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: http://www.channel8news.sg/news8/ca/morningexpress/episodes/20190929-wld-morning/2157560.html

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 http://florasingapura.com/.

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),

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Fun at the NEWater Visitor Centre (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson

For the first time ever, there were no kids at this Education Group visit to Singapore's National Water Agency PUB’s NEWater Visitor Centre in Changi (eastern part of Singapore). Instead, adult NSS members were treated to an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes tour of Singapore’s water reclamation capabilities on 19 July 2014.

A volunteer PUB guide took us through the paces. She first explained that NEWater is high-grade reclaimed water produced from treated used water and further purified using advanced membrane technologies. We found ourselves wandering around a cavernous exhibition area, full of fancy features that fed us facts like how much water an average person uses per day (152 litres) as well as tips to reduce water consumption. Dispensed advice included using the washing machine only on a full load, collecting rinse water from washers for flushing and mopping, and cutting one’s shower time by one minute to save nine litres of blue gold.

An exhibition area dispensed practical water saving tips in digestible graphics.
The guide then introduced us to the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS) that Singapore has constructed for used water collection, treatment, reclamation and disposal. It comprises 48 km of deep tunnel sewer, up to 6 m in diameter and 50 m underground. The DTSS currently runs from Kranji to Changi. It intercepts the flows of existing gravity sewers via link sewers, upstream of pumping installations. The DTSS then channels the flows by gravity to two water reclamation plants (WRPs) located in the coastal areas of Kranji and Changi. At present, NEWater meets up to 30% of Singapore’s water needs. DTSS Phase 2 is currently in the works. It will terminate at the future Tuas WRP, and by 2060 will increase NEWater supply three fold to meet up to 55% of future water demand.

We learned about Singapore’s Deep Tunnel Sewerage System that channels used water by gravity towards coastal water reclamation plants in Kranji and Changi.
Finally, we came to the pièce de résistance of the programme – a tour of the adjoining NEWater factory. We walked along a two-storey high glass tunnel constructed through part of the factory. The tunnel held educational displays that made reference to the factory proper. Not surprisingly, the entire water reclamation operation was automated. There was nobody on the ‘factory floor’, only workers in a control room monitoring the proceedings.

 In the NEWater factory tour, we found out that microfiltration is one of the key steps in producing reclaimed water.
Nature’s water cycle has been recycling used water since the beginning of time. Similarly, the NEWater factory has interconnected pipes everywhere, performing water reclamation functions such as ultra-filtration, micro-filtration and reverse osmosis (RO) of used water. In RO, a semi-permeable membrane allows only miniscule water molecules to pass through, trapping larger unwanted particles such as bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, salts and pesticides. UV disinfection of RO water is then performed as an extra safeguard. Finally, alkaline chemicals are added to obtain the desired pH balance. The resulting NEWater is purported to be ultra-clean and safe to drink, having passed more than 110,000 scientific tests and surpassed World Health Organisation requirements.

We had cross-sectional close-up views of the membranes used in reverse osmosis.
NEWater is primarily for non-potable industrial uses such as wafer fabrication, power generation and air conditioning in commercial and institutional buildings. This frees up potable water (ie. water collected from reservoirs, piped from Malaysia or obtained via desalination) for domestic consumption. During dry periods, NEWater is added in tiny quantities to our reservoirs and blended with raw water. This blended water then goes through the usual waterworks treatment before it becomes tap water.

Indeed, it was good to learn through this visit that Singapore has a secure and sustainable water supply that will meet both current and future needs.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Nature at Upper Seletar Reservoir (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Photos by Gloria Seow & Lena Chow

What could be more inspiring than a nature walk for kids led by a fellow kid, in this case 11-year old Mark Strange? We were not disappointed as Mark bravely took his peers and their caregivers in a fun romp through Upper Seletar Reservoir (located off Mandai Road in Singapore) on 28 June 2014.

The white fibre or kapok in Malay of the Kapok Tree was used to stuff pillows and mattresses in the past.
We began at the 30-m tall Kapok Tree (Ceiba pentandra) located just behind the toilets at Car Park B. This is a magnificent heritage tree registered with NParks, which means that it is protected with lightning conductors. Kids became fascinated as Mark pointed out the many fat thorns growing out from the Kapok’s trunk, as well as its massive buttress roots. The Kapok’s claim to fame lies in its large fruit pods that split when ripe to release white fibres and black seeds. Called kapok in Malay, the white fibre was used to stuff pillows and mattresses in the past. We also observed large numbers of Cotton Stainer Bugs (Dysdercus decussatus), both adults and nymphs, clambering up and down the fallen fruits.

A miniature fig wasp with a patch of yellow can be seen just above the centre dark area.
A figging Fig tree caught our attention next. It was cloaked in tiny orange figs clustered brightly on low-hanging branches. Mark plucked off one of these figs, squished it open to show us its enclosed flowers, and promptly found a miniature fig wasp inside! Kids learnt that female wasps are the sole pollinators of figs as they squeeze their way in through a tiny opening at the bottom of each fig, to lay their eggs within. Plenty of birds such as the Asian Glossy Starlings (Aplonis panayensis), White-vented Mynas (Acridotheres javanicus) and Pink-necked Green Pigeons (Treron vernans) were seen feasting away at the figging tree.

Auntie Lena then pointed out the hairy leaves and fruits of the invasive Hairy Clidemia (Clidemia hirta) originating from Central and South America. Kids and their parents were invited to sample the purplish fruit which can be made into a syrup. This immediately triggered a stampede with children competing to find as many of the berries as possible. Some even whipped out plastic bags to take their harvest home. As we trundled along, Auntie Lena also showed us a number of forest butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies.

Kids were so taken by the taste of the Hairy Clidemia’s fruit that they competed to harvest as many of the berries as possible.
We came across many Macaranga saplings lining the forest edge. Auntie Gloria said that they had a symbiotic relationship with certain ants. The ants feed on the starch grains and live in the hollow twigs of the sapling, offering it protection from other herbivorous insects in return. Eight out of the 11 species of Macaranga found in Singapore are ant hosts.

A juvenile Field Frog, well camouflaged against the mottled brown of the forest floor.
Entering the forest proper, we were teased by the darting flight of the Common Faun (Faunis canens) as it zig-zagged down the leaf-padded path. The short trail ended in a clear stream. Here, we spotted an adult and juvenile Field Frog, well camouflaged against the mottled brown of the forest floor. We were immensely thrilled to come across a 1.5 m long Black Spitting Cobra (Naja sumatrana). The snake was first found with its head deeply buried in a pile of leaf litter that had accumulated in a huge drain. Uncle Tim speculated that it was probably hunting for frogs. We patiently observed it for some 10 minutes, watching its sinuous body writhe gently as it burrowed and poked around. We finally saw its head when it emerged briefly and slithered away.

We were lucky to spot the ‘mating wheel’ of the Common Blue Skimmer.
Walking into the sunshine again, we followed the elevated pathway fringing the reservoir back towards the rocket tower. Here, we came across a fabulous Tortoise Beetle (Aspidomorpha miliaris), so named because its thin translucent elytra resembles a tortoise’s carapace. From afar, it could be easily mistaken for a ladybird.

The Tortoise Beetle is so named because its thin translucent elytra resembles a tortoise’s carapace.

What a fantastic morning we had, observing and learning about Singapore’s flora and fauna in the outdoor classroom of Upper Seletar Reservoir!

NSS Kids’ Fun with Nature at Gardens by the Bay (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Group Chairperson
Photos by Gloria Seow & Lena Chow

One sunny morning on 18 January 2014, Auntie Lena led us on an exploration of the verdant manicured grounds of the Gardens by the Bay (located off Marina Gardens Drive in Singapore). Starting at Satay by the Bay, we came across a small group of photographers who were pointing their ‘big guns’ at a pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds sipping nectar from banana flowers. Soon after, we spied a beautiful male Pink-necked Green Pigeon perched directly above us, resplendent in its pinks and oranges.

We spied a beautiful male Pink-necked Green Pigeon resplendent in its pinks and oranges.

From a distance, we saw a big black bird land on a treetop. Upon closer examination, it turned out to be a male Asian Koel. Auntie Gloria guided the group to look out for the Koel’s pale green bill, red eyes and longish tail, three distinct features that separate it from the similar-looking House Crow. The kids then learnt that the Asian Koel is a brood parasite of the House Crow. When the Crow is away from its nest, the Koel deftly displaces the Crow’s eggs and lays its eggs as substitutes. The Crow then unwittingly brings up the offspring of the Koel. As a result, the population of the Asian Koel has grown at the expense of the House Crow. The Koel is also infamous for being Singapore’s unofficial ‘alarm clock’, with its ascending ‘koel koel’ call often emitted in the wee hours of the morning. 

At the pond area, we spotted the skulking movements of the White-breasted Waterhen. The bird could be seen weaving in and out of the tall foliage in search of its next meal. Auntie Lena’s keen eyes then found a statuesque Striated Heron fishing by the water’s edge. Its poised stillness afforded us excellent views through our binoculars.

Kids examining an Apple Snail up close.
At another pond, the kids were delighted to see the pinkish eggs of the Apple Snail. Soon enough, Auntie Gloria fished out an adult Apple Snail from the pond for all to take a closer look. By then, the slimy snail had retreated into its shell, and all we could see was its closed operculum. Auntie Lena also brought our attention to dragonflies such as the Crimson Dropwing, Common Scarlet, and Common Parasol as well as tiny damselflies called Blue Sprites and Bluetails. 

We stumbled upon a Zebra Dove sitting quietly on the ground.

As we approached a grassy patch, we found two species of Munias – Scaly-breasted and Black-headed – foraging on grass seeds. As the day warmed up, Auntie Lena was quick to point out butterflies such as the Plain Tiger, Painted Jezebel and Striped Albatross. She then showed us popular butterfly nectar plants such as the Ixora, as well as different species of Lantana that came in a multitude of colours. We also examined the attractive red buds of the Red Button Ginger also known as the Scarlet Spiral Flag.

We came across a fish tank filled with giant fishes from the Amazon River in South America such as the Arapaima, Pacu and Amazonian Catfish. At the pond just outside the fish tank, we found a pair of Collared Kingfishers perched on open branches. Their pretty blue plumages drew sighs of admiration. We even spotted the invasive American Bullfrog here. 

Sadly, we spotted a huge specimen of the invasive American Bullfrog.

On the walk back, we stumbled upon a Zebra Dove sitting quietly on the ground, probably just after enjoying a sand bath. Through our binoculars, we could clearly see the bird’s powder blue eye ring contrasting with its black eyes. We then parted ways at the main visitor centre. A few of us continued the walk back to Satay by the Bay. This was when Auntie Gloria found two Changeable Lizards before finally spotting the alien Brown Anole, a native lizard of the Caribbean. It was likely introduced to Gardens by the Bay via imported plants and appears to be slowly spreading elsewhere. We hope that NParks will do something to stop this imminent threat to native biodiversity.

The alien Brown Anole was introduced to Gardens by the Bay via imported plants.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Forest Wildlife at Venus Drive (Singapore)

By Alastair Liew (10 years old) & Ryan Liew (8 years old)

It was a breezy Sunday morning on 1 December 2013. We came armed with binoculars, insect repellent and umbrellas. Right at the entrance to the Venus Drive trail (off Upper Thomson Road in Singapore) stood a cool bamboo grove inlaid with a wasp nest no less! Next to this were conspicuously bright orange flowers high above in a tree. Auntie Gloria identified the tree as the African Tulip (Spathodea campanulata), named for its orange tulip-like flowers. It was introduced to Singapore around the 1910s. This was the first inkling that we were in for more interesting sights.

The Liew brothers and other NSS kids being briefed by our guide Uncle Si Guim near a bamboo grove.
Down below, in a little hidey hole on the ground, my youngest brother Jake discovered a colony of Velvet Ants. Beware, looks can be deceiving – the Velvet ‘Ants’ are actually wasps! The wingless female has a stinger that delivers a painful jab. Despite its reputation as a cow killer, it is not venomous and less aggressive than the honey bee.

As we kept our eyes trained on the ground, we found tiny figs scattered underfoot. These are an important food source for many animals including monkeys, squirrels and birds. The nooks and crevices of the majestic fig tree provide a sanctuary for jumping spiders, amongst other wildlife.

Next, we saw delicious-looking Rambutans, Starfruits and Durians. Little green lumps on the ground turned out to be Betel Nut from the Areca Palm (Areca catechu). The Betel Nut is actually a seed. Historically, it is chewed with betel leaf, mineral lime, tobacco and spices for its mild narcotic effect, popular amongst Peranakans, Indians, Malays, Taiwanese and in many parts of Asia. It stains the lips and teeth red.

Clear freshwater streams ran through the reserve. In them were Pond Skaters swimming determinedly against the current. Typically, their bodies are coated with microhair (hydrofuge hairpiles) that repel water, helping them stay afloat. Although the waters ran clear, there were plastic bags and cans littering the banks. We hope that people will stop polluting and start taking care of our natural resources.

We spied many Pond Skaters walking on water.
Ornamental plants such as Dumbcane, Money Plant, wild Pandan and the Heliconia flower flourished in abundance along the trail. The towering trees were a perfect umbrella against the light morning drizzle. However at times, we had mischievous monkeys cavorting above our heads, showering us with huge drops of accumulated rain water.

Funky patterns of bracket fungi decomposing a fallen log.
We hurried along as the rain grew stronger, but our spirits were not dampened. We observed bracket fungi in beautiful geometric patterns. As nature’s recycler, they break down fallen trees into precious nutrients, renewing the cycle of life. Our highlight was seeing rubber seeds for the first time! These are housed in tri-compartmental chambers. The design of the triple lobe allows cracks to develop as the outer husk dries in sunlight. Eventually, the fruit splits open with explosive force, scattering the rubber seeds in all directions. Uncle Si Guim explained how latex was tapped by cutting a ‘V’ groove in the bark of the rubber tree.

We will definitely be back to revisit this beautiful trail. Next time round, we intend to hike all the way to the Treetop Walk!

This empty triple-lobed shell formerly housed rubber seeds that had scattered by explosion.