Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Fun with Bukit Brown’s Natural and Cultural Heritage

By Gloria Seow, Chairperson of the Education Group

Some of Bukit Brown’s many lion statues.


The rain poured on and on and refused to stop. When it finally gave way to a drizzle, we got out of our cars and cancelled the event on 21 April 2012. However, since five families braved the downpour to turn up, we decided to show them around as private individuals rather than as an official NSS Kids’ outing.

Armed with umbrellas and raincoats, we set off in the gloomy weather, albeit under a lightning-free sky. The walk was led by Uncle Peter Pak, an active Bukit Brown culture guide and NSS member, as well as good old Uncle Tim. Our first stop was a cluster of four tombstones belonging to former Chief Chinese Translator for the colonial government Ho Siak Kuan and his family. This grave group stood out as each tomb is characterised by a rectangular tablet capped with a roof, a style reminiscent of northern China. Sadly, this tiny cluster, as well as some 3,000 odd tombs, are due to make way for an eight-lane expressway that will slice the cemetery in two. The affected tombs are indicated by numbered stakes.

This unique group of graves will sadly make way for an expressway, as indicated by numbered stakes. It belongs to the family of the former Chief Chinese Translator for the colonial government.

Next, Uncle Tim pointed out the many Rain Trees that line the cemetery along its tarmac path, giving it a park-like feel. The trees themselves are home to epiphytes growing on their branches, such as Bird Nest and Staghorn ferns, as well as Pigeon Orchid. Due to the incessant downpour, the birds were all in hiding.

A typical Hokkien tomb has bricks outlining the womb-shaped mound. Similar-looking Teochew tombs also have womb-shaped mounds but these are not brick-lined.

Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China housing some 100,000 graves. It is also the oldest surviving Chinese cemetery in Singapore, with certain tombs nearing 200 years old. For the bulk of the graves found here, the building style is predominantly Hokkien or Teochew. Many of these womb-shaped tombs are covered in elegant carvings, far more elaborate compared to their modern counterparts. Both Hokkien and Teochew tombs feature a courtyard in front of the grave slab. The courtyard serves to gather in qi (life force) and good fortune. Directly behind the slab is a mound of earth shaped like a woman’s womb. Hokkien tombs have bricks outlining the womb shape, whereas Teochew tombs lack this feature. The grave slab itself states the deceased’s ancestral village in China, serving to confirm if the tomb is indeed Hokkien or Teochew.

As we sloshed along, Uncle Tim showed kids and their parents plants such as the Croton, a reddish shrub that is toxic but commonly planted around graveyards for luck. As Bukit Brown has been left relatively undisturbed for a long time, it is overgrown with secondary vegetation. These include the Macaranga, Noni tree, mile-a-minute creeper, figs, palms and more. The further one strays from the paved path, the thicker the vegetation becomes. This verdant greenery is home to some 92 bird species, mammals like the Long-tailed Macaque, Sunda Pangolin and Colugo, as well as fishes, eels and frogs in its streams.

Uncle Peter showed us the famous Sikh Guard statues, as tall as a boy, guarding the tomb of a Singapore pioneer.

Uncle Peter was animated in telling the stories behind some of these graves. Many belonged to important personages who were instrumental in building up early Singapore. Kids were intrigued with the famous tomb featuring a pair of Sikh guard statues, vividly painted in red, yellow and black. Those who stayed throughout the walk, were rewarded with a visit to the Ong Sam Leong family grave. It is the largest burial site in Bukit Brown, the size of 10 three-room HDB flats. To reach it, we had to traverse the hilly terrain, passing many smaller tombs that were draped with attractive foliage. We were greeted at the top by a male Crimson Sunbird chirping its lungs out, the only visible bird for the trip. The Ong Sam Leong family tomb has another pair of Sikh guard statues, and is decorated with Chinese carvings of the Classic 24 filial piety acts. We then finished the circuit around the cemetery to end where we had begun.

NSS Kids' Fun at the Butterfly Trail @ Orchard

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Photos by Timothy Pwee

Butterfly host and nectar plants have been planted along and adjacent to Orchard Road to form a 4-km stretch known as the Butterfly Trail @ Orchard (BTO). The ongoing BTO project is spearheaded by the Butterfly Interest Group (BIG) of Nature Society (Singapore). We had the privilege of traipsing along the trail on 12 February 2012, led by BIG Chairperson Gan Cheong Wei, with co-guides Simon Chan and Anuj Jain.
Kids and parents were intrigued by the many caterpillars, butterflies and plants encountered.

Starting at the National Museum of Singapore, we rode the outdoor escalator up to Stamford Green, which itself marks the beginning of the hilly Fort Canning Park area. We encountered the Plain Tiger, Painted Jezebel and Lemon Emigrant in energetic flight. These butterflies were going from plant to plant, poking their proboscis into the many flowers that bloomed freely here. As they paused for a sweet drink, kids and their parents snapped away with their digital cameras.

Uncle Gan also photographed an Apefly at Stamford Green, a new record for the trail! The Apefly is so called because part of its pupa has an ape-like appearance.

We then took a relaxing stroll down the slopes toward Dhoby Ghaut Green. This lovely manicured garden, complete with trellises, is located just outside the MRT station of the same name. Here, we found our first colourful caterpillar, that of the Autumn Leaf butterfly. It turned out that these caterpillars were numerous around the garden, appearing in their various instars. Uncle Anuj explained that this was because the Autumn Leaf’s host plant, the Pseuderanthemum reticulatum was planted in abundance in the area. We even detected the Autumn Leaf’s pupa in quiet repose beneath a leaf.

The spiny and colourful caterpillar of the Autumn Leaf butterfly was numerous around Dhoby Ghaut Green, the manicured gardens just outside the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station.

Surprisingly, some of the kids present were already little experts in their own right. Their experience stem from observing and rearing butterflies in their grandma’s garden. One of these kids even shared tips on how to spot caterpillars. The first clue: holey, half-eaten leaves. Then, look for caterpillar droppings that typically appear as clusters of tiny black balls. Finally, turn the leaves over and you will likely find the chomping culprits. As Lena Chow attests, the best way to interest kids in butterflies is to rear caterpillars at home, and watch their fascinating transformation into the adult form. She has already distributed a few dozen caterpillars of the Lime Butterfly and the Common Mormon to several kids and even to a teacher for his science lessons. As a result, one of these recipients, 10-year old Tan Teong Seng, has since been inspired to learn all about butterflies, and has developed a knack for spotting and identifying them.

We ambled through the Istana Park to reach the Penang Road Open Space. This is another garden that is the size of nearly two basketball courts, located across the street from Orchard Central. BIG had the Aristolochia acuminata planted here, the host plant for the Common Birdwing. The ultimate dream is to see the large and easily-recognisable Birdwing, a black-and-yellow beauty with a stunning 14-cm wingspan, fluttering along Orchard Road. (PS: This happy sighting has since occured). Over here, we spotted the caterpillars of the Plain Tiger that feed off the leaves of the Crown Flower. Anuj also showed us the Cycad, an ancient plant that hails from the age of the dinosaurs, host to the Cycad Blue butterfly.
Penang Road Open Space is a green oasis in the middle of Orchard Road, located across the street from Orchard Central.

In all, the BIG has recorded 60 butterfly species along the BTO, up from a paltry 20+ species before the plantings. Butterfly watching is attractive to late risers as walks typically start at 9.30 am. This is because the butterflies themselves need ample sunshine and heat before they come out to feed. After two hours of butterflying, we became familiar with references to butts, cats and pups, short for butterflies, caterpillars and pupas. We left feeling a greater affinity for these delicate painted wings and a burning interest to learn more about them.

NSS Kids’ Birding Fun at Lorong Halus

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Photos by Lena Chow

Kids and their parents crowded around Uncle Alan as he guided us on Lorong Halus’ exciting birdlife.

NSS Kids had an eventful outing to Lorong Halus Wetland to take in its riverine and grassland birdlife. This took place on 11 December 2011, led by none other than Bird Group Chairperson Alan Owyong.

Lorong Halus, a former rubbish dump, now sits next to Singapore’s 17th and newest reservoir – the Serangoon Reservoir (previously known as the Serangoon River). How does national water agency PUB purify the run-offs that flow through the old dump into the reservoir? It built Lorong Halus Wetland. Opened in March 2011, the wetland comprises a series of holding ponds with plenty of water plants that filter and absorb pollutants from the water. Long before the current wetland came to be, birders have been visiting Lorong Halus for its plentiful birdlife. Its claim to fame is its Grebe pond. Here, our rare resident, the duck-like Little Grebe has been living and breeding for years.
A dirt path led us towards the Grebe pond. Along the way, we spotted grassland birds such as munias.
We met at the newly-built Visitor Centre and took a stroll to the scenic bridge that spans the Serangoon Reservoir. By simply standing on the bridge alone, we recorded close to 10 species of birds. We quickly saw our first avian star, the White-throated Kingfisher perched in a nearby tree. The keen eyes of 11-year old De Xuan Tranter picked up a Common Kingfisher out hunting on a faraway buoy. Auntie Gloria then found a Striated Heron that blended perfectly with the vegetation that lined the river bank. It stood stock still, waiting to spear its fishy prey with its lethal beak. Uncle Hang Chong and Uncle Kum Sang helped scope the birds spotted, while Auntie Lena and Uncle Timothy busied themselves snapping photos and finding more birds.

The bridge across Serangoon Reservoir was a good vantage point to spot birds.

Uncle Alan was the jovial Santa Claus, giving out bookmarks to kids who answered his pop quizzes correctly. He pointed out the Grey Heron, one of Singapore’s largest birds that live around our coastal waters. Later on, we found 23 of these biggies perched on a long row of buoys that snaked across the breadth of the river. While still on the bridge, two raptors soared by. The majestic White-bellied Sea Eagle drew gasps of wonderment, followed by three Black Bazas, decked in their black-and-white striped belly feathers. Lots of Pacific Swallows circled the skies. Some of them afforded us good views through the scope as they landed on buoys and trees. A good number of swiftlets (Germain’s and Black-nest) also patrolled the air space above us, hawking constantly for flying insects. All this while, Uncle Alan flashed bird photos from the accordion-like compact publication ‘A Field Guide to the Birds of Singapore’. This guide features the commoner 106 of the 370 odd species that have been recorded in Singapore. It is available for just $5 at the NSS Office (members only) or $10 in bookstores.

 Uncle Alan engaged the kids with bird photos and birdy bookmarks as quiz prizes.

We also binoculared the Little Egret, the Common Sandpiper and White-winged Tern. Moving inland, we caught sight of several Scaly-breasted Munias feeding on grass seeds, as well as commoners such as the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, White-vented Myna, Common Myna and Spotted Dove. Before the rains descended, we squeezed in one last stop, the Grebe pond itself. We found a single Little Grebe warming a nest made of reeds and water plants, while another was merrily swimming and diving for food. Satisfied, we happily trooped back to the Visitor Centre where Uncle Alan had in store a barrage of birdy questions with accompanying bookmark prizes.

This pastoral pond is home to the Little Grebe.