Thursday, 23 February 2017

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

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice Chairperson

Photos by Gloria Seow & Timothy Pwee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A basking Changeable Lizard.

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

Sunday, 5 February 2017

NSS Kids’ Fun with Caterpillars & Butterflies at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park (Singapore)

By Soh Zhi Bing,10-year old butterfly guide

Photos by Soh Kam Yung & Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice-Chairperson

Children and adults alike went gaga over the caterpillars that I had been rearing at home.

As the main guide for my second butterfly walk on 18 September 2016 at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore, I was lucky to be supported by veteran butterfly guides Auntie Amy Tsang, Auntie Lena Chow and Uncle KC Tsang. I started by introducing the caterpillars (cats) that I had been rearing at home to kids and their parents. We enjoyed close-up observations of the cats of the Autumn Leaf (Doleschallia bisaltide bisalitide), Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus chrysippus), Lime (Papilio demoleus malayanus), Common Mormon (Papilio polytes romulus) and Tawny Coster (Acraea violae). These cats were a whirl of action, hungrily chewing up the leaves of their respective host plants, oblivious to the enthusiastic chatter and passing around of their mini homes.

We were amused that the Blue Nawab caterpillar resembled a Pokemon character.

Children and adults alike went gaga over the caterpillars. Kids were eager to stroke the safe cats such as the Autumn Leaf and Tawny Coster, as they do not have urticating hairs that irritate the skin. Several brave ones even allowed these larvae to crawl all over their arms. Auntie Amy had earlier loaned from her friend the cats of the seldom-seen Green Baron (Euthalia adonia pinwilli) and Blue Nawab (Polyura schreiber tisamenus). We were amused to find that the Blue Nawab cat resembled a Pokemon character with impressive head structures atop a speckled green body. Uncle KC Tsang then showed us his homemade videos with zoomed-in views of a caterpillar’s constantly moving mouthparts as it chomped down its leafy feast.

The 3rd and 4th instars of the Green Baron caterpillar. The larger 4th instar had just shed its old skin.

I spoke of the various instars that a caterpillar has to grow into before it pupates. I pointed out examples of two instars of the Lime Butterfly, with one cat looking bigger and quite different from its earlier instar. Cats grow rather quickly. For example, the Lime Butterfly which feeds on the leaves of the lime plant, metamorphosises from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly in just 23 to 27 days. After half an hour of admiring the caterpillars, we split into two groups to take turns exploring two parts of Bishan-AMK park with Auntie Amy leading the other party.

Our game of Butterfly Bingo encouraged kids to look for their own butterflies.

My group went to the park’s compact Butterfly Garden, lush with well-tended flowering shrubs and butterfly host plants. Here, we played the game Butterfly Bingo. Kids were given a sheet of paper with photos of nine common butterflies arranged in a grid. Spotting a particular butterfly species allows one to cross it out. Three species forming a row would entitle one to some candy. This was motivating enough for kids to start calling out what they had found. Some children earned their sweet fix after just a few minutes. Butterflies seen in the area included the ubiquitous Grass Yellows (Eurema spp), Lemon Emigrants (Catopsilia pomona pomona), Plain Tigers, Leopards (Phalanta phalantha phalantha) and the often-overlooked Grass Blues due to their diminutive stature. Unfortunately, we did not encounter the Common Rose, Singapore's National Butterfly by popular vote, even though its host plant the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia acuminata) is found in the garden.

Our sharp-eyed kids found an abundance of Autumn Leaf caterpillars which they handled with aplomb.

We then made our way to a large patch of Asystasia (Asystasia gangetica), the host plant for the Autumn Leaf. We found an abundance of Autumn Leaf caterpillars here. Kids lost no time in gently picking them up for a closer study. We even held a mini race to see who could find and place the most number of caterpillars on their arms. I won the game with 16 caterpillars tickling up a storm, while others were not far behind. Thereafter, we reluctantly said our goodbyes and returned the caterpillars to their host plant.

I felt encouraged that kids and their parents were so open to interacting with Singapore’s caterpillars and butterflies. It was on this high note that we ended our walk.

Our outing was filmed as an example of a NSS activity, and showcased at the Charity Governance Awards 2016 where NSS was the winner in the Small Charity Category. Watch the footage here:

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

Text and Photos by Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

Weekend intertidal walks are few and far between in any given year, as such walks in places like Sentosa island and Changi beach (southern and eastern part of Singapore respectively) are possible only if the tide falls to 0.2 metres and below. Another inconvenience involves the tendency of ultra-low tides to be in the pre-dawn hours and on weekdays. So we counted ourselves lucky to be out jaunting around Tanjong Rimau, a rare natural shore located just beyond Rasa Sentosa Resort, on the clear Sunday morning of 24 July 2016 just after the sun had peeked above the horizon.

 Located just beyond Rasa Sentosa Resort, the exposed rocky shoreline of Tanjong Rimau yielded bountiful sightings.

Uncle Marcus Ng was our erudite lead guide, assisted by Auntie Juria Toramae and Uncle Ivan Kwan who moved ahead as scouts. First up, we found an ethereal Blue-lined Flatworm (Pseudoceros concinnus) in the shallows, a regular encounter on many of our intertidal habitats. Continuing the blue theme, we saw a Pimply Phyllid Nudibranch (Phyllidiella pustulosa), a sea slug around 4 cm long with a hard body sporting clustered bumps called tubercles. Some tubercles even come in colours such as pink, red, grey or green. Kids and their parents were intrigued by the profusion of soft and hard corals, anemones, sponges, seagrass and seaweed that characterise this stretch of wild rocky shoreline.

Next, Auntie Gloria came across an exposed Snapping Shrimp  (family Alpheidae). Unfortunately, this nervous critter was so stressed by our presence that it dropped its pincer as it ducked under a rock. Thankfully, lost pincers can regenerate with time. Like many crustaceans, the Snapping Shrimp can willingly shed its claws when threatened or attacked, as it is better to lose a pincer than its life. Of its two pincers, the enlarged one can produce a one-of-a-kind sound, so loud that it can stun tiny fish prey and even crack the shells of small clams. Snapping Shrimps are responsible for the regular pops that one hears around intertidal areas.

The Pimply Phyllid Nudibranch is a lovely 4-cm long sea slug with clustered tubercles.

We had a really adorable baby Reef Octopus (family Octopodidae) swimming around our booties and wellies. Uncle Marcus gently lifted it out of the water to the delight of many. In general, octopus can survive for between 30 to 60 minutes on land, as oxygen diffusion can still take place through moist skin. It is known to crawl around to get from intertidal pool to pool, or to feed on shellfish or snails found above the waterline. 

An adorable baby Reef Octopus was observed swimming around our booties and wellies.

One of the kids reported seeing a ‘snake’. Upon investigation, it turned out to be a shudder-inducing metre long Giant Reef Worm (Eunice aphroditois). Uncle Marcus said that this was a fierce predator best left alone as it can deliver a nasty bite. Equally crabby creatures populate the intertidal environment. In quick succession, we found a Spotted-belly Forceps Crab (Ozius guttatus) that had both pincers raised in attack-defence mode, as well as the highly poisonous Red Egg Crab (Atergatis integerrimus) that took on a crouched defensive stance. 

Our seekers Auntie Juria and Uncle Ivan brought back several interesting finds including a huge Spider Conch Shell (the classic looking shell that people can hold to their ears to ‘hear’ the sea), as well as a Giant Top Shell Snail (Tectus niloticus), an enormous snail with a pyramidal shell. Other marvellous encounters included the Black Long Sea Cucumber (Holothuria leucospilota), Blue Jorunna Sponge (Neopetrosia spp) and Leather Coral (Sarcophyton spp). 

The rare Masked Burrowing Crab we found is likely the first sighting for Sentosa.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we had our most significant sighting when the group had already dispersed. Auntie Gloria noticed a strange ‘unicorn’ crab barely 3 cm across on a sandy substrate between the rocks. Uncle Marcus promptly identified it as the rare Masked Burrowing Crab (Gomeza bicornis). He pronounced that this was likely the first sighting for Sentosa. The perceived ‘unicorn’ is actually a pair of long antennae joined together with interlocking hairs. The united antennae are speculated to form a breathing tube, used when the crab buries itself in the sand with only the tip of its antennae visible. We were jubilant at this find, a cool lifer for Auntie Gloria, Uncle Tim and Auntie Lena.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Creatures of the Night at Pulau Ubin (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

Photos by Lena Chow

The Education Committee and Vertebrate Study Group joined hands in a critter spotting night safari to Pulau Ubin (island off the northeastern coast of Singapore) on 11 June 2016. Given the immense publicity surrounding Pesta Ubin (Malay for Ubin Festival), this activity was oversubscribed by almost four fold. But as regulations go, we could only take in 40 participants. Ubin was already bathed in twilight when we met up with a bunch of eager juniors and their parents. We split into two clusters, with Auntie Bee Choo, Uncle Sek Chuan and young naturalist Saker leading the coastal Sensory Trail, while Auntie Gloria, Uncle Timothy and Auntie Lena took the second group into the forested interior path.

We found a wee Common Tailorbird fast asleep with eyes wide open while balancing on one leg.

First up, we had glimpses of at least two Large-tailed Nightjars (Caprimulgus macrurusas well as several tiny Asiatic Lesser Yellow House Bat (Scotophilus kuhlii) hawking for insects in the inky sky. Then Auntie Lena saw a huge flying form which she believed to be the rare Malayan Flying Fox (Pteropus vampyrus). A few of them had been sighted earlier on Ubin. She promptly found a Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) fast asleep with eyes wide open. This birdy was still perched on the same banana leaf when we looped back some two hours later. It was incredible to see how it could balance on one leg while snoozing soundly.

   A Four-lined Tree Frog posed proudly for us.

At the expansive lotus-and-water-lily ponds, we had good numbers of Crab-eating Frogs (Fejervarya cancrivora) and Field Frogs (Fejervarya limnocharis) that comically leapt out of our way as we trooped in. Next, Uncle Tim spotted a Four-lined Tree Frog (Polypedates leucomystax) up in a bush. It posed proudly for us, illuminated by the waxing half moon, our torches, and some camera flash. Auntie Gloria and Auntie Lena exclaimed ‘Snake!’ in unison when we spied a Striped Keelback (Xenochrophis vittatus) slithering along a narrow side path. To escape, we witnessed the snake lifting up a third of its body and ‘climbing’ into the flanking scrub. Its quick disappearing act meant that only a handful of us got to see this beauty which was a lifer (seen for the first time) for us. The Striped Keelback is a diurnal reptile active during the day, which made it more cool to encounter it at night.

      Our highlight was seeing the diurnal Striped Keelback climbing a shrub.

Returning to the tarmac, we moved as silently as a large group with excited kids could move. Before long, Auntie Gloria picked up a great deal of activity in the branches above us. We saw 10 to 15 fruit bats (likely the Common Fruit Bat Cynopterus brachyotis) zipping in and out of a figging tree as well as hanging upside down to chomp on figs. Kids and parents alike admired the feeding frenzy with yelps of amazement. We pointed out several Spotted House Geckos (Gekko monarchus). The first was camouflaged against some wooden planks left by the roadside, while the second was on a tree trunk.

   A Giant Shield Bug resplendent on the leaves of the Simpoh Air.

On the way back, we bumped into Auntie Bee Choo’s group. They reported seeing the Dog-faced Water Snake (Cerberus schneiderii), a family of Eurasian Wild Pigs (Sus scrofa), Asian Toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus), spiders, mudskippers and mangrove crabs, amongst other sightings. In a cluster of Simpoh Air (Dillenia suffruticosa), Auntie Lena did a quick search and located her target – the Giant Shield Bug (Pycanum spp) – a majestic insect that feeds on the leaves of this shrub. Back at the ponds, we found a sleeping Marbled Goby (Oxyeleotris marmorata) known locally as Soon Hock, a Golden Apple Snail (Pomacea canaliculata) as large as a clenched fist, and more leaping frogs.

We had specially arranged for two ferries to get us back to the mainland. Uncle Tim sent off the first two groups. The rest of us settled down to wait for the boats to come back, and took time to recount the splendid night sights of Unforgettable Ubin. Indeed, the island never fails to surprise.