Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Pulau Ubin, Singapore, Feb 2014

In 1992, plans were put forward to develop Pulau Ubin, an island off the east shore of Singapore. As planning for the land reclamation scheme advanced, it became clear that a small strip of coastline held an astonishing biodiversity, unique in the region. The site, known as Chek Jawa, at the southeastern extremity of the island combines rocky coast with sand bars, coral rubble, a sea grass field, coastal forest and mangroves. Public pressure to preserve such a singular environment succeeded in having the development plans shelved and Chek Jawa currently enjoys protection and management by the National Parks authority. But the expansion plans are only deferred as long as the needs of a growing population can be satisfied elsewhere. For now, the island remains relatively untouched by the 20th century let alone the 21st, and the roaring metropolis just across the water dimmed to a distant thrumming..



There are few facilities on Pulau (Singaporean word for island) Ubin (Singaporean word for ubin) and those that do exist are mostly to be found in the small village where the bumboat pulls up to the jetty (at Google Earth ref; 1 24 6.03N 103 58 13.32E). Bicycles can be hired and there are a couple of restaurants and tea houses. Beyond here, facilities are sparse.



I made the mistake of thinking that Chek Jawa would be a good spot to go looking for wading birds and timed my visit to coincide with high water, hoping to find roosting birds sitting out the tide, resting before the feeding could start again. I found however that Chek Jawa prefers to reveal its noted treasures to those who visit when the tide has gone out: The further the better. As it happens, I was there on the perfect day as a spring tide would bring one of the lowest water marks of the season at 40 cms. Sadly, I had timed it badly as low tide was 10 hours hence. If I had known of Chek Jawa’s features, I could have timed my visit to see the sea grass, sand bar and coral rubble revealed along with the unique wildlife that accompanies them.



The boat pulled up at the jetty and my bird list started immediately with Pacific Swallows that chased insects across the water, a Brahminy Kite glided in across the bay and a Peregrine Falcon perched on top of a tall aerial. The Peregrine caused problems once I returned home as it did not appear on either my software list for birds of Singapore, nor on eBird’s list for the country. So I enclose the picture with apologies for not being any good at digiscoping.



A Crested Goshawk darted across the road at the edge of the village and Black-naped Orioles called from behind the temple. Just as I set off along the road towards Chek Jawa, a raucous calling drew my attention to a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills, high in a fruiting tree.



The walk to Chek Jawa is 3.5 kms mostly on tarmac road through secondary forest. Shortly after leaving the village, there was a small complex of ponds. Lotus flower, water lilies and palm trees made for a very fetching scene, but it was strangely devoid of birds. The forest was busy however and bird calls accompanied me all the way. White-rumped Shamas sang sweetly and an unidentified woodpecker drummed. Three species of Bulbuls included a life Straw-headed Bulbul. Not to be outdone, the sunbird family showed five species. Pink-necked Green Pigeons were commonly seen and their bubbling call was heard all day.



Some birds that I had not seen for a long time were re-found, notably, Forest Wagtail and Red Junglefowl. There was a small shelter with a “you are here” map just beyond each intersection, so it was easy to be confident that I was going the right way and I was able to time my arrival at 10.00 exactly. High tide to the minute, so all the waders would surely be roosting close by.


A quick visit to an explanatory exhibit in the charming cottage that does duty as a visitor advice centre, showed that I had not fully understood the purpose of the coastal boardwalk. When I saw it on Google Earth (ref; 1 24 29.27N 103 59 33.21E), I saw a boardwalk that extended out from the shore and looped around the headland leaving a few meters of water between the land and the raised walkway. The potential to get beyond the birds and see them as they fed towards me instead of watching their rear ends from the shore as they followed the receding tide was an enticing thought, but was not to be. It turned out that waders have plenty of sungei and mangrove mud to feed on and prawn ponds and banks to roost on elsewhere on the island and I had a very poor showing. A Common Sandpiper and a few Black-bellied Plovers were seen on a rocky out crop halfway back to the mainland and a single Greater Crested Tern perched on a nearby boulder.



When the site was given its stay of development, the Singaporean public took the opportunity to visit and wonder at the habitat diversity of Chek Jawa. Sadly this led to a degradation of the site as the adoring public came in their droves. The authorities built the boardwalk to allow people to enjoy the spectacle of low tide at Chek Jawa without trampling all over it. They also built a walkway through the neighbouring mangroves and included a high tower from which to look out across the forest.



From the tower I could get a good look at the swiftlets that I had been trying to ignore all morning. There are a number of very similar species in the region and I had not been able to summon the drive to try to separate them during the morning. From the tower, it was possible to see them well as they chased around at head height and even below me. It was the combination of narrow, pale rump and notched tail that made me plump for Germain’s Swiftlet as the best fit.



Back on the boardwalk, I was happy to have a couple of feet headstart on a mother Wild Pig as she tended to her litter of 8 wriglets. Three sounders of pig were seen today as well as a Plantain Squirrel. The forest was much quieter on the return journey as I passed back through the heat of the day. It would have been a very short list if all I had to show for my efforts had been seen on the walk back. Highlights though included the White-rumped Shamas still singing and an Emerald Dove.



I only saw a small portion of Pulau Ubin today. There are roads and cycle tracks that extend across the island and include prawn ponds and tidal creeks which would be far more productive for waders I am sure. There is more to explore and I hope to return again soon before the route is transferred to our new colleagues and before the demands of the growing population outgrow the importance of preservation.
An odd thing happened as I waited for the return boat. A Grey Heron flew low over the straits separating the island and the mainland. Splashes could clearly be seen just ahead of it and it appeared to be chasing a shoal of fish. Occasionally the heron lunged forward in its flight, presumably trying to catch a fish. When it lost track of the shoal, it circled round again until it located a new one and began the chase again. I had not witnessed such proactive hunting in a Grey Heron before.


Bird list for Pulau Ubin;

Red Junglefowl 4, Grey Heron 4, Brahminy Kite 3, White-bellied Sea-Eagle 1, Crested Goshawk 1, Changeable Hawk-eagle 1, Peregrine Falcon 1, Black-bellied Plover 17, Common Sandpiper 2, Great Crested Tern 1, Spotted Dove 12, Emerald Dove 1, Pink-necked Pigeon 40, Asian Koel 1, German’s Swiftlet 60, Black-capped Kingfisher 1, Collared Kingfisher 1, Blue-throated Bee-eater 2, Oriental Pied Hornbill 4, Black-naped Oriole 1, House Crow 2, Large-billed Crow 2, Pacific Swallow 3, Straw-headed Bulbul 5, Yellow-vented Bulbul 20, Olive-winged Bulbul 2, Ashy Tailorbird 2, Oriental Magpie-robin 12, White-rumped Shama 3, Asian Glossy Starling 30, Javan Myna 50, Plain-throated Sunbird 2, Van Hasselt’s Sunbird 2, Copper-throated Sunbird 1, Olive-backed Sunbird 4, Eastern Crimson Sunbird 4, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker 1, Forest Wagtail 1, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 1.


Bumboats leave from Changi Pier (Google Earth ref; 1 23 27.37N 103 59 15.32E) on the mainland, starting at 05.30 if the demand is there. They do not have a scheduled service, but run when a full load of 12 punters are ready to go. This is obviously more frequent and likely to start earlier at weekend, but on a Friday morning at 07.00, I waited for 20 minutes to make up a 12. The crossing takes 10 minutes and costs S$2.50. The return boat operates on the same basis. If you are impatient to be going, or fear that you may get stuck on the island, a boat can easily be chartered by paying 12 times the fare, ie S$30 (@£1 = S$2.1) or by paying the balance for any empty seats.
To reach Changi Pier take the MRT to Paser Ris at the end of the Green, East West line and take a taxi the rest of the way. It cost S$10 this morning and took 5 minutes. A taxi all the way from the city would be substantially more.


The island is not policed with the same fervour for public decorum for which the mainland is famed. Smoking is easily tolerated as is gum chewing and spitting. Feel free to indulge yourselves. Littering however is still frowned upon. 

Visit the dedicated Oriental Page for more posts from Singapore, including; Singapore Botanic GardensSungei Buloh and Paser Ris

Birding, Birdwatching Singapore.