Sunday, 14 September 2014

On Hold

I'll be busy for the next three weeks with my examinations.The rest of the Tiger Orchis posts will come after that. Sorry about that!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

On The Prowl: Tiger Orchids

There are tigers roaming in Singapore - well, almost. Recently, many nondescript fern-like plants all over the island have been set ablaze by thousands of fiery flowers. These huge plants, some two metres tall, are tiger orchids - and they're in bloom. 

This spectacle only happens every four or five years and lasts for up to two months when it does. Many of the tiger orchids planted in Singapore flowered last year in May: our first flowering season since they went extinct in the wild here a long time ago. I'm guessing that these plants in bloom now are the ones which did not flower last year. In an effort to reintroduce various orchid species in Singapore, tiger orchids have been planted in many locations, one of them being my favourite haunt, Dairy Farm Nature Park.

The tiger orchid (Grammatophyllum speciosum) is the world's largest orchid species, in terms of the entire plant's size. Some specimens span over three metres wide and weigh close to two thousand kilogrammes! It is distributed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines, growing as an epiphyte (on trees - very strong ones given their weight) in lowland rainforests. However, they seem to do just as well growing on the ground. When not sporting metre-long inflorescencesthey appear like ferns; their leaves are thin and strap like.

The flowers grow up to about ten centimetres wide and are yellow, with dazzling crimson spotting, and smell wonderful; soft and sticky-sweet, of ylang ylang and mangoes. It is no wonder there were so many bees swarming around the flowers purposefully. Quite a few joggers were drawn to take a whiff and admire the sheer number of flowers too. 

With the end of this flowering season, the tiger orchids will become adorned with dangling seed pods and hopefully a few of the billions of minuscule seeds released will drift in the wind and settle in a crevice on a strong tree, waiting to start a new generation of tiger orchids. And until the next flowering season, the orchids will be much quieter and plainer, dressed only in dull green leaves. 

PS: Over the next few posts, I'll share some of the (just as exciting) critters that the orchids attracted.

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Malay Dartlet

It stirred up quite a bit of hype when it first appeared in Singapore in 2011; Serene Ng, Senior Biodiversity Officer of the National Biodiversity Centre of Nparks took a picture of a strange skipper - dark ochreous brown with clearly defined orange patches on both wings. It was a Malay Dartlet, a new discovery! I remember rushing over to the place it was found the weekend after the news reached me. I never got the shots I was after during the time that the Malay Dartlet colony was there but just recently, three years later, I saw it again - and this time it came to me.

I was shooting some moths attending to an array of Leea indica flowers, when a skipper began circling the bush at rapid speeds. I was shocked to see a Malay dartlet when it landed - I was in Dairy Farm Nature Park; far away from where it was discovered so many years ago. It was shortly joined by yet another Malay dartlet. They stopped at each flower for just a few seconds before moving on to the next but always came back to the same few favourite blooms. After five or ten minutes of feeding, they would fly off somewhere to sunbathe or rest in the shade.

It is encouraging that this rare butterfly has spread across the island and is no longer confined to a single grassland. However, it is not all that surpising on hindsight. The Malay dartlet caterpillars feed on a common grass, Ottochloa nodosa, that is found in many places here. Regrettably, I did not scout the area for that grass. Having two of them there could mean that they are breeding nearby. I will just have take note the next time! And for a window into the Malay dartlet's fascinating life history: Uncle Horace's wonderful post.

PS: It's been a while since I've posted! Sorry for those two dead months. School's getting busier and I will be taking my exams in a few weeks. Oh well.

Saturday, 21 June 2014


Barbets are some of the most colourful forest birds in South East 
Asia, with splashes of red, green, blue and yellow on their heads.
They are distant relatives of the toucans and like them, their diet 
is largely fruit based. Somewhere along the line of Singapore's 
industrialisation, most of our barbets went extinct and now there 
are only three extant species surviving. I have seen two of them 
recently. This is the first, the Coppersmith Barbet.

The coppersmith barbet is by far the commoner species and it lives
in parks and gardens.It is a small bird, about 16cm in length, with a 
disproportionately chunky bill. The word 'barbet' comes from the barb
like bristles at the base of their beaks. It is a dark turquoise-green 
bird with patches of yellow and red on its face. This one was 
observed bringing food to its nest hole on the underside of a branch.

Every ten minutes or so, one of the parents would fly in and deliver
berries. The chicks were rather old already, for younger chicks are
fed with more insects. The nest is in the centre of the picture below.

It was very thrilling to watch the chick's head pop out from the nest
each time the parent came by to feed it. From afar this bird is 
actually difficult to spot due to its predominantly green plumage and 
its habit of sitting still for long periods of time. It is much more 
often heard than seen, its call being a continuous tunk tunk tunk 
that is supposed to resemble the sound of a coppersmith at work.

The next barbet is our sole forest barbet, the Red Crowned Barbet.
It has an even more pronounced Quattron-colour scheme but is
still well camouflaged in the forest canopy. It is a much larger bird,
usually about 27cm in length, mainly apple green with its head 
adorned with bright blue, red and yellow. It has the same bristles
as the coppersmith barbet. I encountered this one along a forest

I initially thought it was trying to swallow a large unripe berry but
then realised that it was eating an arboreal snail! This barbet has 
been known to take a wide variety of food items. However, it is 
strictly a forest dweller and is restricted to the Central Catchment 
and Bukit Timah nature reserves. Here is a closer view.

This barbet frequents areas with dead trees because they prefer to
nest in soft rotting wood. There are very few nesting records and I 
believe there have only been two in Singapore; one in 1979 and one
in 2006. Like all barbets, they are drawn to fruiting trees, especially  
fruiting figs. I was lucky to see this one just above my eye level; they
are known to be canopy feeders and rarely descend to the middle 
storey of the forest.

The last of Singapore's three barbets, the Lineated barbet, is
not so colourful, being brown and streaky, with green wings and
belly and a patch of bare yellow facial skin. It is a rather new bird
here which spread from Indonesia in the late 1900s. I unfortunately
do not have any pictures of it. So there we have it, the RBGY birds.

Barbets of Singapore Part 2, by Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research
Barbets of Singapore Part 3, by Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research

Two brilliantly comprehensive studies of the coppersmith and red crowned barbets 
respectively, from which I learnt all I now know about barbets.