Wednesday, 28 December 2011

NSS Kids’ Fun at the Botanic Gardens with Dr Shawn Lum

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Uncle Shawn pointing out the distinctive features of Dipterocarp (primary forest trees) leaves.

Plants are usually seen as less interesting than fauna like birds or butterflies. This misperception was dispelled by none other than NSS President Dr Shawn Lum himself, when he guided a small group of kids and their parents in a show-and-tell tour of the Singapore Botanic Gardens on 15 October 2011.

Instead of taking the beaten trail to the left of the Visitor Centre as most people would do, Uncle Shawn, a botanist by training, decided to show us his ‘secret garden’. We took the sheltered path to the right, climbing up some stairs until we hit the elevated car park. Here, he introduced us to the Caribbean pine, a native of Central America, Cuba and Jamaica, among other areas in the region. Kids were asked to pick up the aromatic pine needles that littered the ground. With a sniff and some imagination, one could be transported to the coniferous forests of faraway lands.

We traversed the hilly terrain and descended upon the 2.5 hectare Healing Garden that was scheduled to be open a few days later on 21 October 2011. This garden forms the largest collection of healing plants in Singapore, showcasing 500 species from Southeast Asia. There is even an iPhone app by NParks for visitors to learn more about its medicinal wonders. Uncle Shawn was slightly disappointed to find the Garden locked.

Still, it did not stop him from enlightening us on the interesting specimens at its periphery. One such tree was the Buah Keras or Candlenut (Aleurites moluccana). Its fruit is used by the Malays, Nyonyas and Indonesians to cream, thicken and flavor their curries. Candlenuts are toxic when raw. They are so named because of their oily seeds. Hawaiians string them together, stick in a wick, and use them as candles. Uncle Shawn revealed that as a boy growing up in Hawaii, he failed numerous times to light the seeds. He only succeeded doing so 40 years later, an episode that brought him great delight.

We felt lucky to see the ephemeral and elusive Stinkhorn Mushroom which usually springs up in the night and is wilted by midday.

We then came across an Annatto tree which has fruits with an attractive reddish pulp around the seeds. These make a yellow dye that is used as a food colouring agent for some cheeses, butter and more. Natives of Central and South America use the pulp to make red body paint and lipstick. We then spied the familiar Blue Pea (Clitoria ternatea) climbing freely on a nearby fence. The water-extracted blue dye from its flowers is employed in Malay and Nyonya cooking to colour glutinous rice for Kuih Ketan and Nyonya Chang. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is used as a memory enhancer, antidepressant and sedative agent. Uncle Shawn suggested that the Education Group could hold an art session centred entirely on natural plant dyes. What a brilliant idea!

The Nutmeg fruit, seed and (reddish) aril can be used to make three cherished food ingredients.

As we moved along, Uncle Shawn picked up a couple more leaves, pods, seeds and fruits to show the kids. These included rubber seeds, leaves of Dipterocarps (primary forest trees) and fruits of the Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). In fact, the sprawling Nutmeg tree proved to be most fascinating. It is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices: Nutmeg and Mace. Both have similar flavours, with Nutmeg being slightly sweeter while Mace is more delicate (and expensive). Nutmeg powder is made from the seeds of the tree, while mace is derived from the lacy reddish aril of the seed. Mace is also cherished for the orange hue it imparts to food. The Nutmeg fruit itself can also be eaten. It is typically cooked in sugar to make the candy Manisan Pala, a familiar preserved fruit.

The sighting of a Black Spitting Cobra evoked feelings of excitement and terror in equal parts.

Kids were not only thrilled by the many plants we saw, we also had our fair share of animal encounters. These included an Asian Toad, several Changeable Lizards and even a one metre long Black Spitting Cobra that slithered across our path! This snake is supposed to be common in gardens, scrubland and forests. When provoked, it would spit its venom at the eyes of victims, temporarily blinding them. Thankfully, all we saw was the retreating form of the snake as it disappeared into some bushes. Indeed, we had a very fine morning exploring one of Uncle Shawn’s favourite hangouts!

NSS Kids’ Fun with Dragons and Damsels

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson

The dragonfly and damselfly world is populated by mystifying characters with names such as Treehugger, Telephone Sylvan and Crimson Dropwing. These names remain perplexing until one discovers that they perfectly describe the unique characteristics of particular Odonata (dragonfly) species. We learnt that the Treehugger (Tyriobapta torrida) is almost always found resting on tree trunks; the Telephone Sylvan (Coeliccia octogesima) has a pair of blue markings on its upper thorax that resemble the handles of telephones; and the Crimson Dropwing (Trithemis aurora) has the habit of gradually folding its wings downward when it lands.

Telephone Sylvan has a pair of blue markings on its upper thorax that resemble the handles of telephones.

Not only did we get close-up views of our three protagonists, the kids were also entertained by a supporting cast of 13 winged wonders on 13 August 2011 at the sparkling Venus Drive stream. We had the pleasure of being guided by four dragonfly enthusiasts: Tang Hung Bun, Dr Cheong Loong Fah, Robin Ngiam and Cheong Yi Wei.

The excitement began within metres of the Venus Drive car park. Here, the stream appeared inconspicuous, partially hidden by overgrown grass. This did not deter our guides. They gamely descended its steep slopes to point out the various delicate creatures that abounded around its clear waters. We gasped at the size of one of Singapore’s tiniest damselfly, the Variable Wisp (Agriocnemis femina), which measured just 2 cm from head to tail.

Auntie Gloria helping to show kids a forest dragonfly.

As expected, dragonflies were relatively difficult to tell apart. Many of the common ones were mostly red or mostly blue. Uncle Tang, who is also the author of the book “A Photographic Guide to the Dragonflies of Singapore”, brought along his brilliantly-photographed guidebook to help us identify the creatures.

On average, dragonflies spend about six months of their lives residing as larvae at the bottom of streams and stagnant waters. They feed on tadpoles, small fishes, water beetles, fleas and mosquito larvae, amongst other things. They can even turn cannibalistic if food is scarce. Like butterflies, they undergo metamorphosis, transforming from swimming juveniles into flying adults. After this, they only live on for one to two more months. This is just enough time to find a mate and perpetuate the next generation.

As adults, dragonflies are top predators in the insect world. They hunt down pesky mosquitoes, small butterflies, spiders and damselflies. There is even a record of a dragonfly killing a hummingbird in the US. Singapore has at least three Odonata species that are migratory, invading our air space in large numbers during the monsoon months. In the US, certain dragonflies are fondly called mosquito hawks.

Uncle Loong Fah pointing out the dragons and damsels of Venus Drive Stream.

We followed the stream from the sunny grassland into the gloom of the forest. Here, we saw a different cast of dragonflies from the open country variety. Instead of congregating around water, the forest dwelling ones are more isolated and less conspicuous. This gives the impression that there are fewer species living here, although it is not true. Both the Telephone Sylvan and Treehugger are forest varieties. We also located the uncommon and beautiful Blue sided Satinwing (Euphaea impar) after some hard searching. Altogether, it was a fruitful morning with most of us experiencing dragonfly watching for the first time. Indeed, the insect world is far more deserving of our attention given its tremendous diversity and beauty.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Fun with Hydroponics Farming & Butterflies

By Amy Tsang and Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Photos by Lena Chow and KC Tsang

Our affable guide Adrian with his rapt audience.

We had an unlikely combination of a butterfly and hydroponics adventure in our NSS Kids’ outing on 18 June 2011, to Oh Chin Huat Hydroponics Farm located near Yishun. The laid back vibe of the place was a natural balm to our frazzled city souls.

We started the day in an outdoor classroom where Oh’s Farm guide Adrian conducted a fascinating show and tell session on butterflies. He took us through the butterfly’s life cycle, from miniscule eggs deposited on host plants, to the caterpillars' metamorphism through various 'costume' or instar changes, their pupation and finally their eclosure as beautiful butterflies. A few brave kids even allowed the prickly-looking Mime and Autumn Leaf caterpillars to crawl all over their arms. However, mostly ‘spiky’ caterpillars have skin irritants and should not be handled.

Some girls have no fear of caterpillars, allowing them to crawl all over their arms.

Kids had an exciting time exploring the Butterfly Enclosure. Here, beauties such as Autumn Leaf, Lime, Plain Tiger, Tawny Coster and Jacinta Eggfly flit freely amongst their host and nectar plants. Some of us even caught the rare sight of an Autumn Leaf caterpillar transforming into a pupa, by doing a writhing ‘belly’ dance. A butterfly quiz had kids vying for plant prizes including some butterfly host plants. KC and Amy Tsang were great at promoting butterfly watching. They handed out information sheets, recommended various field guides, as well as sold copies of the pocket-sized “NSS Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore”.

We even saw a Tawny Coster Butterfly eclosing from its pupa case.

The adults particularly enjoyed the hydroponics tour. We learnt that Oh’s Farm grows six types of vegetables including Kang Kong, Chye Sim and Xiao Baicai, as well as 10 types of herbs such as Italian Basil, Sweet Basil and Stevia. We were astounded that the farm sells about 1,000 kg of produce daily, to supermarkets such as NTUC where it is marketed under the ‘Pasar’ brand. Our guide shared with us that the soil-free nutrient solution comprises 16 minerals. Minerals essential for vegetable growth, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorous, are present in high concentrations. These are mixed together with trace elements such as copper, molybdenum, iron and manganese.

Vegetables are grown from seeds sown into sponges. These are placed in a dark, moist and warm Germination Room for two to three days, where 95% of them will sprout leaves. The seedlings are then transferred to a nursery where they are kept until they develop four leaves. These plantlets are then transplanted into greenhouses where cultivation occurs for another three to four weeks.

Lush, pesticide-free hydroponics vegetables grown right here in Singapore.

Vegetables and herbs are grown using the DRF (Dynamic Root Floating) hydroponics technique whereby a nutrient solution is circulated under the culture boards. This induces the plants to develop an air root system (numerous fine roots) in the humid space between the underside of the culture board and the surface of the nutrient solution. The plants are protected by black netting that covers the greenhouse, which negates the need for pesticides, lowers the amount of sunlight, as well as reduces the buildup of heat. These modified conditions are necessary as most vegetables and herbs consumed in Singapore originate from cooler climes such as South China. It takes about 28 days for Kang Kong to mature, which is a full week shorter than if it were grown in a regular farm. However, detractors claim that hydroponics-grown Kang Kong tastes more ‘watery’, less fibrous, and even less ‘delicious’ than the soil-grown variety. We sampled the Sweet Basil with relish.

We had fun sampling some of these produce. The Italian Basil had a numbing effect on our tongues, where purportedly only the healthy can detect. We enjoyed the taste of Stevia, a herb that is 250 times sweeter than cane sugar. It is sometimes used by diabetics as a sugar substitute. We were even allowed into the Cold Room (4°C to 8°C), which is essentially a walk-in misty refrigerator. Here, harvested vegetables are left for a day to rehydrate, so that their leaves do not tear as easily. Participants snapped up vegetable seeds, plantlets and fresh greens at the farm shop. Kids were encouraged to experiment with hydroponics at home, using a cut-up water bottle and some seeds. The tour aptly rounded off with each of us getting two free packets of leafy Xiao Baicai.

Fun at Chek Jawa

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson

Chek Jawa’s coastal boardwalk enabled us to admire marine life such as Purple Climber Crabs and Rock Oysters.

There was a major stampede to see the splendid marine life of Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin when it was first ‘discovered’, which ironically killed off a good portion of the ‘discovery’. In order to protect this fragile inter-tidal treasure from further damage, NParks implemented restricted access. It built an elevated coastal and mangrove boardwalk as compensation. The Education Group visited the area during the spring low tide of 10 April 2011, guided by Tan Hang Chong, Edzra Iskandar, Boon Peiya, Timothy Pwee and myself.

As chief guide, Uncle Hang Chong was superb with the kids. He peppered our walk with lots of stimulating edutainment. Kids learnt that the giant Orb Web Spider that we usually see is actually the female. The males are the tiny ‘babies’ that hang around the periphery of the web, essentially leeching off the female’s catches. They have to be careful not to get chomped on by their ‘wife’ after mating, which unfortunately happens sometimes. Auntie Gloria then spotted a Water Monitor Lizard climbing up a coconut tree, an arresting sight to say the least.

At the start of the coastal boardwalk, we came across the inedible Sea Nutmeg and Sea Mangosteen. We then spied several Carpet Anemones with tentacles swaying in the incoming tide. Purple Climber Crabs scrambled on sea boulders, which themselves were plastered with huge Rock Oysters. A stately Great-billed Heron, Singapore’s largest bird, was seen striding the distant mudflats, accompanied by a Little Heron and Whimbrel. Fiddler Crabs went about their daily business eating the coating of detritus on sand grains. Males cheerily waved their enlarged bright orange pincers in the hope of attracting the ladies.
As chief guide, Uncle Hang Chong even brought along a stash of ‘attap chee’, which comes from the Nipah Palm found also at Chek Jawa.

Kids found out that mangrove trees can thrive in poorly-oxygenated mudflats because they have aerial (air breathing) as well as buried roots. Depending on the species, the aerial roots can be pencil shaped or prop like. We were introduced to the Nipah Palm, source of the Ice Kachang must-have ‘attap chee’. Uncle Hang Chong even brought along a stash of these sugared treats, which were eagerly gobbled up. We rounded off the tour with a stop at the NSS Green Hub @ Ubin. Everybody was wowed by the surprisingly bright lighting system that uses diffused daylight. A big tube punched through the roof channels sunlight through a diffuser which also functions to remove the sun’s heat.

Fun in the Forest

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Photos by Timothy Pwee

How would you describe a forest? Dark, mysterious or fun? Led by veteran nature guide Goh Si Guim, a chirpy group of kids and their caregivers chose the last adjective of 'fun' to describe their forest foray on 19 February 2011.

Uncle Si Guim briefing kids and their caregivers at the work-in-progress submerged boardwalk.

Circumventing MacRitchie Reservoir’s work-in-progress submerged boardwalk, we proceeded towards the Lornie Trail. Here, hundreds of joggers and trekkers zipped pass, quite unaware of the intriguing life forms that co-existed in the trees and undergrowth.

Near the trailhead, we visited our favourite patch of Slender Pitcher Plants. This carnivorous climber lures unwary insects with sweetened droplets, invariably leading them to a watery deathtrap. Digestive juices reduce the drowned insects into a nitrogen-rich supplement for the pitchers. As a result, pitchers typically flourish in nitrogen-poor soils where most plants cannot grow.

Uncle Si Guim pointed out the contrast between the hot and unsheltered landscaped garden that we had passed, with the cool and canopied forest that we had entered. Waving his hands animatedly, he explained in simple terms the role of plants in the ecosystem and the amazing biodiversity that it supported. Then we started poking around the undergrowth.

The cool and canopied forest revealed life forms that go unnoticed by most.

Kids grew increasingly fascinated with the micro organisms that Uncle Si Guim uncovered. They learnt that Jumping and Wolf Spiders did not build webs, but prowled the forest floor to hunt for insect prey. They saw a ‘ladder’ of bracket fungi, forming a ‘stairway’ up a dead tree that had possibly been zapped by lightning. Peering closely with torch and magnifying glass at the uneven bark of a Pulai tree, we found a well-camouflaged Whip Scorpion and several pinkish Forest Silverfish. Different species of Forest Cockroach (adults and nymphs) scampered amongst the leaf litter, quite unlike their American Cockroach cousins that live in our houses.

An entomophagous (insect-eating) fungus slowly snuffed out the life of this fly.

Next, Uncle Si Guim stumbled upon the ultimate find in the insect world. On closer examination of an innocuous-looking dead fly resting on a twig, he was ecstatic to witness for the first time, an entomophagous (insect-eating) fungus growing out of its head and body. A spore of this fungus had landed on the unfortunate fly. Its deadly mycelia had spread inside the fly, slowly drawing the nutrients and life out of its unsuspecting host. We could only see the fruiting bodies (“mushrooms”) of the fungus that had sprouted on the fly’s desiccated exoskeleton. These “mushrooms” were laden with spores that could infect the next victim. Kids learnt from Auntie Gloria that Cordyceps is a famous example of a medicinal entomophagous fungus.On the way out, some of us found a Kendall 's Rock Gecko resting in the branched crevice of a huge Callophyllum inophyllum tree near the exercise corner. In all, this trip cultivated an appreciation for the seemingly insignificant world of insects - a microcosm that can turn out to be terribly intriguing too.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Dugong Ivory at Changi Beach!

A rare Dugong tusk (ivory) in its own bone casing was found at Changi Beach by Timothy Pwee and Gloria Seow.

We stumbled upon this unexpected and superb treasure during a low tide walk on 26 March 2011. When we first laid eyes on it, the bone casing had a little point sticking out, looking more like a giant barnacle. Only when cracked was the tusk exposed. However, we still could not fathom its identity, only guessing that it came from a big marine or land mammal. After scrolling through numerous photos on Google Images, we finally found the answer!

Locally, dugongs are very rare. Known also as sea cows, they graze on the sea grass beds off Changi Beach , Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong, around the mouth of Johor River and along the coast of Peninsular Malaysia. They tend to feed at night to avoid human contact. Globally, its population is discontinuously distributed from East Africa, to India, Southeast Asia, all the way to down to Australia. Only male dugongs that reach puberty (around age 12 onwards), or very old females sport visible tusks. Our dugong’s tusk measured 9.5 cm (adult males: 17 to 22 cm), while its bone casing was 20 cm long.
Growth layers on tusks can be used to age the mammal.

Culling from internet postings, it appears that the last confirmed Singapore sightings were in 2001 and 2006. Dugong carcasses were found at East Coast beach and Pulau Tekong respectively. A lucky contractor constructing the Chek Jawa boardwalk apparently encountered a live one in 2006. Ria Tan and her friends possibly spotted another live dugong as recently as March 2011, also in Chek Jawa. An old 1999 aerial survey counted 19 dugongs around the islands off Mersing (Pulau Rawa etc).

Did you know that dugongs are distantly related to elephants? Notice their tusks, small eyes and thick hides. Dugongs are differentiated from the similar-looking manatees by having a fluke (fish) tail. Manatees have paddle tails. Dugongs are true marine mammals, whereas manatees can live in both freshwater and coastal marine habitats.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

NSS Kids’ Fun with Nature Photography

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Photos by Lena Chow

Auntie Gloria gave a brief introduction to the basic functions of the digital camera.

Equipping kids as young as four years old with basic nature photography skills was not as easy as anticipated. These frisky little ones had great difficulty staying still long enough to snap a decent shot. Concepts like ‘framing’, ‘focusing’, and ‘macro’ were somewhat lost on them. Still they had fun running around capturing pictures of plants, insects, and other wildlife, as well as scenery. The older kids benefitted more from the nature walk cum photography session held at the MacRitchie Reservoir on 18 December 2010.

Every child had his own point-and-shoot camera.

Nature shots taken can be uploaded online to be shared with friends. This event was earlier highlighted in The Straits Times as part of a line-up of kids’ nature activities happening during the school vacation. As such, we had a deluge of registrations with up to 80 children wanting in on the action. In the end, 33 kids showed up together with an entourage of parents and caregivers.

Auntie Gloria gave a brief introduction to the basic functions of the digital camera. All kids present brought their own point-and-shoot devices. We then broke up into five groups led by Auntie Gloria, Auntie Lena, Auntie Mabel, Uncle Hang Chong and Uncle Timothy.

Auntie Mabel’s troop of older kids got to photograph carnivorous Slender Pitcher Plants, frolicking Long-tailed Macaques and soaring White-belled Sea Eagles. With his years of experience as a nature guide, Uncle Hang Chong naturally regaled his impressionable charges with nature stories and factoids while they snapped away at their subjects. Auntie Lena discovered that Singapore’s flies, if one cared to look at them at all, were a colourful lot, ranging from luminescent green to funky pink.

“Welcome to my lair,” said Mr Spider.

Uncle Timothy pointed out aspects of nature that one would normally miss, such as moss and lichen growing along pavement cracks, helping the kids appreciate these tiny life forms. By capturing close-up shots of what appears small and insignificant at first glance, one is usually surprised to find out that they are actually quite complex and beautiful.

While photographing a flowering shrub, Auntie Gloria’s group stumbled across two Green-crested Lizards resting amongst the foliage, right under our noses. These retiring lizards have been largely displaced by the invasive and non-native Changeable Lizard in many parts of Singapore. As such, it was our privilege that they turned up as perfect models for us. Flowers such as this Ixora were a favourite macro subject.

Being an excitable lot, the kids had to be constantly reminded not to get too close to animals, lest they flee or attack - their first lesson in nature photography etiquette. Indeed, we learnt that a nature trip can be enhanced by taking away memories of it in the form of photographs. Given today’s connectivity, these images can be uploaded almost instantaneously onto social media websites such as Facebook, as well as blogs and other online platforms. Sharing our nature shots with others is the best way to showcase Singapore’s Amazing Wildlife. This little step can help people realise that Singapore’s natural heritage is indeed diverse and wonderful, and ultimately, worth conserving. Uncle Timothy tutoring individual kids.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Fun with Nature Sketching and Origami

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson

The scenic granite backdrop of Bukit Batok Nature Park formed the perfect outdoor setting for nature art.

The Education Group, together with Cicada Tree Eco Place, orchestrated a joint nature sketching cum origami workshop for kids and their caregivers. This took place at the Bukit Batok Nature Park on 3 October 2010. Nature artist and birding maestro Uncle Ding Li not only conducted the drawing session, but also complemented it with a fascinating commentary on Singapore’s ecology.

We started off with a stroll along a leafy path where we had delightful encounters with a small flock of White-crested Laughing Thrushes. These charismatic introduced birds were foraging at eye level, occasionally hopping along the forest floor or landing in low bushes. Everyone enjoyed good views even without binoculars. We also saw a lone Laced Woodpecker high up in the trees and heard the sparkling song of the globally-threatened Straw-headed Bulbul.

Kids working hard on their woodpecker masterpieces.

Auntie Vilma laid out a huge groundsheet facing the jagged granite outcrop of the pond area. This pretty setting suited the creation of dainty art pieces. Auntie Yue Yun, Auntie Lena and Uncle Timothy handed out recycled paper and sharpened pencils as drawing material. The kids were asked to recall the appearance of the White-crested Laughing Thrush. Uncle Ding then broke down the bird’s body structure into basic geometrical forms such as ovals (body), circles (head), triangles (beak) and rectangles (tail). Using these basic shapes, the children also drew their own birdies. Uncle Ding went on to erase off unnecessary lines to obtain a simple drawing of a perched bird. Just to prove that nature sketching could be done in a jiffy so as to capture the fresh memory of a recently-encountered bird, Uncle Ding went on draw a life-like laughing thrush in under three minutes!

Uncle Ding Li used basic shapes like ovals, circles, triangles and rectangles to sketch a bird, with the kids eagerly following suit.

Following this, Auntie Gloria handed out several articles related to nature sketching published in ‘Suara Enggang’, the birding bulletin of the Malaysian Nature Society. These articles explained the usefulness of nature sketching as a tool for observers to quickly note the key features of newly-encountered wildlife. Arrows with description can be added, denoting diagnostic features such as colour and even behaviour. These observations can be penned in a notebook carried along during field trips. Even those with long lenses could do with a pocketbook to record sightings and sketch those creatures that had evaded camera capture. Such field sketches, along with additional information such as date, time, place and weather condition, are frequently used as evidence to support rare sightings, thereby growing the body of scientific knowledge.

Uncle Ding Li drew this woodpecker in record time.

Uncle Ding led the kids further in a step-by-step sketch of the White-bellied Woodpecker and a butterfly. He explained that the White-bellied Woodpecker is feared to be extinct in Singapore with the last sighting occurring many moons ago. The children finished off their masterpieces by colouring them with magic pen. To round up the session, Auntie Yue Yun taught us how to fold a bird with movable body parts starting from a square piece of recycled magazine. Uncle Tim even ‘magnified’ the origami steps by demonstrating on a bigger sheet of paper. Soon enough, our paper birds were flapping merrily, much to the delight of the young ones.

Playing with an origami bird made of recycled magazine.