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 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 1½ 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 http://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/biblio/robinson_chasen/, 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.