest figure for this is about 19%. This is why the theme for World Migratory Bird Day in 2010 is "Save migratory birds in crisis – every species counts!" and focuses on Globally Threatened Migratory Birds.

Among the threats to shorebirds are humans who collect the food that the shorebirds depend upon to fuel themselves on their long journeys.
Worse, some of their stopover sites are often cleared for agriculture or industrial and other uses! I always say it's like driving on a near empty tank expecting to coast into a petrol station you remember was there the last time you drove by, to find the station is gone!
Or the shorebirds' refuelling stations are polluted with our trash and other chemicals.
In some parts of the world, shorebirds are hunted and killed! Those birds in the photo are decoys (model birds on sticks). Real birds see the decoys and think it's a safe place to land, whereupon they are netted.
Shorebirds also face natural predators. This skinny Arctic fox looks very happy to find the shorebird egg!
The shorebirds also have to run the gauntlet of our man-made structures. From glass buildings (many birds die crashing into windows), to giant wind turbines (which also kill other flying animals likes bats).
Climate change is also an important issue and is already affecting bird behaviour at a staggering rate. Some 20 billion have already changed their flight plans, and may push some birds to extinction.

This is why it is important to protect stopover points such as Sungei Buloh!

Indeed, there are many international conservation initiatives that support migratory birds including the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar), Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Among the conservation initiatives are Flyway Initiatives such as the East Asian-Australian Migratory Waterbird Partnership, a framework for governments and NGOs to coordinate conservation action across the region.
Singapore is part of the East Asian-Australian flyway. And at different times of the years, the migratory birds are found in different parts of the flyway. In the northern summer, they are busy breeding in the Arctic Circle. As the northern winter starts, they move south. Some end up as far away as New Zealand!
Here are some of the migratory birds found on our flyway.
At Sungei Buloh, much work is done to study and document shorebirds including bird ringing programmes.
Here are some of our favourite shorebirds at Sungei Buloh! With wonderful photos of them taken by Mendis. A redshank eating a prawn!
A beautiful whimbrel in flight!
And a rarely seen Eurasion whimbrel which Mendis swears is as big as a turkey!And some other rare and exciting migratory birds seen at Sungei Buloh.
Wow, I sure learnt about migratory birds today! And Mendis' awesome photos really inspire a greater appreciation of these remarkable long-distance travellers. You can enjoy more of Mendis' photos on his flickr.

Earlier on, Law Hock Ling gave an inspiring talk about our wonderful mangroves! You couldn't tell that he was feeling ill, from the very animated and passionate talk that he presented!
He shared how many people had a bad impression of mangroves. Beginning with the early explorers who literally considered them to be EVIL! Producing a disease-causing miasma, and something to be cleared away.
Sadly, even today our urbanite friends are still put off by mangroves: the mosquitos, bad smell and other scary elements found there. Sigh. A situation many nature guides are too familiar with.
Thus it was wonderful that Hock Ling shared many ways for us to entice ordinary people to better appreciate our wonderful mangroves. For example, Singapore is in the middle of the best mangroves in the world!
Mangroves are actually valuable! Producing not just tangible products but intangible but essential 'ecosystem services' such as nurseries for seafood, protection from coastal erosion and storms, not to mention tsunamis. I love the wonderful drawing on this slide. In fact, Hock Ling had the best slides I've ever seen about mangroves, sprinkled with many interesting animations.
The plants of the mangroves also provide valuable products such as charcoal, and others like the Nipah palm produce a whole host of products from our favourite attap chee, to attap, to gula melaka and more! Yet other plants produce tannins or medicines.
And of course, mangroves are a nursery for our favourite seafood. From fish to prawns and crabs.
While for traditional peoples living in mangroves, this strange marine forest is very much a part of their culture and traditions with many marvellous myths and stories. Some of which Hock Ling shared with us today.
And who can resist the intriguing animals of our mangroves. Today I learnt all kinds of interesting new facts about our common mangrove denizens. Such as the ability of the Giant mudskipper to moderate the acidity of the surrounding water by producing ammonia from its gills! We also pondered why the half beak had a shiny bit at the tip of its 'beak'.
While I also learnt from Hock Ling why the Chut-chut was often missing the tip of its shell. Apparently it too is able to moderate the acidity of the water by allowing this tip to dissolve in the water. Awesome!
Singapore, sadly, has lost much of our mangroves. So we need to protect what we have left! Indeed, Hock Ling's talk helped give me many new ideas and ways to encourage ordinary people to love and cherish our mangroves!
Here's a look at our two speakers for the day. And behind them, Shila who organised the talks and got everything put together for us so nicely. Thank you all!
At the Visitor Centre, there's a lovely display for World Migratory Bird Day 2010, with lots of posters of our favourite shorebirds, and an exhibition of Mendis' awesome photos!
Before the talk, I disturbed Shila and Rogayah at lunch. And noticed these wonderful models of our Giant mudskippers, complete with a stripe down the side of the body. They were made by Rogayah and are going to be for sale. Wonderful!
There's lots going on at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Drop by and enjoy the marvellous mangroves there! Join one of their many regular guided walks and other activities. Check out the Sungei Buloh website and wildsingapore happenings for the latest.

Related media articles

Migratory birds


  1. great job in summarizing their presentations!! truly enjoy this blog - very informative.

  2. Thank you for the encouragement, Buddhaphish.



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