Monday, January 27, 2014

Singapore's Rare and Valuable Visitor

Historically, the range of the world's rarest of rare herons - White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) - is believed to spread from Nepal and Bhutan in the north to India in the center, into Myanmar in the south. There has been no report of sightings of this bird outside and beyond these four countries. Its global population is said to be anywhere from 50 to 250, of which Bhutan has a recorded population of 28 individuals, found in two locations - Punasangchu areas (both Phu-Chu and Mo-Chu) in the west and Berti, Zhemgang in south-central part of the country. In Nepal, it is said to have gone extinct - as of few years back.

It has so far been believed that the birds do not migrate. One other behavioral characteristic attributed to the bird is that they are very shy and therefore, solitary feeders - generally avoiding human habitat.

If that were true, what is the bird doing in a concrete metropolis such as Singapore? Incredible? But it is true - the lone tourist was sighted by the shores of Singapore on 23rd January, 2014 at 11.00AM by Ms Shirley Koh - a 63-years old photo enthusiast.

Ms Shirley had accompanied her writer husband who wanted to swim at the Tanjong Beach Walk - a man-made lagoon in Sentosa island (Blue Lagoon revisited?). While her husband splashed in the warm water, she was scanning the banks of the lagoon to kill time while waiting for her husband to finish his swim.

That is when she noticed a large bird perched on a boulder that somehow looked familiar. Shirley is neither a bird watcher nor a bird photographer but she had seen the photo of the bird - in the process of doing a calendar project for a local law firm - a calendar comprising of thirteen of my bird photographs. Of the thirteen photographs, one of them was that of the rare White-bellied Heron.

She began to photograph the bird with her point-and-shoot camera: SONY Cyber-shot DCS HX10V. The clarity of the images are such that I am sure she managed to get extremely close to the bird - as close as about 20 ft. - otherwise such a miniscule camera could not have gotten such amazing quality images. All the following incredibly detailed images were photographed by Shirley - with her point-and-shoot SONY Cyber-shot. She sent me the images for validation; if she hadn't, I would have laughed the whole thing away as a joke.

For comparison, here is a photo of the bird photographed by me in Rurichu (Wangduephodrang) - some eight years back. There is no mistaking the bird - it is indeed a White-bellied Heron - beyond a shred of doubt.

Here is a photo of the camera that captured the rare bird with such clarity and detail - it is almost unbelievable. This camera must be something!

I do not believe that the bird is a resident of Singapore - no sightings have ever been reported here before. Singapore simply does not have the habitat to support such a large and shy bird. This could only mean that it is a visitor from some place in the proximity of the island state. Which one? The closest place where this bird is reported is Myanmar - few thousand KMs away to the north. Thus, it is near impossible that this bird originated there. In any event, the heron is not known to migrate. So then, how can the existence of this bird by the shores of Singapore be explained?

Tanjong Beach Walk where the bird was sighted is by no means a secluded spot - the place is buzzing with activity - there are buses and trams carousing around; there are joggers, swimmers and even sunbathers kicking up a racket. Gigantic ships and tankers box the place in - hooting loudly from time to time.

Here are some photos of the location where the heron was photographed:

So what is a shy and solitary bird doing in the middle of all this cacophony? Is the bird deaf, is it blind, or both? If it is neither deaf nor blind, how come it allowed Shirley to come so close? It took me five years to get a decent photograph of the bird - with a 500mm bazooka of a lens. I have never been able to get close to it - no where close to even 500 Mtrs. Every time I approach it, it would fly away. And this bird allows Shirley to photograph it with an idiot camera? This is incredible! If it is no longer shy of human intrusion, how did it become so?

In my view there is only one answer - it is quite probable that the bird is a resident of Malaysia. Since these birds are known to fly close to hundred KMs in search of food - Singapore is within that range from Malaysia. Strangely, how come few thousand birders in the region did not sight the bird before - until Shirley sighted it while patiently waiting for her husband to finish his swim?

Notwithstanding all the questions that remain unanswered, this is an important discovery for the nearly extinct birds. It could be that there are lot more of these birds than earlier believed. This important discovery could alter the bird's demography - and certainly it extends its range to beyond what is traditionally believed. May be even the belief that they do not migrate could be a myth. More importantly, this is good news for the birders in the region - they can finally begin to hope to see and observe one of the most critically endangered birds in existence.

I am going to get in touch with some birders in Singapore and see if a concerted effort can be made to determine the residential address of these birds. May be some ornithological societies in the region can get involved - to gain better understanding of this rare bird.

STRANGE COINCIDENCE: At exactly the same time Shirley was photographing this extremely rare bird, I happened to call her on her mobile. It is almost eerie that even as the rare bird is being discovered in Singapore for the first time, I, one of its most vocal campaigners in Bhutan, happen to call the discoverer at that precise moment. Is there something Karmic about this? Even Shirley thinks this is very strange!


  1. Karmic indeed...the bird must have followed its photographer to Singapore...out of curiosity??

  2. Amazing Everything. I can see a Karmic connection. Perhaps the bird needs your help...
    Please update on this story.
    Shirley is very luck, "Kewa Chen" The destined one.

  3. Hi Dorji, the heron in the photograph is not a White-bellied Heron. It is a Great-billed Heron, Ardea sumatrana. It is an uncommon resident heron usually found along rocky shoreline in our outlying islands in Singapore. So there should be no cause for concern on White-bellied Heron being found in a place so out from their range. If it can be found here, I would not have spent money going over to Bhutan some years ago to see it. Thanks for highlighting it nevertheless.

  4. Hi Passu & Alfred,

    Thanks for the comments .... I will post a rejoinder sometime later