Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Fun with Food Gardening at Bollywood Veggies Farm (Singapore)

Text & Photos by Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

In a departure from our usual walks on the wild side, the Education Committee organised our first food gardening workshop and farm tour at Bollywood Veggies Farm (located in the Kranji area in the northwestern part of Singapore) on 16 April 2016. Our participant profile took an interesting turn – we had over 30 adults and only one kid. Nature educator Andrew Tay, who is conversant in both plant and animal ecology, was our knowledgeable guide.

Bollywood Veggies Farm was a patchwork of fruit and vegetable plots which we saw in our farm tour.

In our farm tour, Andrew fed us an intriguing fact when we came across a cluster of papaya trees – they were either male or female, identifiable by their flowers. Male trees have showy inflorescences, while females produce individual blooms that as young buds resemble the shape of the fruit (see photos). Only females can produce yummy papayas. That solved the mystery for a few participants, of why some papaya trees never yield fruits. Former Plant Group Chairperson Angie Ng introduced us to the Jambu Bol or Malay Apple, a rarer and tastier cousin of the Jambu Ayer or Water Apple, which some of us sampled. We saw a compost heap with a Cocoyam growing in the middle of it. C
omposting is a great way to recycle plant waste material. One can create a balanced heap by adding alternate layers of greens (eg. leafy trimmings) and browns (eg. woody prunings). In time, it will all rot down to produce a nutrient-rich compost, serving as a natural fertilizer or soil conditioner.
Male papaya trees have showy inflorescences (left), while females produce individual blooms that as young buds resemble the shape of the fruit (right).

Bollywood cultivates an astounding diversity of plants with multitudinous uses. We found out that the commonly-seen Moses-in-the-Cradle (aka Oyster Plant), has leaves that can be boiled as herbal tea to relieve heatiness, and treat a range of ailments including fever, cough, bronchitis and rheumatism. The farm grows different banana varieties including the red kind. One participant shared his experience of peeling a wild banana only to discover it filled with huge seeds and little flesh. Many were surprised to learn that only modern banana cultivars are seedless.
Andrew Tay taught us the basics of growing our own food, shedding light on soils, pots, organic fertilisers, watering and methods of plant propagation.

We then proceeded to Bollywood’s open-air shed for the workshop. As an avid gardener, Andrew revealed that he has a thriving food garden along the corridor of his flat. We were impressed with the fantastic mix of plants available for us to bring home – Mint, Sawtooth Coriander, Kang Kong, Rosemary, Lemongrass, Aloe Vera, Basil, trays of cute baby Bok Choy (Xiao Bai Cai), and many other greens that came from his own garden, plus cuttings courtesy of Bollywood. Our first topic was about soil. Andrew had ordered for us a customised blend of clay, sand and compost, with no added chemical fertilizer, pesticide or fungicide. For organic fertilizer, we could choose from pellets of sheep dung (baked till near-odourless) or earthworm poop. Angie was quick to share that the best fertilizer is free – our own urine, properly diluted of course.

A fantastic mix of plants available for us to bring home.
Next, we learnt that plastic pots retain moisture better, while clay ones allow the roots to breathe easier. Participants were encouraged to experiment with what grows best in any combination of pots, locations (outdoors or indoors with morning sun only), watering and fertilizing frequencies. An interesting segment was about plant propagation using cuttings, seeds, rhizomes or clump division. Many vegetables can have their tops cut off with stumps left growing to produce more leafy shoots for multiple harvests. When greens overgrow, transplanting comes in. To ensure success, one should partially trim most leaves to reduce the overall energy burden, and allow the plant to concentrate on forming fresh roots and shoots in the new location.
It was then time for us to get our hands in the dirt. We had great fun picking up small stones to cover the drainage holes of our plastic pot, mixing the soil with a teaspoon of earthworm poop, and potting up our plant selections. Many brought home extra plantlets and cuttings wrapped in moist newspaper. Participants were also given a three-page information sheet that outlined the finer details of eco-food gardening. We ended with a scrumptious set lunch at Poison Ivy Cafe, and were entertained by none other than farm owner and stellar storyteller Ivy Singh-Lim herself. We thank her for the use of her farm venue and nature shed for free. We are immensely grateful to Andrew for volunteering his time and effort, and thank Angie Ng, Moira Khaw, Lena Chow, and Timothy Pwee for being great helpers.

National Library-NSS Bird Walk at Labrador Nature Reserve (Singapore)

By Timothy Pwee

Amongst the old books that the National Library is displaying at its ongoing “From the Stacks” exhibition is Chasen and Robinson “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”. This five-volume ornithological reference for Southeast Asia was first published in 1927. Today, it remains as one of the most important references for ornithologists working in Southeast Asia and serves as a baseline text for regional field guide authors.

The five-volume “Birds of the Malay Peninsular” is on display at the National Library’s “From the Stacks” exhibition till August 2016. All rights reserved, NLB, 2016.

To bring to life the rare book “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”, 31 participants were treated to the wild birds of Labrador Nature Reserve.

To bring this rare book to life, the library asked the NSS Education Committee to conduct an introductory birding excursion to Labrador Nature Reserve (southern part of Singapore) on 19 March 2016, led by Education Committee Chairperson Gloria Seow. On the chartered ride from the library to Labrador, Gloria regaled the full busload of 31 participants with fascinating facts on Singapore’s birds, their habitats, ecology and migration. Timothy Pwee then taught us the basics of using the binoculars, and gave some background on Labrador Park’s history. We were met by three more guides at the reserve: Lee Ee Ling, Gerard Francis and Lena Chow.

The birding was not spectacular in our short hour foray. But for beginners, it proved fascinating even to encounter a handful of colourful garden species. We observed the Pink-necked Green Pigeon (Treron vernans), Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris), Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis), Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) and various swiftlet species up close through birding scopes and binoculars. A pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds (Nectarina jugularis) even came down to eye level to peruse the flowers, giving those lucky enough to see them sterling views. Many were awed by the highlights: a pair of thermalling Oriental Honey-buzzards (Pernis ptilorhyncus) and a majestic White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) out at sea. Timothy revealed that our sea eagle is in the same genus as America’s symbol, the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

Participants were introduced to other denizens of Labrador Park, including a near-invisible Miagrammopes spider.

Special thanks to Ee Ling and Gerard for bringing along their scopes and to Lena for adding to our participants’ edification by pointing out the butterflies: Painted Jezebel (Dendrophthoe pentandra), Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida), Common Palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra agina) and more. Besides birds and butterflies, Gerard introduced us to the ecology of the fig tree when we came across an Indian Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica). We even found a small green Miagrammopes spider on a broken twig.

The group then returned to the library to view the exhibition, in particular the “Birds of the Malay Peninsula” five-volume set. The first and second volumes were penned by Robinson in the 1920s when he retired from the directorship of the museums of the Federated Malay States. When he died in 1929, Chasen took up the work with the help of Robinson's notes and papers, publishing two more volumes. Only much later in 1976 did Lord Medway and David Wells push out the final volume. Birders might know that Wells went on to publish his weighty two-volume “Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula”.

Collared and White-throated Kingfishers in “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”. Both scientific and common bird names have changed over time. All rights reserved, NLB, 2016.

The NUS Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum has digitised and made available online volumes 1 to 4 at, including the original text and colour plates. However, there is nothing like seeing the real thing. The “From the Stacks” exhibition can be viewed at Level 10 of the National Library Building. It ends on 28 August 2016. As a reflection of the book’s rarity, a complete set today costs upwards of $1,500.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Butterflies at HortPark (Singapore)

By Soh Zhi Bing, Photos by Soh Kam Yung & Gloria Seow

We have been dubbed the “Butterfly Boys” as Daryl Ng (11 years old) and I (9 years old) are butterfly enthusiasts who regularly go on trips with NSS’s Butterfly and Insect Group (BIG). On 16 January 2016, we both became first-time butterfly guides to a group of peers and their caregivers at HortPark (located off Alexandra Road in Singapore).

Daryl (right) and I releasing a newly-eclosed Mottled Emigrant that I had been rearing.

We arrived early that morning. My dad (Soh Kam Yung) and I brought along the caterpillars and pupae of the Tawny Coster (Acraea violae), Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus chrysippus), Lemon Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona pomona), Mottled Emigrant (Catopsilia pyranthe pyranthe), Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus malayanus) and Common Mormon (Papilio polytes romulus) which I had been rearing at home. We were immediately swarmed by kids who were fascinated with the constant chomping of the caterpillars on the leaves of their respective host plants. They asked plenty of questions and were curious about the life cycle of the different butterfly species.

Auntie Gloria then presented Daryl and I as the day’s guides. We each had to tell our stories of how we came to love butterflies. For me, I got interested when I attended the Butterfly Count by NParks where I learnt how to identify most of Singapore’s common butterflies. After that, I bought the book “Butterflies of Singapore” by Khew Sin Khoon which was where I learnt about the rarer butterflies such as the Vagrant (Vagrans sinha sinha). Daryl said that since young, he has always loved nature. In primary one, he reared the Tawny Coster as his caterpillar project. It reached its fifth instar, but the following day he was horrified to see a shrivelled-up brown pupa instead. Apparently, his caterpillar had been infected by a parasitic wasp. He felt sorry for it and soon after, became a butterfly lover. What a bittersweet tale!

HortPark’s Butterfly Garden produced the Striped Blue Crow, Common Bluebottle, and Singapore’s ‘National Butterfly’ by popular vote the Common Rose.

We then walked over to a Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea) patch, also known as Giant Milkweed, located near the park’s entrance to look for the Plain Tiger. Sadly, our first Plain Tiger caterpillar was quite dead. We explained that it was the likely victim of a parasitic wasp (same as Daryl’s first caterpillar) that had injected the caterpillar with its eggs. These eggs had probably hatched inside the poor caterpillar and the wasp larvae will literally eat their way out. No wonder this caterpillar had an ominous black shade to its usual vibrant colours. Thankfully, we encountered another Plain Tiger caterpillar – this one very much alive and chomping. By feeding on the poisonous leaves of the Crown Flower, the caterpillars themselves become toxic to birds. As a bonus, we spotted a huge and hairy Yellow Tussock Moth (Calliteara horsfieldii) caterpillar nearby. We told the kids that the hairs of such caterpillars typically sting badly and should not be handled.

On the walk to the Butterfly Garden which was some distance from the start, we found a well-camouflaged Katydid that feeds on leaves and aphids. We were distracted halfway by a giant ball-in-a-maze puzzle. Several of us had fun coordinating amongst ourselves to manoeuver a metal ball towards the centre of the maze.
Leopard Butterfly resting on its host plant, the Indian Prune.

Arriving at the Butterfly Garden, we were greeted by two large Striped Blue Crows (Euploea mulciber mulciber) gliding past regally. We also encountered the attractive Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon luctatius) which has a faster flight than the Crows. The kids were delighted to say hi to several Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae asteris) butterflies, Singapore’s ‘National Butterfly’ by popular vote. This beauty likely won the most votes for wearing the colours of the National Flag on its wings. Unfortunately, we did not see Singapore’s largest butterfly, the Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus). Both of these butterflies share the same host plant – the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia acuminata) – a creeper that is grown in the Butterfly Garden along with other host and nectar plants. We inspected this creeper, and found a good number of cute Common Rose caterpillars in different instars feasting on it.
Auntie Lena next pointed out the Curry Leaf Plant (Murraya koenigii) on which were many White Tortoise Beetles (Silana farinose) and their brownish larvae. The larva of this introduced species from Sri Lanka carries its excreta above itself as a deterrent to predators such as birds. What a strange and clever defence tactic!

On the way back, we found a tree full of hanging Bagworm Moth (family Psychidae) cocoons. We also came across a Leopard (Phalanta phalantha phalantha) butterfly resting on its host plant, the Indian Prune (Flacourtia rukam). We were both glad to have shown everyone so many things, and to see that people were enjoying themselves.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

NSS Kids’ Fun with Wetland Birds & Wildlife in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, located in the northwestern part of Singapore, is practically synonymous with birdwatching. Other than the multitudes of migratory shorebirds that stopover or overwinter here during the boreal cold season, the sanctuary is a preserve for all things wild – from diminutive praying mantises, mudskippers and tree-climbing crabs to gargantuan monitor lizards and crocodiles. We saw all these and more on 28 November 2015 in a jaunty walk that took us to both the old and new wings of dear Sungei Buloh.

Our Estuarine Crocodile in the classic pose of a floating log.
Auntie Gloria started by introducing the mangrove ecosystem, revealing how these hardy plants adapt to the daily assault of tidal changes by having leaves that secrete excess salt, and evolving air-breathing roots (pneumatophores) that grow above ground in order to thrive in oxygen-starved muddy substrates. The suspense of trying to spot the Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) for the kids was quickly broken when a parent found one resting near a mud bank just off the Main Bridge. Our star find was mostly submerged with only its nose and eyes showing. However, the relatively-clear waters meant that we could still see most of its body through the binoculars, and my, what a huge one it was.

Satisfied, we strode on to the Main Hide where we were greeted with a sizeable flock of curvy-beaked Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus), good numbers of Common Greenshanks (Tringa nebularia) and Marsh Sandpipers (Tringa stagnatilis) feeding together, as well as the occasional Little Egret (Egretta garzetta). Four Painted Storks (Mycteria leucocephala) also made an appearance, and kids learnt that they were part of the Jurong Bird Park’s free-flying birds programme. Not all birds are migratory or from the Bird Park. Sungei Buloh also has resident birds present throughout the year – some of us saw the Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) and we all heard the Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) giving off its familiar raucous call.

The Main Hide served up the Little Egret, Painted Stork and Whimbrel amongst other birds seen.

As we trod down the dirt path, we encountered a White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus) moving alongside us, partially hidden in the prop roots of the flanking mangroves. Likewise, we had several Plantain Squirrels (Callosciurus notatus) escorting us in our exploration, in turns frolicking alongside and feasting on fruits. The sharp-eyed Butterfly Boys Daryl Ng and Soh Zhi Bing (both of whom are butterfly enthusiasts) spotted three Praying Mantises of various sizes, and even the miniscule Common Redeye (Matapa aria), a skipper with startling red eyes.

Uncle Tim found us the Lesser Dog-faced Fruit Bat to the delight of the children.
Malayan Water Monitors (Varanus salvator) rule the place, muscular ones that exceed 1.3 m in length. We had them lounging at the main pond, crossing our paths in an unhurried amble, and even swimming majestically in a lily-filled waterbody near the Main Bridge. Back at the Wetland Centre, Uncle Tim had a surprise for the kids. Shushing them first, we then tip-toed towards a tiny colony of eight Lesser Dog-faced Fruit Bats (Cynopterus brachyotis) hanging upside down in their diurnal roost on the wooden beams. Many children were delighted to see a wild bat for the first time. Some were a little spooked by the dog-like face of this common bat. Uncle Tim said that these mammals come alive at night, and we can frequently see them swooping around our neighbourhoods at dusk.

A basking Giant Mudskipper reveals its blue eyes under the bright sunlight.

We then popped into the new extension of Sungei Buloh just across the car park from the old wing. Unfortunately, the tide was high, so the mud experience area was flooded and inaccessible. Uncle Tim and Auntie Gloria had on a previous trip spotted many baby Mangrove Horseshoe Crabs (Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda) here. Nevertheless, we still saw plenty. There were at least three species of Mudskippers, with the Giant Mudskipper (Periophthalmodon schlosseri) drawing the most ‘wows’ by virtue of its size. Tree-climbing Crabs (Episesarma spp.) were seen scuttling up their mangrove hosts to escape the incoming tide. Some parents were fascinated with the Sea Holly (Acanthus spp), a shrub that resembles the Christmas Holly. In all, Sungei Buloh lived up to its reputation of being a prime habitat for all things wild.

NSS Kids' Fun with Edible Plants at Bukit Brown Cemetery (Singapore)

By Ryan, Alastair & Jake Liew (10, 12 & 8 years old)

The Liew brothers Ryan, Alastair and Jake, all set to join the NSS Kids and their caregivers in exploring Bukit Brown.
It was a toasty morning on 30 August 2015. We set off on an adventure with our adult guides, Uncle Si Guim, Auntie Gloria and Auntie Lena, to find delicious and edible plants in Bukit Brown, located off Lornie Road in Singapore. Officially opened in 1922, Bukit Brown is a world-famous Chinese burial site housing some 100,000 graves. However, exhumation of nearly 4,000 tombs have been undertaken to construct a new highway. We were dismayed to see the entrance area cordoned off with safety barriers, concrete slabs and evidence of construction. As we got pass the iconic gates of Bukit Brown, we were greeted with a partial view of the surrounding greenery. Thankfully, not all of the area’s secondary forest has been destroyed and steps have been taken to conserve Bukit Brown’s wildlife.

Everyone was eager to launch into the hunt for delicious plants. We even had a two-person TV crew from MediaCorp Channel 8 Morning Express (
晨光第一线) following us around to film our findings. Uncle Si Guim started by stooping low and plucking some heart-shaped leaves growing abundantly as ground cover. He introduced this as Daun Kadok or Wild Betel (Piper sarmentosum), a plant hailing from the Piperaceae family which includes pepper. Its leaf is often confused with the Betel Leaf which is traditionally chewed together with Areca Nut and slaked lime as a mild stimulant. Wild Betel has smaller leaves and is milder in taste compared to Betel. It is used in Thai, Laotian and Malay (shredded for ulam salad) cuisine. We nibbled on bits of leaf, and it indeed had a peppery flavour. We even brought some home and it proved tasty sprinkled on soft-boiled eggs.

We next spotted the Tapioca plant or Cassava (Manihot esculenta) with its classic multi-lobed leaf. Uncle Si Guim said that the Tapioca root was a staple during the war years. He then fished out a sample from his bag and told us that this starchy root can be toxic if not properly cooked due to the natural occurrence of poisonous cyanide. Our school sells cassava chips, what a scary thought if the poison is still present!

Cultivated in Asia, South America and Africa, the leaves and tubers of Tapioca are used as human food, animal feed and biomass fuel.
A trip to Bukit Brown is not complete without exploring the intricate carvings and intriguing designs on the graves. Jake’s favourite is the grave of Mr Chew Geok Leong, which is guarded by majestic and life-like Sikh statues. Uncle Si Guim led us under a towering structure formed entirely of matted leaves and roots. It felt like we were entering a secret passageway. Everyone was fascinated by the delicate network of roots looming above our heads. We emerged on the other side and discovered a ramshackle kampong house lying just beyond. This was one of several residences of the grave keepers. We could not venture any further as a fierce dog guarding her puppies deterred us with her non-stop barking.

Auntie Gloria next spotted a Starfruit tree (Averrhoa carambola) with dangling clusters of unripe starfruits and pink flowers. We also came across other edibles such as Rambutan, Banana and Pandan leaves as well as inedible but attractive toadstools. Uncle Si Guim then pointed out the Yellow Stem Fig (Ficus fistulosa) which birds feed on. We split open a few figs and examined the tiny flowers inside with a magnifying glass.

Pandan leaves are used in Nonya cooking for pandan cake, kaya and ondeh ondeh.
There are special secrets hidden in Bukit Brown, such as an old wooden door that functions as a bridge across a stream leading to a grave keeper’s house. This bubbling stream was filled with wriggling tadpoles and guppies. There is even a special tomb that has been converted into another grave keeper’s dwelling. We hope that these will continue to remain untouched.
A special tomb converted into a grave keeper’s dwelling.
Indeed, Bukit Brown has a lot of wildlife and history. While some of its graves need to be cleared to make way for new roads, we hope that as much as possible will be preserved for the next generation. In his interview with MediaCorp journalist Hong Xinyi, Jake spoke of his wish to conserve nature areas so that when he grows up, such places will still be around. Uncle Si Guim also gave his views on Singapore’s rich plant life and how children benefit from encountering plants and animals in the wild. The three-minute feature of our trip was aired on TV on 29 September 2015. Watch it here, from 16:30 onwards:

Monday, 25 January 2016

NSS Kids’ Fun with Intertidal Marine Life at Changi Beach (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

Uncle Marcus giving us a Show-and-Tell of the intertidal marine life at Changi Beach.
The early morning shower did nothing to deter the exploration of the intertidal marine life of Changi Beach (Singapore), led by veteran tide chaser Uncle Marcus Ng. Determined NSS Kids and their care givers showed up in force on 7 June 2015, equipped with booties, wellies and rain gear. There was a palpable excitement as the ebbing tides exposed a wide swathe of inviting seagrass meadows.

The seagrass ecosystem supports a somewhat different marine cast compared to the coral rubble habitat prevalent on the rocky coastlines of Chek Jawa, Sentosa and Labrador Park. Growing from a sandy substrate, seagrass is the primary food of the Dugong, also known as the sea cow. Sometimes, Dugong feeding trails can be seen around Changi and Chek Jawa, formed as these massive mammals gobble up the seagrass, roots and all.

We also spotted the icon of Chek Jawa – the Knobbly Sea Star.
As we walked gingerly on the luscious green carpet, we found the brightly-coloured Pink Warty as well as Thorny Sea Cucumbers in good numbers. If one observes carefully, feathery feeding tentacles can extend from the mouths of both sea cucumber species, in search of organic particles and plankton. Someone spotted a Ball Sea Cucumber, a spherical softy that is usually buried in sand or hidden amongst seaweed. When threatened, this sea cucumber behaves like some others in its family – it ejects its guts out.

Uncle Marcus then pointed out the White Urchin. This spiky creature likes to doll itself up with bits of material such as seaweed and shell, which serve as camouflage or sun shield. After the urchin dies, its green test (ie. skeleton without spikes) can often be seen along the shoreline. We also came across the less common Thorny Sea Urchin, which has spines-growing-on-spines. These spines can move independently to transport the animal around, and are pretty fascinating to watch.

Our trip highlight was a 5-cm Longspined Waspfish, sometimes mistaken for the infamous Stonefish.
Next, we found a number of compact Biscuit Sea Stars as well as spindly-and-spiky Brittle Stars. Uncle Marcus was hopeful of us seeing the uncommon Knobbly Sea Star, the icon of Chek Jawa. As luck would have it, we came across a juvenile at the very end of our walk. The Knobbly uses its numerous tube feet on its underside to feed on micro-organisms, dead creatures, sponges, soft corals, clams, snails and other invertebrates. As echinoderms, these three sea star species are symmetrical along their five axes.

The highlight of our walk had to be the Longspined Waspfish, a well-camouflaged brown fish that can be mistaken for the infamous Stonefish. We found this 5-cm long cutie hiding inside a Fan Clam, of all places, and tipped it into a transparent container for a closer look. Due to its cryptic colouration, it is often overlooked even though it is supposed to be common on Singapore’s shores. Uncle Marcus showed us the row of venomous spines lining its dorsal area. These spines protect it from predators and are not used to catch prey.

Some of our finds included (from clockwise) Thorny Sea Urchin, Biscuit Sea Star, Sea Hare, Sand Dollar and Ball Sea Cucumber, all released at the end of our walk.
Other creatures spotted included the Sea Hare, Hammer Oyster, Sand Dollar, Striped Hermit Crab, various crabs, gobies, tube worms, etc. As the drizzle became more intense, we sought shelter under a big pavilion. Children and their parents took the opportunity to view and photograph some of our finds up close, as they were temporarily housed in a clear receptacle. Before bidding Changi Beach goodbye, we released these marine creatures back into their beautiful habitat.

A Biscuit Sea Star on a bed of luscious seagrass.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Singapore’s National Butterfly Finalists

By Tan Teong Seng, 13-year old butterfly guide

What better time than Singapore’s 50th birthday to choose our National Butterfly? The NSS Kids walk on 7 March 2015 at the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden (JBCG) located near the junction of Bukit Timah and Farrer Roads in Singapore, aimed to show participants four of the six finalists in the run for the title of Singapore’s National Butterfly.

As lead guide, Auntie Lena Chow had earlier arranged with JBCG Manager Uncle Craig Williams to wow the kids with all sorts of caterpillars. Uncle Craig showed up with boxes of his reared caterpillars, and his table of caterpillars was quickly swarmed by children eager to see them up close. On display were ‘cats’ of the Leopard Lacewing, Tawny Coster, Common Rose and Autumn Leaf. There were also pupae of the Painted Tiger, Painted Jezebel and Common Mime. Many of the children warmed up to these little ‘cats’, and were soon busy stroking them and even letting them crawl all over their hands. It was great to see these kids enjoying the ‘cats’ so much. However, they were warned that not all caterpillars can be handled as some can sting badly.

Teong Seng highlighting the unique characteristics of the six National Butterfly finalists.
Even after 30 minutes, the children were still busy making friends with the caterpillars. Auntie Lena and co-guide Teong Seng were forced to part the kids from their ‘cats’ to start the walk proper. Auntie Lena explained the importance of caterpillars and butterflies in our ecosystem, as they serve as food sources for birds and pollinators for plants. She then introduced the National Butterfly Campaign for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents to vote for one of six shortlisted candidates to become Singapore’s National Butterfly. Teong Seng briefly described the unique characteristics of these six finalists, namely the Common Rose, Painted Jezebel, Common Tiger, Common Tree Nymph, Common Birdwing and Knight.

Without further ado, the walk commenced and everyone surged into the garden excitedly. Teong Seng had brought along with him a Banana Skipper that had just eclosed (ie. emerged from its pupa case) the day before. Upon spotting some banana trees, he took the opportunity to explain the life cycle of the Banana Skipper before releasing the day-old butterfly into the Gardens.

Kids admiring butterflies, caterpillars and their host plants.
Walking on, we spotted our first National Butterfly candidate, the Painted Jezebel. It was fluttering in the canopy, so we had to crane our necks to see it. Close by were a few Plain Tigers hovering around their host plant, the Blood Flower (Asclepias currasavica) with Plain Tiger caterpillars on it. The children wasted no time in taking turns to play with the ‘cats’. Auntie Lena and Teong Seng also pointed out other painted wings such as Chocolate Pansies, Grass Yellows and the very tiny and often-overlooked Grass Blues.

It was not long before we saw our second candidate, the Common Rose. Big and magnificent, this black-red-and-white beauty flew around us but unfortunately did not land for a photograph. Later in the walk, kids were introduced to the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia acuminata), the host plant for the Common Rose and Common Birdwing. This plant had many Common Rose caterpillars, but to our disappointment, no Common Birdwing ‘cats’.

Playing with the caterpillar of the Common Rose.
We encountered birds such as the Yellow-Vented Bulbul, and an abandoned nest of this common garden species. Next, we came to a pond where snakeheads and terrapins thrived. Then somebody found an Oakblue, which was promptly identified as a Centaur Oakblue by 10-year-old Daryl Ng. Auntie Lena was impressed with this kid, and we found out later that he is a butterfly enthusiast who has read the local butterfly guidebooks from cover to cover.

Before calling it a day, Auntie Lena gave away certain caterpillars and the leaves of their host plants to some delighted kids. Although we only saw two National Butterfly candidates, the walk was nonetheless meaningful and enjoyable. 

NSS Kids’ Fun with Pulau Ubin’s Natural & Cultural Heritage (Singapore)

By Ryan Liew (aged 9) & Alastair Liew (aged 11)

The Liew brothers standing in front of the mandible of a wild pig strung up on a coconut tree near the Pulau Ubin jetty.
Pulau Ubin, an island off the northeastern coast of Singapore, is one of the country's last kampongs (villages). On 28 February 2015, a group of die-hard NSS Kids and their families made their way to this charming island, accessible by a $2.50 bumboat ride from Changi Village.

According to Uncle Tim, Pulau Ubin was originally a hub for granite mining. Today, these abandoned granite quarries form attractive water bodies teeming with wildlife. Uncle Tim showed us the village’s Tua Pek Kong Taoist temple and its wayang (Chinese opera) stage. He pointed out that the temple was constructed with a concrete base and a wooden superstructure built atop it. This allows the building to better withstand contact with rain water. Such architecture is typical of the many kampong homes that dot the island.

We encountered several tropical fruit trees including the fragrant jackfruit, banana and starfruit. Auntie Lena then unfurled a rolled-up banana leaf, and we were surprised to find a small whitish Banana Skipper caterpillar nestled within. Out of place amongst these Asian fruit trees is the invasive Hairy Clidemia originally from South America. It produces a delicious fruit which we immediately nicknamed the ‘Furry Blueberry’ as it reminded us of real blueberries when we tasted them!

We were surprised to find a tiny Banana Skipper caterpillar nestling in a rolled-up banana leaf.

As we strolled along Ubin’s leafy avenue, Auntie Gloria pointed out giant termite mounds scattered amidst swaying coconut trees. A mound consists of a community of nymphs, workers, soldiers and a few egg-laying queen termites, living in an elaborate system of tunnels. Termites are an intelligent society, responsible for wood and plant breakdown, which is important for ecosystem recycling. We learnt that bracket fungus also serves the same purpose by feeding off rotting logs.

Ubin’s termite mounds are tall and can house millions of termites.
We turned around at the blue-and-white wooden house with a zinc roof of the late Mr Lim Chye Joo, the former Chinese village headman. In fact, Uncle Tim said that Ubin was previously run by one Chinese and one Malay headman. We took a quick peep inside and saw old-fashioned metal grills, bare cement floors, plastic chairs and dim lighting. A man surfing on his smartphone contrasted with this timeless tableau.        

The Kampong home of Ubin’s former Chinese headman.
The walk also produced many Golden Orb Web spiders. They weave massive webs to catch prey such as flies, beetles and grasshoppers. Even birds are unintentionally caught in these elaborate webs. We then visited ponds covered by lotus and lily plants. Uncle Tim taught us how to differentiate the two. Lotus leaves are completely round, while lily pads have notches on otherwise round leaves. The flowers are pink and purple respectively. We were fortunate to spot dragonflies and a friendly ladybird, and catch sight of a magnificent Olive-Backed Sunbird resting on a pole. At the end of the trip, we were dog-tired from all that walking in the hot sun. The kampong dogs were equally sluggish from the heat, lying flat out at the jetty as we waited for our return ferry.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Forest Giants at MacRitchie Reservoir (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow

Education Committee Chairperson

Uncle Tony leading a young entourage through the wonderful world of plants.
The allure of meeting Forest Giants up close was enough to attract a sizeable number of kids and their families to MacRitchie Reservoir (off Lornie Road in central Singapore) on the morning of 23 November 2014. Plant Group Chairperson Uncle Tony O’Dempsey was our esteemed guide, assisted by Auntie Angie Ng. Uncle Tony maintains an informative compendium on Singapore’s flora at

Uncle Tony started by pointing out shrubs such as the Simpoh Air (Dillenia suffruticosa) as we trooped from the Visitor Centre towards the forest proper. Along the way, Auntie Angie paused under a prominent Banyan Tree (Ficus microcarpa), and told us that this strangling fig started life as a hemi-epiphyte. This is when their seeds (usually dispersed by birds) germinate in crevices on trees and even buildings. They eventually envelop their host tree with their spreading prop trunks and roots. The original support tree can die from this ‘strangulation’. The strangling fig then becomes a ‘columnar tree’ with a hollowed core. Uncle Tony also introduced two types of Pulai (Alstonia angustiloba and Alstonia scholaris), where both can be differentiated by variations in leaf venation and patterning. Both Pulai species can be found on the hillock that houses war hero’s Lim Bo Seng tomb.

Auntie Angie highlighting the strangling nature of the Banyan Tree.
We then entered the cool forest trail that runs parallel to Lornie Road. Uncle Tony showed us his favourite rattans. Rattans have spines on their stems and leaves that serve to protect them from herbivores and help them cling to the trunks of trees for support. They can reach hundreds of metres long. In many tropical countries, people harvest rattans to make lightweight and durable cane furniture or weave them into baskets and other craft. Uncle Tony pointed out two types of Macaranga (Macaranga gigantea and Macaranga bancana). Of the 11 species of Macaranga found in Singapore, eight of them host ants in their hollow twigs and produce food-bodies which supplement the ants’ diet. In return, these ants protect the Macaranga from invasion by insects such as caterpillars.

A Forest Giant with mighty buttress roots, a long straight trunk, and a spreading crown that towers over the canopy.
Kids were suitably impressed with the few Forest Giants that we came across. Typical of primary forests, Forest Giants are dominated by dipterocarps in the genera Shorea, Dipterocarpus and Anisoptera. These are characterised by long straight trunks reaching up to 50 metres, buttress roots and broccoli-like crowns that break through the main canopy. Also called emergents, these trees can be hundreds of years old.  

Uncle Tony sharing about the importance of the rainforest.

We encountered many other wonderful plants. There was a patch of Slender Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes gracilis) with a profusion of dangling pitchers that serve as traps for insects, particularly during rainfall. The insects drown and are digested, benefiting the plant with mineral nutrition (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) and protein. Such carnivorous plants are able to colonise areas with mineral-poor or overly acidic soil too tough for most other plants to survive. The walk ended with several animal sightings: frolicking Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis), a dried-up Green Paddy Frog (Hylarana erythraea) and a 1.5 m long Malayan Water Monitor (Varanus salvator).                                                                                                              

Frolicking Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis),