Monday, 4 March 2013

NSS Kids’ Fun with Forest Butterflies
Text & Photos By Lena Chow

Ten-year old Tan Teong Seng developed a passion for butterflies after rearing some caterpillars given out at a NSS Butterfly Walk just over a year ago. This sees him spending many happy weekends at butterfly hotspots around Singapore, and reading up fervently on the island’s myriad butterfly species. On 24 November 2012, Teong Seng put his knowledge to good use. He led nine other children as well as their accompanying parents and caregivers on a fun with forest butterflies session at Dairy Farm Nature Park. Truly, it was a walk for kids by a kid!

Our 10-year old guide Tan Teong Seng in action.
Teong Seng began by introducing the butterfly species commonly encountered along the Dairy Farm trail. Auntie Lena then explained the life cycle of a butterfly. She passed around Lime butterfly caterpillars in various stages (instars) of development, live pupas as well as a pristine Lime butterfly specimen. The caterpillars were later given away to a few lucky participants. Hopefully, witnessing the fascinating transformation of these caterpillars into butterflies will spark off an interest in butterfly appreciation as it has done for Teong Seng.

A Sixline Blue puddling on granite which Teong Seng gingerly lifted up for all to see!
To everyone’s delight, just a few steps into the trail, Teong Seng had a little Ciliate Blue land on his hand. It stayed put for a few minutes, feeding off his perspiration as this species is wont to do. This was a wonderful close-up demonstration of ‘puddling’, a common behaviour that had been explained just minutes earlier. Puddling is when butterflies unfurl their proboscis to sip water with dissolved salts and minerals from the ground, or in this case, from a sweaty hand.

Our young shutterbugs had many photo opportunities during our walk.
We next encountered a Chocolate Grass Yellow. It too was engrossed in puddling by the roadside, providing an awesome photo opportunity. Despite a cloudy morning, Teong Seng’s sharp eyes spotted various species that appeared along the trail. These included several Grass Yellows flitting near the ground and in the trees above, as well as a Common Posy showing off its long tail streamers. Our young guide next pointed out the black-and-white striped Common Mime, which mimics the appearance of the distasteful Tiger butterfly, thereby gaining protection against predators.

We had the excitement of watching a huge Praying Mantis feast on a decapitated cricket.
 At the abandoned hut just beyond the Wallace Education Centre, we ran into the Common Mormon, Plain Nawab, Lesser Dart, Common Palmfly and a Cruiser decked out in striking orange. These painted wings were feeding amongst the Lantana and Pagoda flowers. We also enjoyed stunning views of a Sixline Blue. It was so absorbed with puddling from a piece of granite that Teong Seng actually managed to lift the stone with the butterfly still on it to show everyone!

Next, we had the excitement of watching a huge Praying Mantis feast on a decapitated cricket while perched on some Lantanas. This provided a great action shot for all the shutterbugs in our group. We then encountered a curious-looking grasshopper with a strange sagging body and upright wings. Teong Seng promptly identified it as a Monkey Grasshopper.

The curious-looking Monkey Grasshopper.
  As we headed back towards the carpark, we came across the highlight of our trip: Two large and handsome male Archdukes were puddling side by side in the leaf litter, slowly fanning their striking black-and-blue wings as they fed. They were joined shortly by a pretty blue-eyed Common Faun. We were grateful that both butterfly species co-operatively posed for us. In all, the morning proved to be most rewarding for all who came, especially for those new to forest butterfly watching.

NSS Kids’ Fun with the Wildflowers of Bidadari
By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Photos by Lena Chow 
Common Vernonia, a tiny wildflower that is widespread in Singapore.
Bidadari Cemetery was exhumed between 2001 and 2006. Today, the former Muslim side of Bidadari is overgrown and wild, serving as a magnet for migratory birds and the foraging grounds for a good number of wildlife species. Bidadari also offers a motley assemblage of plant life ranging from figs to wildflowers. But come December 2012, much of this green expanse is slated to give way to both public and private housing developments.

The Education Group was privileged to have Yap Von Bing and Angie Ng lead us on a hunt for Bidadari’s wildflowers and botanical wonders on 15 September 2012. Uncle Von Bing came armed with his compact wildflower guidebook published by the Singapore Science Centre. We met at the entrance of Woodleigh MRT station, right by the Christian side of the previous burial grounds. This portion of Bidadari is now open parkland with flat fields criss-crossed by running tracks, and interspersed with the occasional bush or tree.

The distinct yellow petals of the Yellow Creeping Daisy made identification a cinch.
Immediately, we spotted a cheerful patch of Yellow Creeping Daisy (Wedelia trilobata). Its distinct yellow petals made identification a cinch. However, the other wildflower species we were to come across were far smaller and relatively inconspicuous. We had to carefully examine what was underfoot before discovering a surprising array of miniscule beauties.

A bee visiting the Coat Button, a familiar wildflower that can be found in most open fields.
The most commonly encountered wildflower had to be the Coat Button (Tridax procumbens). Its long green stalk blends in with the sea of grass. This is topped by a white-and-yellow inflorescence that is fairly nondescript from afar, but is rather pretty when viewed up close. Time and again, we found ourselves bending low to observe tiny blooms such as the Common Vernonia (Vernonia cinerea), Common Asystasia (Asystasia gangetica) and the Malayan Eyebright (Torenia polygonoides). Not surprisingly, the kids loved the Touch-Me-Not plant (Mimosa pudica with pink pom-pom flowers) for its thigmonastic effect – its responsive leaflets close immediately upon touch. These diminutive wildflowers can be found in most open fields.

The Touch-Me-Not or Mimosa plant was a kids’ favourite for its thigmonastic leaflets that close immediately upon touch.
After a bout of squinting, we were happy to see the big yellow flowers of the Mickey Mouse Plant (Ochna kirkii) flanked by its red and green fruit that resembles the eponymous mouse. Auntie Angie then pointed out the fragrant white blooms of the Tembusu tree (Fagraea fragrans). We were particularly drawn to the attractive pink flowers of the Rain Lily (Zephyranthes grandiflora).

The red and green fruit of the Mickey Mouse Plant supposedly resembles the eponymous mouse.
Uncle Von Bing next taught the kids the telltale signs of a Ficus (Fig Tree). Breaking its leaves produces a white sap, while buds of new leaves appear pointy and sharp. He demonstrated these traits in the Waringin (Ficus benjamina) and the Bodhi Tree (Ficus Religiosa). We also came across botanical curiosities such as the aromatic Indian Curry Leaf (Murraya koenigii), the antioxidant-filled fruit of the Noni Tree (Morinda citrifolia), and the locally widespread Acacia (Acacia auriculiformis), a leguminous tree originally from Australia that has curly pods containing black seeds and edible yellow arils. Upon examining the bare carcass of a fallen tree (probably struck by lightning), we found remnants of a mistletoe that once grew on it. It was fascinating to note that the tree had a light brown bark, contrasting with the mistletoe’s almost-black branches.

After the session, some of us crossed Upper Aljunied Road and strolled over to the heavily wooded side of Bidadari that once held a Muslim cemetery. This is the core conservation area in NSS’ recently submitted plans to the authorities. To date, some 141 bird species have been recorded in this relatively small grove, giving it the highest bird density in Singapore. Fifty nine of these are migratory, with many rare birds showing up in recent years. Apart from buildings, the authorities also have plans for a public park. The park’s boundary is roughly the same size and has some overlap with our proposed conservation area, giving NSS some hope of a compromise.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Baby Birds @ Jurong Bird Park
By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson with Timothy Pwee

The new Breeding and Research Centre at Jurong Bird Park (BRC @ JBP) was the main enticement for our visit on 21 July 2012. It is not every day that one gets to see baby birds up close. Only when we arrived did we realise that the BRC can be accessed by any park goer. Still, it was worth paying extra for two guides to walk us through the exhibits, and for a feeding session that the public was not privy to.

Eggs are turned automatically every hour so that the embryonic membrane does not stick to the egg shell.

The BRC is where the JBP conducts its breeding programme, located next to the Kings of the Skies performing arena. We were split into two groups. Our first stop was the Incubation Room. Here, we were told that eggs are incubated at temperatures of between 36.9°C to 37.2°C. The eggs are turned automatically every hour so that the embryonic membrane does not stick to the egg shell. Eggs hatch anytime between two to six weeks, with smaller birds hatching earlier. The new-born chicks are then transferred to the Nursery, and isolated in sound-proof brooders where temperature and humidity are controlled. We saw around 10 brooders containing mostly parrots. The one that drew the most admiring sighs held a most adorable Sunda Scops Owl. 

In the nursery, baby birds are isolated in sound-proof brooders where temperature and humidity are controlled.
When the chicks are old enough, they are placed in the Weaning Room – one for water birds and another for all other birds. Here, we saw two baby pelicans sitting in tubs. Although there looked big, they were still largely featherless. Young Hyacinth Macaws (a rare parrot that has been successfully bred by the JBP) and a whole lot of other parrot species were held in individual cages. The larger the bird, the longer they take to wean, sometimes needing as long as one year. At this point, birds are fed a nutritious mix of nuts, grains, fruits and insects, depending on the species. 
We saw how chicks, like this two month old White Cockatoo, are hand-fed using a syringe filled with liquid formula every two to three hours throughout the day.

In our classroom session, we were shown the gigantic eggs of the Ostrich, Emu and Cassowary, three of the biggest birds alive. In contrast, we also handled the miniscule eggs of the local Tailorbird, barely one centimetre across. The bird keeper then brought in a two month old saccharine-cute White Cockatoo chick. This little fella knew that lunch was close at hand, and was thus calling incessantly and bobbing its head eagerly. The keeper showed us where the baby’s crop was (a food sac near the breast area). Then she filled a syringe with liquid formula food and in one second, emptied its contents in the chick. We could see now that the crop had become swollen. We were told that babies are hand-fed every two to three hours throughout the day. Bird keepers themselves work 14-hour shifts from 7 am to 9 pm.

Before and after the BRC session, we were free to roam the park. Most of us caught the Birds and Buddies show as well as the Kings of the Skies performance. The former is a re-run of popular circus acts with a utilitarian Singapore twist, such as making birds pick up litter. The latter is a much better production with a fetching falconry sub-theme. Several bird handlers were togged up in falconry gear from around the world, namely Mongolia and Arabia, complete with horseback, fake rabbit, and even a bloodhound to simulate a hunt. The world of raptors was encapsulated in a half-hour spectacle of eagles, owls and vultures swooping low on the audience and looking regal with their piercing stares, powerful talons and massive bills. The only local raptor showcased was a flock of Brahminy Kites trained to catch food in mid-air. 

Walking around, we were glad to see that the Bird Park has been improving by phasing out the old practice of small individual cages that allow no more than a few flaps of the wing. There were many more aviaries than before, offering close encounters with free-flying birds in naturalised settings. Still, some old-fashioned coops were cleverly contained within aviaries – giving the impression of wild jungle and faux freedom. Nevertheless, it was better than drab concrete cells with sorry looking birds. Our wish is for JBP to hurry up and build habitat aviaries for the hornbills and larger parrots.

NSS Kids’ Fun at Tampines Eco Green
By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson and Timothy Pwee
Photos by Lena Chow

An iconic feature of Tampines Eco Green is its picturesque snags or dead trees, left standing as perches and nesting sites for birds.
Located at the junction of Tampines Avenues 9 and 12, Tampines Eco Green is unlike the typical public park. It does not boast an orderly landscaping harking back to colonial roots. Instead, it is a ‘show park’ for an ecosystem type often deemed as ‘wasteland’. Here, a mix of grassland, swale, scrub and pioneer secondary forest are all on display, albeit curated to feel like a public park. A small group of NSS Kids and their parents took an eventful stroll here on 3 June 2012 led by Auntie Lena, Uncle Timothy and Auntie Gloria.

Instead of the usual paved path or boardwalk, Tampines Eco Green offers a green trail composed of carpet grass. The trail wends its way in a loop around the park, making for a nice cushioned walk. We visited its flushless eco-toilets. They work by using bacteria to decompose human waste into compost. Surprisingly, despite the absence of cleansing water, the loos did not smell one bit.

Next, we poked at the Giant Sensitive Tree (Mimosa pigra) to watch its leaflets fold up. It did so at a much slower rate compared to the Touch-Me-Not weed (Mimosa pudica) which has attractive pink flowers. The phenomenon of plant movement in response to touch or vibration is called thigmonasty or seismonasty. The Water Mimosa (Neptunia plena), which looks like the Touch-Me-Not except for its yellow flowers, is also sensitive to touch. At night, the leaves of these plants close up (nyctinastic) or go to ‘sleep’.

The highlight was coming across the nest of the Lesser Banded Hornet, and admiring its beautiful scallop patterning
The trip highlight was coming within 30 cm of the nest of the Lesser Banded Hornet (Vespa affinis). At first, we mistakenly identified it as the similar-looking Banded Paper Wasp (Polistes sagittarius), which build open nests with exposed combs. In contrast, the nest of the Lesser Banded Hornet has beautiful scallop patterning enveloping the combs. The imbricate (overlapping) envelope is made of mixed layers of papering. The ‘paper’ fibres are collected from wood and tree bark, and fixed with saliva. On hindsight, we were foolish to approach the nest so closely and were fortunate not to be attacked. Instead, we spent many happy moments admiring and photographing the handiwork of the hornets, truly an artistic masterpiece. There were a few buzzing hornet guards clambering about and flying around the nest, and they too, were a pretty sight to behold. According to, the Banded Paper Wasp is more slender-bodied than the Lesser Banded Hornet, has longer legs in relation to its body size, and flies with its legs extended vertically downwards.

Such open scrubby land is ideal for fast-colonising trees like the Acacia (Acacia auriculiformis) and Albizia (Paraserianthes falcataria) which thrive here. Unfortunately, both are invasive exotics from Australia and East Indonesia respectively. However, they have been naturalised to a large extent, so much so that local birds and other wildlife feed and nest in them. In fact, we saw the hanging nests of many Baya Weavers (Ploceus philippinus) as well as that of the exotic Asian Golden Weaver (Ploceus hypoxanthus) housed in the Acacia tree. Both weavers were seen actively constructing their nests and hunting for insects. The Asian Golden Weaver is an escapee from the caged bird trade, originally from Indochina and Java. Also nesting in treeholes above us were Red-breasted Parakeets and Collared Kingfishers. We encountered typical parkland birds such as the Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, Olive-backed Sunbird, Black-naped Oriole and more. Over 70 bird species have been recorded here.

There were ample signages illustrating the wildlife that can be found here.

We then wandered along the swales. These are stretches of water-logged land that gather rainwater. The plants in them cleanse the water by removing any pollutants. The park is home to at least 10 species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) including the Yellow-Barred Flutterer, Common Chaser and Coastal Glider. They were zipping about effortlessly, joined by a bevy of butterflies such as the Peacock Pansy, Striped Albatross and the rare Black Veined Tiger.

An iconic feature of Tampines Eco Green is its picturesque snags or dead trees, a surreal sight indeed. These snags were not removed when the park was developed and they now serve as perches and nesting sites for birds. Back at our starting point, we were greeted by a row of exotic parrots. Apparently we had stumbled upon free-flying parrot hobbyists who train their pets to fly around on their own but to return when called. This strange encounter capped an enjoyable morning of exploration.