Sunday, 11 March 2018

NSS Kids’ Fun with Frogs at Tampines Eco-Green

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice Chairperson
Photos by Lena Chow & Gloria Seow

The year-end monsoon brings out the croaky choir which was why nightfall of 2 December 2017 saw us gathering at Tampines Eco-Green. Here, the combination of rain and uneven ground creates a multitude of temporary water puddles ideal for egg-laying and tadpole-raising. With torches ablaze, we set off on our frog hunt. The grassy verge between the park and the MRT track quickly produced several Dark-sided Chorus Frogs (Microhyla heymonsi). This 2 to 2.5 cm long frog has a pair of thin blackish lines that run down the sides of its bronze body from snout to rear. Many were amazed that despite its smallness, it has a loud rattling call to attract mates. Another tiny frog of the same size that we flushed was the Painted Chorus Frog (Microhyla butleri) with its distinctive 'hour glass' patterning on its back.

Typically slow moving, we were surprised when two Banded Bullfrogs scaled a tree trunk in a jiffy.

Then we sighted our first Banded Bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra) in the short grass. At 7 to 8 cm long, this frog stands out with its chubby appearance, narrow mouth, and two thick orangey bands that stretch down each side of the body. When threatened, it inflates itself. The Banded Bullfrog feeds on ants, termites, earthworms, flies, crickets, moths and grasshoppers. It advertises its presence with a soothing bellow that can be commonly heard after showers. In our two-hour walk, our first sighting ballooned to some 50 Banded Bull Frogs counted, showing how successful this introduced species is in Singapore.

Dark-sided Chorus Frog

Our island has around 10 commensal frogs with humans (ie. adaptable species able to survive in man-made and disturbed habitats including grassland, roadside puddles and storm drains). All of Tampines Eco-Green’s frogs are commensals. In contrast, the majority of Singapore's native frog species can only live in relatively undisturbed habitats such as primary and/or secondary forests. Hence, such frogs can be wiped out by habitat loss if forests are cleared for development.

Painted Chorus Frog

With so many frogs at Tampines Eco-Green, there were bound to be predators. True enough, Auntie Gloria spotted our first snake – an attractive red-black-and-brown Striped Kukri (Oligodon octolineatus) – a 65-cm long adult that was moving silently on the ground amidst the bushes flanking the grassy path. The half-exposed non-venomous snake froze for a few seconds when we trained our beams on it. It then slithered elegantly into the shrubs and vanished. Next, Auntie Lena found a 7.5-cm long Four-lined Tree Frog (Polypedates leucomystax), easily identified by four thin lines running down its back (although certain individuals have speckled, mottled or plain backs). As an arboreal species, it has expanded flattened tips to its fingers and toes that help it cling onto trees. This frog constructs a foam nest on vegetation or rocks above a pool of water, inside which eggs and tadpoles develop in safety. As they grow larger, the tadpoles fall into the water below or are swept down by rain.

The iridescent Sunbeam Snake was our third snake for the trip.

Only one Asian Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) was seen even though this species is widespread throughout Singapore. It was covered in warts, as is typical of toads, and was sitting upright, quite unafraid of us. Females (11.5-cm) are bigger than males (8.5-cm), as is the case with most other frog species. Another frog that crossed our path was the 5-cm to 6-cm long Field Frog (Fejervarya limnocharis). Being skittish, it made a plop sound as it jumped into a pond to escape from us. If you are using a torch, this frog can be noticed from a distance as it has strong eye shine. Our second snake for the walk was a baby Black-spitting Cobra (Naja sumatrana), unfortunately a dead specimen. We also had sporadic sightings of a rat climbing a tree, fruit bats flying around, a Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor), and a Malayan Water Monitor (Varanus salvator). Our final snake was a beautiful Sunbeam Snake (Xenopeltis unicolor) found by Uncle Ivan. The Sunbeam is so named because its smooth scales are iridescent under strong sunlight or camera flash.

Four-lined Tree Frog

On other nights, friends have witnessed a Sunbeam Snake eating a Striped Kukri at Tampines Eco-Green, and seen other cool snakes such as the Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus) and the introduced White-spotted Slug Snake (Pareas margaritophorus). Still, we were mightily pleased that our big group enjoyed this many sightings.

Fun with Otters at Marina Bay

Text & Photos by Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice Chairperson
We observed the adorable antics of the Bishan Otters from a respectable distance of three to 10 metres for two solid hours.

Were the otters going to show? That was the question that weighed worriedly on my mind on the morning of 24 September 2017. Not only did we have a group of 20 participants all raring to see the famous Bishan Otters, The Straits Times (ST) journalist Jose Hong and ST photographer Jonathan Choo were also going to cover the event.

Thanks to otter enthusiast Bernard Seah, they did. In fact, we were in the excellent accompany of these Smooth-coated Otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) for all two hours of our walk. The day before, Bernard had tracked them down on his e-scooter in the Marina Bay area, trailing them to their night roost. The next morning at 6.30 am, he was back at the roost but alas, the otters had somehow vamoosed. Luckily, a security guard had seen the 11 targets moving off. Panicky Bernard was most relieved to locate them again at 7.10 am, swimming towards Marina South Pier.

Sadly, parts of Singapore’s coastal waters are blighted by plastic litter that could harm marine life.

With Bernard’s update, I WhatsApp-ed the group to rendezvous at Marina South Pier at 7.30 am. Bingo! The otters had just finished their coastal swim and were clambering on land, spot on at Marina South Pier when we arrived. We all had our personal mobility devices to keep up with the otters, most on bike shares, a few on e-scooters and one girl even came in skates. Before long, the frisky otters were on the move again. They crossed the road and trotted the grassy distance towards Marina Bay Cruise Centre. Bernard led one half of the group to follow them while I stayed behind for the late comers. By the time the late half caught up, the otters had plunged back into the sea for some breakfast. We were thrilled to observe them chomping on fish, much like how we eat our burgers, using opposable ‘thumbs’ on their front paws and sharp claws to grasp their still-wriggling catch.

As unpredictable as otters go, they then scrambled up the breakwater en masse and rolled on the grass to dry off. Even though these otters are used to humans, they maintained their wariness. When some over-enthusiastic photographers happened to block their randomly-chosen path, the lead otters approached in a crouched crawl, making warning noises for us humans to back off. As far as possible, we observed them from a respectable distance of three to 10 metres without setting off any otterly alarm.

Then the otters reversed direction for a long swim back to Marina Barrage, efficiently hugging the coastline the entire way. As air-breathing mammals, theirs was an undulating swim similar to dolphins, using their muscular tails and supple bodies to move underwater and up for gulps of air. Along the way, some hauled themselves up on land for a quick poop, which left behind dirty green spraints. Halfway through, all 11 otters took a break with a group rub on the sandy ground. Here, Bernard pointed out the heavily-pregnant matriarch that was expected to ‘pop’ anytime. The mama otter typically locates a holt (usually dug out of earth) to have her litter and nurse them until they are strong enough to emerge. Participants learnt that babies are not natural swimmers. They have to acquire the skill soon enough as sadly, drownings are common. (PS: The Bishan mama had seven babies on 5 October but only six made it past the first week since appearing in public on 26 November. The earlier three documented batches of babies also had similar statistics, with one otter succumbing each time.)

A Smooth-coated Otter eating a live Midas Cichlid.

As the otters resumed their swim, we tracked them on land with our bicycles and e-scooters. They passed fishermen with lines and hooks that could easily snag them. We were there to greet them as they emerged dripping wet at Marina Barrage. The cuties then strolled through the grounds, attracting lots of attention. Then it was time for second breakfast in the calm waters of Marina Reservoir. One of them caught a bright orange fish which Bernard identified as the gold morph of the introduced Midas Cichlid (Amphilophus citrinellus). We witnessed a young one begging his fish-chomping elder for scraps with pitiful yelps and circling to no avail. Others were content splashing about. Even as they spread themselves out to hunt and play, these otters remained in constant contact with their high-pitched yips and yelps. We left them there, thoroughly charmed by their adorable antics and hope that they will continue to thrive in Singapore.

The walk was covered by The Straits Times with Facebook posts, online and print articles, as well as a video. Read the main article here:

NSS Kids’ Fun with Beautiful Butterflies at Jurong Eco Garden

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice-Chairperson
Photos by Gloria Seow, KC Tsang & Suressh

  Auntie Amy introducing the denizens of the butterfly garden.

CleanTech Park and the next door Jurong Eco Garden serve as a fine example of sustainable development in Singapore – harmoniously marrying green building (ie. eco-friendly built features) with manicured and wild greenery rich in biodiversity. Impressively, the eco garden conserves a hodge podge of habitats including a hill forest, secondary forest, freshwater swamp vegetation and rocky stream. It also offers a landscaped butterfly garden and artificial ponds.

Sailing out to meet us at the start was Singapore’s largest butterfly, the Common Birdwing.

We visited Jurong Eco Garden on 16 July 2017 to experience the myriad of colourful butterflies and insects within its five-hectare grounds. At the start of the walk, our group of kids and their caregivers encountered Singapore’s largest butterfly, the Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus). Several majestic specimens sailed effortlessly by, buoyed by wings as big as a tiny bird. Traipsing into the butterfly garden proper, Auntie Amy pointed out its flighty denizens in quick succession: Orange Emigrant (Catopsilia scylla cornelia), Lemon Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona pomona), Common Mormon (Papilio polytes romulus), Peacock Pansy (Junonia almana jacana), Tawny Palmfly (Elymnias panthera panthera) and many more.

We learnt that the Indian Prune (Flacourtia Rukam), a small tree with attractive red and green leaves, is the host plant for the Leopard butterfly (Phalanta phalantha phalantha) and saw a good many Leopards flitting about. Next, we were introduced to the distinctive Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia acuminata), a creeper with flowers that resemble a smoking pipe. Auntie Amy revealed that this important vine is the host plant for the caterpillars of both the Common Birdwing and Singapore’s National Butterfly, the Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae asteris). Poking around the vegetation, Auntie Lena spotted a Bagworm Moth caterpillar. It had a conical shell on its back as a protective mechanism, made mainly of plant detritus spun together with silk.

The Saint Andrew’s Cross Spider arranges its legs in pairs to form the letter X, also resembling a cross.

Fortuitously, a child participant noticed a most curious sight – a good number of long-legged Craneflies (Tipulidae family) massing together as if holding hands. They were strung across two plants in a rhythmic dance. This was likely a mating ritual where males perform in unison to attract females. As we crossed a rocky stream to enter the hill forest, Auntie Lena highlighted a variety of dragon- and damselflies. She taught us how to identify the Common Parasol (Neurothemis fluctuans) – the only dragonfly with both maroon body and wings for the male, and yellowish body and clear wings for the female. In comparison, most reddish dragonflies have transparent wings and can be told apart by specific markings on their wings, thoraxes or abdomens. We observed the behaviour of the bluish Indigo Dropwing (Trithemis festiva), so called because it folds down (ie. drops) its wings upon landing. It was amazing to discover that a single dragonfly can eat 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes a day. Likewise, its larvae consume mosquito larvae. This makes dragonflies valuable allies in our fight against mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue.

The Horsfield’s Baron is only encountered in forested areas.

Meandering along the forested path, we were pleased to see two attractive forest butterflies, the Horsfield’s Baron (Tanaecia iapis puseda) and the Ciliate Blue (Anthene emolus goberus)Auntie Gloria found us a Saint Andrew’s Cross Spider (Argiope spp) on its web, a classic arachnid that arranges its legs in pairs to form the letter X. We also came across several frog egg clusters suspended in clear puddles, and admired the fallen blooms of the Passion Fruit (Passiflora laurifolia) and African Tulip (Spathodea campanulate). Uncle Suressh pointed out the black-and-red-striped Grenadier (Agrionoptera insignis), a large forest dragonfly that taunted us with its fly-and-perch routine. As we neared the end of the trail, a Laced Woodpecker (Picus vittatus) made its appearance as if to bid us adieu. In all, it was a fulfilling morning of wildlife spotting right next to an industrial park.

 An attractive Laced Woodpecker bidding us adieu.

Our Highlights at Jurong Eco Garden 
By 14-year-old Alastair Liew, Photos by 12-year-old Jake Liew
 Jake in front of a vertical garden of ferns and other plants.

Jurong Eco Garden is the green lungs of CleanTech Park, tucked away in a little corner next to Nanyang Technological University. It is located opposite the Thow Kwang Dragon Kiln devoted to the craft of hand-made wood-fired pottery. Before we embarked on our walk, we spent time admiring the vertical wall of plants just outside the toilet at the entrance. We were lucky as it was a cool day with large fluffy clouds offering a measure of shade.

A tree with many holey leaves, the handiwork of voracious caterpillars.

We followed a paved path into the garden and came across a poor tree with leaves riddled with holes eaten by caterpillars. Sadly, we did not manage to see the caterpillars. In contrast, butterflies could be observed flying about everywhere.

Crossing a small stream proved a challenge for some little ones.

Our advance was halted by a small stream. Thankfully, there were little stepping stones to aid our crossing. A number of the younger children with over-active imagination were afraid that frogs would suddenly leap across their paths, while others were scared of the many dragonflies zipping around. Still, we all made it across unscathed.

The path led to a section with many trees that towered over us. We kept our eyes peeled. Jake was rewarded with a small yellow-and-black bug crawling on top of a leaf. Auntie Gloria pointed out a St Andrew’s Cross Spider in the middle of an intricately-weaved web. This is a species of orb web spider that holds its legs in pairs into a characteristic X-shape. Upon catching its prey, it will rotate the victim with binding silk until it forms a neat package before drawing it closer to administer the fatal kiss of death. Closer examination of a puddle of water produced a clutch of frog’s eggs that reminded us of yummy basil seeds (biji selasih) in ice jelly dessert.

     A clutch of frog’s eggs, resembling basil seeds (biji selasih) in ice jelly dessert.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Herps at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Text & Photos by Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice-Chairperson

We learnt that the young Saltwater Crocodile (see photo) is pale yellow in colour with black stripes and spots, while adults are uniformly brown or grey.

A light rain drummed steadily as we gathered on 18 June 2017. Still, we were hopeful of seeing some of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve’s herptiles, given the sharp eyes of our guides the Law brothers Ing Sind and Ingg Thong. They are passionate about herptiles (reptiles and amphibians), and belong to the Herpetological Society of Singapore.

But first, Auntie Gloria presented a crowd pleaser – a colony of Lesser Dog-faced Fruit Bats (Cynopterus brachyotis) roosting under the roof of the Visitor Centre. For many, it was their first encounter with an upside down wild bat trying to catch some sleep. This bat shows sexual dimorphism – males have a rufous collar while females lack this. It can be readily seen flying around housing estates to feed on fruiting trees in the late evenings.

At the main bridge, we spotted our first herptile – a young 2-m long Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) spread out in full glory on the river bank. This raised the excitement level by several notches as we took turns peering through the scope. Ingg Thong remarked that young crocs are pale yellow in colour with black stripes and spots, while adults are uniformly brown or grey. Little Emmanuel then found us a White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) foraging by the mud banks.

Our guide Ingg Thong pointing out a half-submerged Malayan Water Monitor.

Next, we stopped at the Main Hide to gaze out at the wetlands. Few birds were around as it was not yet the migratory season. Nevertheless, we heard the raucous cry of the Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) as it flew by, and had fleeting glimpses of the Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) up in a tree.

Despite the steady drizzle, we pressed on. While Ing Sind went ahead as spotter, Ingg Thong engaged the children with his wealth of knowledge. Pointing at a Macaranga sapling, Ingg Thong remarked that it has a symbiotic relationship with biting Kerengga ants (Oecophylla smaragdina). The ants make themselves at home in the hollow of the stem and will attack any intruders, hence protecting their host from herbivores. They are in turn rewarded with secretions of nectar. Kids were fascinated to see live examples of this ant-plant symbiosis.

Ingg Thong introduced the Sea Holly (Acanthus ebracteatus), a mangrove shrub with leaves that resemble the festive Christmas Holly. Mangrove plants are adapted to the changing salinity of tidal brackish waters, by extruding salt crystals in their leaves. He drew attention to a Fishtail Palm (Caryota mitis) with a prominent cluster of drooping fruits. When touched, the fruits can cause a terrible itch due to oxalic acid – a prank that children used to play on their teachers by coating surfaces with them. He commented that the plant’s jagged leaves look half-eaten, deterring animals from making a meal of them.

The Malayan Water Monitor is the second largest lizard in the world after the Komodo Dragon.

At the freshwater pond, we found a lone Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) swimming forlornly. This invasive herptile (in this case a turtle) originates from the US. As a popular pet, the slider is sometimes abandoned by owners when it grows big and is no longer cute, and is hence common in waterbodies around Singapore. The pond also held several Malayan Water Monitors (Varanus salvator), another herptile. We observed them swimming languidly around and clambering onto shore. The monitor is the second largest lizard in the world after the Komodo Dragon. Sometimes, it exceeds the dragon in length but is not as heavy. It is often mistaken for a crocodile when half submerged.

We spotted a total of four Saltwater Crocodiles in one morning.

We completed the loop around Buloh to end at the main bridge. Here, we were elated to pick out three submerged crocodiles with only their snouts and eyes visible. A contact told us that he had seen six crocodiles the day before. A recently-discovered crocodile at Pasir Ris beach is likely from Malaysia as the Causeway forms a physical barrier between Sungei Buloh and Pasir Ris. The growing number of crocodiles indicate that Singapore’s watery habitats are in good health.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Birds at Kranji Marshes

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice-Chairperson
Photos by Gloria Seow and Lena Chow

 Auntie Ee Ling giving us an insider tour of the Core Conservation Area.

Kranji Marshes is Singapore's largest freshwater wetlands, serendipitously created when Kranji reservoir was dammed in the 1970s, which caused the nearby low-lying areas to become flooded. The marshy vegetation has matured, forming an attractive habitat for water birds. On the morning of 23 April 2017, we were privileged to have chirpy Auntie Ee Ling of the Bird Group as our guide. She was quick to rattle off interesting Kranji Marshes factoids, while directing our chartered bus that had picked us up at Sungei Buloh to a spot on the Turut Track. Here, she unlocked a gate to reveal the ecological paradise of Kranji Marshes’ core conservation area, generally off limits except on NParks approved walks. It felt special to have the whole place to ourselves.

Even as our bus was navigating an incredibly narrow lane that led to these marshes, Auntie Lena had found us an imperious Changeable Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus). It was perched on a lamp post and was scanning the terrain for a spot of breakfast. Our streak of raptor sightings continued as we stepped into Kranji Marshes proper. In a faraway tree, the handsome chestnut-and-white plumage of a Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus) advertised its presence readily. Everyone enjoyed wow views through scopes and binoculars. Auntie Ee Ling then spotted two Pacific Swallows (Hirundo tahitica) sitting on a wire which she prompted scoped. She also picked out a lone Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus) hunting in the distant grassland, and later, an Oriental Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis) high up on some bare branches.

The handsome chestnut-and-white plumage of the Brahminy Kite advertising its presence at Kranji Marshes.

The wetland was quiet in comparison as the migratory season had just concluded. What remained were resident birds. We found several Red-wattled Lapwings (Vanellus indicus) resting on a log across an idyllic waterbody, and watched raptly as Little Terns (Sternula albifrons) did their hover-and-dive routine to expertly capture wriggling fishes. Auntie Lena then produced a Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) poking the reed beds for a tidbit. We also had a regal White-bellied Sea-eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) fly by us. Part of the enjoyment of being out here was the beauty of the marshes itself. Some ponds were filled entirely with blooming pink lotuses, while others stretched out in a liquid shimmer into the horizon, accented by green patches here and there.

All too soon, we reached the end of the restricted access area. We then passed through another locked portal into the public part of the marshes. Auntie Ee Ling gave us a 45-minute free-and-easy slot to explore this area ourselves. Some parked themselves in the bird hide where there were solid views of common marshland birds to be had, such as the White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) and Striated Heron (Butorides striatus). Others wandered around, encountering birds such as a calling but hidden Blue-winged Pitta (Pitta moluccensis), Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius), and several cuckoo species. Unfortunately, the 10 m high Raptor Tower was closed for repairs. Back in the hide, the fluty tunes of the Common Iora (Aegithina tiphia) attracted our attention. Auntie Gloria duly pointed out the sexual dimorphism of the male and female pair in a nearby tree.

We convened to return to our locked-away ‘secret garden’ and meet the bus at the other end. While crossing a bridge, Auntie Gloria explained that the bubblegum pink stuff stuck on the walls of the canal were the eggs of the invasive Golden Apple Snail (Pomacea canaliculata) from  South America. The snail can be eaten if cooked. Upon peering closely, we could see that many of these snails were grazing just beneath the water surface. Another cool sighting on the stroll back was that of a Black-winged Kite (Elanus caeruleus vociferus), a raptor that employs a distinctive hovering flight pattern that many witnessed. Auntie Ee Ling then picked out a Yellow Bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis) partially obscured by some reeds.

 Pink lotus blooms covering one of the many waterbodies.

All of us guides were impressed by 9-year old Samuel Lim who could identify some birds without aid, even though this was practically his first field trip. His head knowledge of other wildlife was just as jaw dropping. His mum explained that he has a voracious appetite for nature books, and he actually cajoled his parents to come for this walk. His enthusiasm seemed to be rubbing off his 6-year old brother Emmanuel. Indeed, there is hope yet for our future generation of naturalists – both of the citizen science and formally trained variety.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

NSS Kids’ Fun with Nature at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

By Alastair & Ryan Liew (13 & 11 years old)
Photos by Gloria Seow & Alastair Liew

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve reopened its trails in October 2016 after two years of restorative works. The NSS Kids ventured forth into its lush rainforest on 19 February 2017. Sunday mornings are popular with families out for some exercise and fresh air.

Armed with binoculars, cameras and note pads, we eagerly lapped up the factoids that sifu Uncle Si Guim fed us.

Right off the bat, we came across something peculiar – a plant with many spikes on its stem, making it look like a porcupine. After some discussion with our guide and nature guru Uncle Si Guim, we found out that it was a rattan palm. Stripped of its thorns, the rattan can be used to make cane furniture and the fearsome rotan. Rattans are climbers, with hooks to help them cling onto other plants as they grow upwards.

Careful! The rattan palm has many spines and hooks on it, and can be used to make the infamous rotan.

We then learnt about the different layers of the rainforest. Being the highest layer, the emergent trees stand above the canopy layer. The canopy forms the middle tier and blocks off most of the sunlight, allowing slivers of golden rays to reach the forest floor. The plants in the lowest level or undergrowth are hardier and are adapted for survival in the shady zone.

We pressed on and came across many vines dangling off the dense vegetation. We felt lucky to see Tarzan’s vine or lianas (Entada spiralis), which appeared thick, woody and wound around a tree. Vines can grow up to half a metre thick. Upon further inspection, certain vines turned out to be aerial roots. Such roots can serve different purposes including providing clinging support for creepers.

 A cicada moult.

Our attention was drawn to a cicada moult hanging from one of the wooden safety barriers. Depending on the species, cicadas can live underground for between two to 17 years feeding off tree roots. They only come up to the surface as nymphs to moult into the adult winged form, undergo courtship, mate and for females, to lay their eggs, all within the span of a week before dying. As true insects, cicadas have piercing proboscis used to suck fluids from the xylem of trees. Singapore has six cicada species.

Taking a few steps forward, we felt something sticky on our faces. We had to pull off thin strands of spider web. Looking upwards, we were astonished to find another humongous web about half a metre in diameter belonging to the Golden Orb-Web Spider (Nephila pilipes). Spiders are extremely sensitive. They tend to hang out in the centre of the web to better feel the vibrations of any insect landing on it. The unlucky victims will either be eaten immediately or “dabao’ed” (Chinese for takeaway) in the silky web to be eaten later.

Uncle Si Guim then pointed to the forest floor which was full of decaying matter being eaten and decomposed by microorganisms, insects and fungi. While surveying the ground, a huge forest cockroach suddenly emerged from a pile of leaves. My brothers and I were petrified and remained a safe distance away. This brown forest cockroach was well camouflaged against the rotting leaves and soil.

We spotted two types of terrestrial ferns lining the trail – the Singapore Fern (Tectaria singaporeana) and Selaginella willdenowii, an introduced fern ally with iridescent blue leaves that has been naturalisedLater, we found a third fern high up in a tree. Putting our binoculars to good use, we enjoyed views of the Staghorn Fern (Platycerium coronarium) with attractive fronds that resemble deer antlers.

Just as the walk was coming to an end, we stumbled across a Colugo (Galeopterus variegatus) or Flying Lemur clinging contentedly to a tree trunk. This nocturnal mammal is able to glide a substantial distance between trees, using a thin membrane that stretches between its limbs and tail. What a great find! The forest walk experience was very fulfilling and we hope that more kids and their families will join us on our next NSS Kids’ adventure!

An adorable Colugo in quiet repose up a tree near the trail.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

NSS Kids’ Fun with Nature and Culture at Jalan Kubor Cemetery (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice Chairperson

Photos by Gloria Seow & Timothy Pwee

Jalan Kubor Cemetery is a green oasis in the city centre proffering a good variety of wildlife.

Is there wildlife in Singapore's city centre? The answer is a resounding yes, even if this green oasis is surrounded on four sides by busy roads. We confirmed this happy fact in our morning walk at Jalan Kubor Cemetery on 3 December 2016. As the oldest Muslim cemetery in Singapore, Jalan Kubor (‘cemetery road’ in Malay) is located off Victoria Street. The graves of many prominent Malays and Muslims who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries can be found here, nestled amidst stately trees.

Led by Uncle Timothy, our nature and culture walk started at the elevated platform where Malay royalty laid buried. We learnt that royal tombs have rich yellow cloth wrapping the head and foot gravestones, while those of commoners are covered in white fabric or simply left bare. We did not come across any tomb with green cloth, which is reserved for religious leaders. Uncle Tim revealed that Muslims have to be buried (not cremated) within 24 hours of death. The body is swathed in fabric and placed in direct contact with the earth (no coffin). The body rests sideways with the face towards Mecca. Hence, all graves are oriented in the same direction.

A 2014 NHB documentation project uncovered gravestones inscribed in scripts such as Arabic, Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Gujarati, English and Chinese, pointing to the cultural diversity in the Kampong Glam area.

Stepping down from the royal burial platform, Auntie Lena noticed some red ‘berries’ growing as ground cover. This plant was identified post-trip as the Snake Pennywort (Geophila repens), one of just seven existing populations in Singapore, according to a 2010 paper published in ‘Nature in Singapore’ journal. Coincidentally, Auntie Gloria has subsequently found three new patches of Geophila repens in the Toa Payoh area, and suspects that this plant is probably more widespread but under observed. We then turned our attention to the strangling fig trees (Ficus spp) common in the area. Auntie Gloria highlighted the symbiotic relationship between figs and their species-specific wasps that are key to the figs’ propagation.

We came across food plants like Noni (Morinda citrifolia) and Fragrant Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius), likely cultivated by caretakers who used to live onsite in a building that has since been demolished. Next, Auntie Gloria pointed out the distinctive call of the Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus), a black cuckoo named after its incessant ‘koel koel’ vocalisations. This bird is Singapore’s unofficial ‘alarm clock’ with calls starting as early as 4.30 am. The Koel is the brood parasite of the House Crow. Uncle Tim explained that Koels are known to work in pairs. The male tricks the House Crow to leave its nest, whereupon its mate sneaks in to replace the crow’s eggs with her own. Hence, House Crows unwittingly raise baby Koels. Auntie Lena then found a Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) perched high, which we took turns admiring through the scope.

This Banded Bullfrog baby was just one of many we found hopping around.

A 2014 documentation project by the National Heritage Board (NHB) uncovered gravestones inscribed in scripts such as Arabic, Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Gujarati, English and Chinese, an indication of the cultural diversity in the Kampong Glam area. We strolled into another section of the cemetery that used to come under the care of the Aljunied family. Here, Auntie Lena spotted a tiny froglet that was identified by Auntie Gloria as the Banded Bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra) as it had a golden stripe across its crown. Soon after, we were delighted to realise that there were many baby frogs around. We had fun delicately picking up the froglets and observing their tiny forms. This frog bounty was likely due to monsoonal rain puddles conducive to amphibian reproduction.

A basking Changeable Lizard.

We visited the enclosed burial area of the Aljunied family that once held about 70 remains. In 2002, these were exhumed. The verdant Aljunied section also produced a variety of reptile, bird, butterfly and plant encounters. Highlights include a Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor) basking just metres from us; a friendly Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa dauurica); Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida) and its caterpillar host plant Hemigraphis reptans; as well as the Saga (Adenanthera pavonina) and Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) trees. Kids were particularly thrilled with the red Saga seeds that some people are known to collect compulsively. Even as guides, we were surprised and thankful for the diversity of wildlife sightings that morning.