Tuesday 28 February 2012

FOTD #3 - Song Sparrows, Cowbirds & Canaries

This is the last in a short series of facts I found while reading "Why Birds Sing" - I thought they were worth sharing and an ideal blog filler!

FOTD #3 (5 facts today):

Cowbirds have the largest known range in pitch of any bird!

Male cowbirds raised among canaries only imitate canaries; but surround them with female cowbirds and they will begin to wildly improvise, even though the females make no sound at all. The male changes its song as a response to social, not sonic, stimulation.

When an adult canary learns a new song, it grows new brain cells in the upper parts of its brain. This discovery led to discovery of adult neurogenesis and was the first time ever that new brain cells can grow in adult organisms leading to several similar studies in other animals (including humans).

If you inject a female canary with testosterone, it will start to sing like a male.

If you play a song sparrow one of his neighbour's songs, he will not reply with the same motif but with a different riff from the list that he shares with that neighbour. The researchers calles this repertoire matching, as opposed to type matching. But if the male sparro whears a completely alien song from a stranger sparrow, not a neighbour, then he will try to match that song with the closest type that he can! What for? Some have concluded that matching with a similar type of song is somehow more aggressive than trading common phrases with the neighbor. Song Sparrows seem to recognize these two ways of singing together.

Cool paintings of extinct birds.

Sunday 26 February 2012

eBird Rant

Lately I've been spending a fair bit of my time doing eBird related activities. Actually, on a few occasions I've cancelled my birding plans so that I could do some eBirding!

The main project I've worked on is improving the filter for Denmark. Essentially I sift through all the data on this site and decide how many of each species can be expected for each month of the year. If someone claims to see a species that isn't on that list or sees more than is expected they'll get an email asking for details (if they didn't already provide details in the comments section).

This is all part of becoming a reviewer for eBird in Denmark, Sweden and Grey county, Ontario. As well as a hotspot editor for 2 of those locations plus Singapore.
Hotspot editing essentially means that exisiting hotspots aren't duplicated, and approving/creating new ones that eBird users suggest.
Or, for example, if Steve Jobs suggests "Steve Jobs" as a hotspot I can go ahead and delete that.
Apparently that has happened (with different names though)!

"Hi everyone! I'm Steve Jobs and I'm a hotspot"

"Did he just say hot shot or hot spot?"

Lately I've also been submitting many more checklists than usual. Everyday I usually submit 2 checklists from around campus - the main reason I'm doing this is to fill in the many gaps on the eBird bar graphs. I wasn't as devoted to the bar graphs when I was in Denmark but I still have noticed an improvement. Check this out:

Looking at species ranging from Common Raven to European Robin from 1990-2012 (limited to those species recorded from Sept - Dec):

Now compare that to the same range of species when eliminating 2011 (e.g. 1990-2010):

All of a sudden only 16 species are in the second graph, down from 28 in the first. And some species had some large gaps - like European Robin (last one on the list) but after 2011 that improved - this isn't all from me though, there were at least 2 other birders who were frequently submitting data during that time period in 2011. As more eBirders visit the country (or locals start using the program) the graph will certainly improve.

I'd be interested in seeing a graph of eBird use similar to Mike Burrell's similar data.

On another note, I'm trying to convince the Singapore birders to take up eBirding. They don't keep any of their data... in fact some of the 'elder'  birders I've spoken to don't even make a note of the birds they saw in a notebook! I'm already the top contributor in South East Asia in terms of number of checklists which simply shows that there aren't any/many locals using the (free) program.

I really believe that this program should and will be the future of birding in terms of record keeping throughout the world. The combination of everyones data being combined while ensuring that locals are able to monitor the data quality is very important. Is there any other hobby that is in such an
international collaboration!?

Friday 24 February 2012

Shorebird videos

Some fun Youtube videos:

Crazy White-rumped Sandpiper song, I hope to hear this in real life some time:

Explore the other LabofOrnithology videos. Most of them are impressive!

And of course a Spoon-billed Sandpiper singing. Hopefully I'm looking at some these guys right now, but not in this plumage.

Don't forget about the Bird Song Quiz below!

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Bird Song Quiz #6

Good job on the last one to those who got it correct! The answers are at the bottom.

Quiz #6:

If you figure out which habitat this recording is taken from it should help with eliminating many of the species from the choices.

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Answers to quiz #5:
Alder Flycatcher sings at 0:02.
Connecticut Warbler sings at 0:07.
An American Crow calls from 0:11 - 0:15.
A Warbling Vireo sings from 0:16-0:18.

And the recording:

Mira and I are off to Thailand today. I've written some material ahead of time to be posted throughout the next while.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Review + FOTD #2 - Sperm Whales

As mentioned earlier I recently read the book Why Bird's Sing:

The author, David Rothenberg, is a philosopher and musician. He uses both fields of study to break apart the scientific mystery and comes to some unique conclusions.

One of the first facts/stories he recounts (I've included it below) involves Sperm Whales. Essentially a bunch of scientists were studying the songs/calls of the whales and couldn't decipher the sounds until they hired the help of a musician.

It's a good example of why scientists shouldn't simply rely on logic and regimented procedures but should try to be more creative and use the resources available to them when trying to solve problems. Especially in this case, considering that the question (Why Bird's Sing) involves music it seems logical to use the help of a musician. "Scientists should employ the skills of musicians and poets, who have used different human abilities to find meaning in the natural world".

Sounds like something a hippy would say! But the story below should help explain the idea.

The book doesn't come to any really shocking conclusions. Actually I don't think it really made any conclusions, it was just a constant discussion about different birds and their habits involving singing. The male Albert's Lyrebird in Australia apparently sings the exact same song as its counterparts in the same region. It takes a new male a few years to learn the segments of the song (which is almost entirely mimicked) and they perform it with little variation. This species may have been singing the same song for several hundred years!

I would recommend the book to someone who's interested in something 'different'. You're not going to get any of the typical discussion about identification or bird topography. I wouldn't say it's a 'must read', but if you're list of books to read is dwindling low and you're looking for a different perspective on bird behaviour this is it! I sure learned a lot of cool facts and stories which I've been posting. It's also helpful to know some/all birds from all regions of the world. I don't think I had heard of about half the species making me not appreciate their abilities as much.

Anyway, enough boring talk. Hopefully you find this fact interesting:


Two scientists were studying the rhythmic, click-like sounds of sperm whales for several years off the Canary Islands when they made a recording they couldn't figure out. They couldn't identify the individual whales simply by listening to all the clicks - there were too many overlapping rhythms!

It's the same problem Western listeners have when they first hear a large ensemble of tight West African drummers. How can each player maintain their individual rhythms amid the great mix of patterns and beats?
The scientists had the idea of getting a Senegalese drum master to help them. With his highly trained ear, he could hear the individual statements inside the mix, and was able to pick out specific whales' rhythms from the quick-beating fray. The scientists concluded that each whale has its own distinctive click train rhythm, a result that no previous study had found.

An interesting conclusion that goes a long way towards demonstrating that whales are intelligent and most likely can communicate. Meaning that we humans aren't as unique as we once thought.

Quoted from "Why Bird's Sing".

Monday 20 February 2012

Getting Jiggy ... with a Rail-babbler

Yesterday while birding Panti Forest in Malaysia with Mira and 2 Singaporean birders we heard a distant drawn out monotone whistle. Our unofficial guides (i.e. friends that were super generous to take us and show us around) said that it was a Malaysian Rail-babbler. It is the most sought after species in the area, and typical of desired species they are very difficult to see! This bird is a ground dweller and is the only bird of its genus.

Being birders we all tried to imitate the whistle - with limited success. I think we must have all sounded like out of tune immature Rail-babblers at the very best! Eventually Jimmy, honed his whistle and we could hear the distant whistle of this unique bird become a little less distant.

Wondering what the bird actually looks like? So was I!

Photo from here

OK, it doesn't look totally badass, but it was rare, lives only in a limited region of SE Asia and it was within ear shot.

Listen to the song while you continue reading:

After hearing the song continue to come closer we were all eagerly scanning the forest floor for any sign of this bird. A solid 15 minutes later and we were starting to give up hope. Ju Lin said that the bird is very unlikely to come out of hiding so we would at least have to enter the (leach-infested) forest a bit more. I figured this rare bird was worth the risk of leaches.

I slowly and quietly walked in the direction of the bird while some how impulsively learning how to whistle at the birds pitch. The song of the bird almost sounded like it was coming from a few directions so I was unsure which way to go. I crept down one of the only openings and continued to lure in the bird by whistling after every time it sang.

Eventually I could hear that it was very close by. No more than 5 meters - but knowing how difficult it is to see ground-dwelling birds I wasn't very confident that I would be able to locate it.
A few short and drawn out steps closer to my target and I saw a bit of movement. Locking on with the bins and to my amazement I saw the Malaysian Rail-babbler filling up my field of view while putting on an amazing display.

While singing the bird would crouch down very low to the ground and stretch it's neck forwards as if putting a lot of emphasis into the song. After finishing the whistle (about 2 seconds long) it would stand back up to look in my direction waiting for my reply. I submitted and whistled back to the bird, to which it replied once more. This time I could see the small air sacs on its neck expand to show a bright white display flanked with blue on the sides and a chestnut-red colour at the front of the neck.
What a cracker - as the british would say! I called to the others to come in and see the bird, the Rail-babbler amazingly did not flee but continued to sing its song providing an amazing spectacle.

I did try to film the bird - with very limited success. Evidence at the most.
In the first couple seconds you can hear the song of the bird followed by a poor imitation by me. At first you can see that the bird is crouched down, low to the ground while whistling and then raises its head to look in the direction of us:

This video does the display much more justice. Look at the blue skin on the side of the neck when it expands!

This definitely goes down as one of the coolest experiences I've ever had with an individual bird. There's certainly better looking birds and rarer birds that I've seen. But the combination of having to work for the bird, patience paying off, seeing it perform it's display and having a bird almost communicate with me is a pretty amazing feeling! Not to mention the allure of a sought after species, that is endemic to this region and is more often heard than seen.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Panti Forest - Malaysia

Yesterday afternoon I got this text message from a local birder that I was planning to go birding with:
"Did u hear that there is a Rosy Starling at lorong Halus area? Would you mind switching locations?"

Lorong Halus area is in Singapore and a Rosy Starling is a vagrant to the island so naturally all the big year birders wanted to see it. And I was more than happy to join in the chase.

Then yesterday evening I got another text message from the same person:
"Do you want to go to the famous panti forest instead? A mega was seen - Brown-backed Flowerpecker... at a fruiting tree today so chances are high to see it again."

I guess mega-rarities trump big year rarities?

I've heard of Panti Forest several times from the local birders in Singapore. They describe it as some sort of holy region for birding. So I was looking forward to the unexpected trip to the forest today when I got that text last night. You can't say no to a mega rarity especially when it involves exploring new habitat with the promise of several lifers!

A photo of the actual bird we were chasing:
Check out Con's other great photos here. Especially the Barbets!

This species is poorly understood. I knew nothing about it yesterday and now probably know pretty much all that there is to know about it - which isn't very much. They specialize in "peat forests" which is a limited habitat already and are constantly being destroyed. Very few people have seen them or photographed them making it all the more desirable, despite it being a relatively bland bird. Although the eye in this photo is badass!

Fast forward to this morning, after 1.5 hours of driving we were very close to the fruiting tree and it was still dark out. We decided to not go immediately because it was raining. After a delicious breakfast we headed straight for the location to find 3 birders already at the tree - they had not seen the bird.
One of them has ~1800 on his Asian list (out of about 2800 - and he's only a few years older than I am!) so he was eager to add this bird to his list.

Unfortunately the bird wasn't to be seen and there wasn't much activity in general at the fruiting tree. This Black-thighed Falconet didn't help much either with finding Flowerpeckers. But I was pretty excited to see it. It is one of the smallest birds of prey and is very cute:

Blue-eared Barbets eventually came out to feast on the fruits:

This Black and Yellow Broadbill was a highlight for me:

I got a much better look than that though. This photo does the bird justice - looks like a clown!

Photo from here

Gliding lizards are common in SE Asia, while patiently waiting for a shy bird to make an appearance this one glided into view:

A Whiskered Treeswift was another highlight for the day. I had seen these birds in the field guide before coming to SE Asia really hoping I would see one. They find a perch and literally hang out there for several hours without flying once! The bird we saw today stayed in the same location for at least 1 hour.

Photo from here

Another beautiful bird was the male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher:

Photo from here

I spent a lot more time enjoying great looks at these birds today instead of taking photos so that's why I'm showing you photos from other people.

We never did end up seeing the Brown-backed Flowerpecker but all these birds more than made up for it. And an awesome experience with a very secretive and highly sought after species was the highlight of the trip. That  story to come another day!

Saturday 18 February 2012


An international chase, a new experience for me and Mira's first full day in Singapore!

More news tomorrow ;)

Thursday 16 February 2012

FOTD #1 - Marsh Warblers

After reading the book "Why Birds Sing" I gathered a bunch of facts that I found interesting and wanted to share. The list ended up being too long for one blog post so I'll break it up into a series of facts - Fact of the Day (FOTD's) - ideal for blog filler ;) But I won't be posting one daily so it's more like Fact of the Intermittent Day (FOTID).

FOTD #1:

Listen to a Marsh Warbler while you're reading about them ;)

Marsh Warblers are a species of warbler that live in marshes (duh) in Europe. They have a long, continuous song that can last up to 30 minutes! Prior to the 1970's, scientists and naturalists believed that the song consisted of parts that are mimicked from other birds in its territory and of its own parts that are unique to the species (i.e. non-mimicked parts). This changed in 1976, when a naturalist took her first trip to East Africa, the wintering grounds of the Marsh Warbler, where she learned the sounds of commons birds in the area. When she returned to Belgium the following year, she was astounded to hear the warblers perfectly imitate many of the African birds. Woven into the marsh warbler's extremely complex song she heard Black-eyed Bulbul notes and bleating Bush Warblers calls, along with colorfully named singers such as the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and the Fork-tailed Drongo. The Marsh Warbler turns out to have no original song syllables at all. It even imitates birds it can only hear en route to its winter grounds: passing through Tunisia, it picks up tunes from the Boran Cisticola and the Vinaceous Dove. The naturalist had discovered the one bird that can recount its migratory path as a kind of songline, where the journey is mapped into the music itself.

Why has the bird evolved such an incredible mimetic song, perhaps the most complex in the world? Not for mating purposes. Female Marsh Warblers choose mates based on the male's territory, not the quality of his song. The females seem rather uninterested in its awesome complexity. As the song is so complicated and it takes over thirty minutes of continusous singing to get the full repertoire, females would need to sit and listen for ages to evaluate a male's musical skill. Of course they do no such thing. As soon as a female appears, the male stops his singing. Concert over. He then devotes himself to helping her find the best nest site, giving only brief snatches of song along the way. She may never get to hear what her mate can do!

Quoted from "Why Bird's Sing". A review of the book will come eventually.

Photo from here

A bland looking bird, no wonder it needs to attract mates with a respectable territory!

Don't forget about the Bird Song Quiz below. So far one person has them all correct.

Pulau Semakau

Pulau Semakau is an island South of Singapore that is used as a landfill. Unlike North America there are no gulls at this landfill (I've only heard of one gull in Singapore while I've been here). Surrounding the island is a road that is rarely used and offers a good opportunity for grassland birds along with a small Mangrove forest at the end.

A group of us went there on Sunday. To get to the island we took a small ferry from the busiest port in the world.

Large-billed Crows are apparently common in Singapore but this is only the 2nd one I've seen:

I spent a lot of time searching for Little Ringed Plovers in Denmark last September but came up empty. So I was happy to see 3 of them including 2 in breeding plumage!

3 species of Fiddler crab were seen on the tidal flats although I don't remember any of their names. They're about the size of a big toe and have a disproportionately large claw for intimidating and fighting rivals, and for attracting mates:

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Bird Song Quiz #5

The last Quiz is here and at the bottom of this post with answers. I had a noticeable increase in responses which was nice and I think it is largely due to the anonymous quiz format and because it was a lot easier to submit answers (especially if you don't have a google account) - so I'm hoping for just as many (and maybe even more) respondents for this one!

Quiz #5:

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Even if you don't think you're good enough or not confident enough to try these out, you should review the recordings with the answers because it's good practice and if you already know the songs it's a good way of keeping in tune with these birds while they're away during the winter!

And if you don't feel confident identifying the songs it's also helpful to try to listen for the song that I have noted. So if there's a Warbler singing at 0:06 try and hear the song and pick out when it begins and ends and note any patterns or pitch of the song (e.g. is it all one pitch repeated like a Pine Warbler or does it have '2 sections' like the Nashville Warbler with a series of high pitched notes followed by lower pitched notes...etc). There's a lot of different ways of describing the pattern and pitches of the songs - it's good to find what works for you.

Answers to the previous quiz (#4):

Blackburnian Warbler sang at 0:02 - most people (2/5) thought it was a Bay-breasted Warbler. And I have to say that it sure does sound like a Bay-breasted Warbler followed immediately by the song of a Blackburnian Warbler. So I'm not sure about that one and would welcome any thoughts!

A Black-throated Blue Warbler sang at 0:27 (2/5 got this correct)
Chestnut-sided Warbler calling throughout (2/5 got this correct)
A Veery sang at 0:19 (3/4 got this correct!)

The results were surprising for me because I thought the last 2 would be the hardest! Who is fluent with call notes of warblers anyway!? Apparently most people are equally fluent with call notes as with songs (I'll have to test that theory out some more). And apparently the easiest question was the one where I gave no clues. Admittedly, it's obvious that a thrush is singing and there is a limited number to choose from.

Monday 13 February 2012

Recent Birding around S'pore

Last week I searched for an Ashy Drongo without finding it but I was happy to see a male Crimson Sunbird singing:

The red throat is "blown out" in that photo, meaning that there is no detail in the colour (technically it means that the red values for those pixels are at their highest possible value). I didn't notice that the photos were like that at the time but I think that 'extreme' colours (like reds, yellows and whites) will be difficult to photograph with a digiscoping setup in the full sun.

However, another great thing about digiscoping is that you can switch from photographing a bird at full zoom to taking a landscape shot in no time (with D-SLR cameras it requires a tedious change of the lens):

On Friday I visited the grassland near my Uni again and to my dismay there were two trucks mowing the grass! Not only was I disappointed but several birds were flying around in total shock that their territories and nests being destroyed with nothing that they can do. There's no real reason why they need to mow this area because no one uses it except for birders!

In some muddy areas there was evidence of some wading birds. The big tracks may be an Egret or Watercock and the smaller ones could be a Snipe:

Sunday 12 February 2012


Yesterday I joined a group of birders from the Nature Society of Singapore for an evening of owling.

At our first stop we checked on a reliable Barn Owl:

It's looking a bit cramped in there with its head bent forward but I assume that's what they're used to. My first Barn Owl!

We heard 2 more owls that evening - both were Collared Scops Owl (aka Sunda Scops Owl) at two different locations. While waiting for the sun to go down I took some photos of the darkening sky and reflections in the water:

Don't forget to try out the Bird Song Quiz below! I've already had a 500% increase in respondents now that it's anonymous and easy to make submissions (i.e. an increase from 1 to 5). No one has identified them all correctly. In fact it seems that the hardest questions were the easiest ones! Only one person correctly identified the first one :S

Thursday 9 February 2012

Bird Song Quiz #4

A new and improved format to hopefully get more people to try out the quiz!

This time it is anonymous so you won't be embarrassed or held accountable for any mis-identifications!

I'll provide some clues in the comments section (below), I tried to make it so that the questions generally increase in difficulty from beginning to start! Let me know what you think of this new way of quizzing.

Answers to Quiz #3:
Answers (I've noted the most obvious time that the bird sang in the recording):
Golden-winged Warbler (0:01)
Hooded Warbler (0:08)
Eastern Towhee (0:08/0:09)
Field Sparrow (0:21)

Least Sandpiper - James Bay, Ontario (not digiscoped):

You've Been Warned...again

Not something we have to worry about in Canada:

Not something I've worried about much in Canada:

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Shorebirds at Senetal Dam

On Saturday I made my way over to Senetal Dam after enjoying great looks at the Reed-warblers. I timed my arrival well because the tide was just receding and the first shorebirds had just arrived.

At first there were 54 Lesser Sand-plovers:

And soon enough a flock of 350 Pacific Golden Plovers landed nearby:

At one point all the shorebirds became very still and would occasionally tilt their heads to look skywards. I couldn't see any raptors but I can only assume that that's what they were seeing:

Some of them were crouching low to the ground:

Really low to the ground:

And slowly they let themselves rise as the predator (presumably) went away:

I came here looking for a Malaysian Plover but unfortunately dipped on that species. Another bird that was on my mind was the Greater Sand Plover. It looks pretty much the exact same as the Lesser Sand Plover except that the bill is longer, the lower-legs are longer and the legs are paler. They are larger but I've read that the size can overlap (as can the other features most likely). 

Anyway, I couldn't confirm that any of the birds were a Greater but this individual was the Greatest of the Lessers, if you know what I mean. And interestingly there was noticeably more orange on the breast. I sent it off to some locals to help with the ID and it looks good for a Greater. Great!

Striated/Little Heron's were running around like shorebirds too. Something I've never seen a Heron do in North America - usually they're hidden in the reeds:

Poor shot of one of the Lessers preening:

It's too bad there was so much garbage on the beach - it really doesn't look nice in the photos.

Monday 6 February 2012

Kranji Marsh

On Sunday morning I joined 2 local birders to check out another birding hotspot in Singapore.

Kranji Marsh is essentially a short road with forest on one side, fields on the other side and a marshy area at the end of the road.

6 individual Purple Swamphens were well seen out in the open at the end of the road. This one stood out long enough for a photo:

Collared Kingfishers are common but usually rather timid. However, this one was very tame:

Common Iora's are common in Singapore:

Baya Weaver was a lifer for this trip:

As was Rusty-breasted Cuckoo - I didn't manage to get a photo of this one looking towards the camera but I did take a video which I'll upload soon:

After 1 month and 1 day my Singapore list is at 146! At the same point in Denmark I was at 112 and ended off with 153. And including all of Europe I had seen 137 within the same time frame.
Naturally the new birds will be difficult to find from now on but I have a few families that could easily help me out: Owls and Seabirds. Conveniently there's an owling session this coming weekend that I'm signed up for and potentially a pelagic in mid-March - so I think it might be feasible to hit 200 birds in Singapore by the time I leave in early May... it won't be easy though.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Spoon-billed Sandpipers in my Crosshairs

I must confess that I have joined the birding band-wagon and am mildly (extremely) obsessed with Spoon-billed Sandpipers. There are several species of birds (and other flaura & fauna) throughout the world that are similarly on the verge of extinction and many are in much more dire situations. But Spoon-bills are an enigmatic shorebird from the arctic that have the unique (to shorebirds) feature of a spoon-shaped bill. That coupled with photos such as:
Photo from BBC 

and this one are sure to add to the appeal!
Photo from SBSProject

Judging by current trends the species will become extinct near the end of the next decade - thus the "emergency mission to save the species" - and also my desire to see them by the end of the month! I will conveniently be visiting Thailand, and more specifically, Pak Thale - South East Asia's premiere shorebirding spot where I will (hopefully) enjoy the company of Spoon-billed Sandpipers - among several other species of shorebirds as well as my girlfriend, Mira :)

Along the route we hope to see Nordmann's Greenshank, the newly described "White-faced" Plover, wild elephants and many many more amazing species that adorn our Planet.

My obsession with birding really took a surge a few years ago while guiding an American birder in Newfoundland (NL). We were having a pretty average day in terms of birds, but for him the most exciting thing was the amazing coastline that he was taking in. I then realized that he nor I would never have seen this amazing area without the lure of birds - and then I think of all the other fun places I've been (Carden Alvar, Point Pelee, Pyrenees...) and I can only be thankful with this obsession!

Most people I know in NL haven't even heard of Mistaken Point, have never seen a sandy beach on the island nor had much experience of exploring the remarkable coastline of NL - and nor would I had it not been for birding.

That's why I am letting my travels be guided by the pursuit of birds - not only do I achieve a goal (of seeing lots of birds) but I take in an incredible journey to places few other tourists go! So bring it on Spoon-billed (and every other bird in the vicinity)!!