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Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum




The British have a long tradition of birdwatching and during the colonial period they naturally indulged in such activities. Back then there was the Singapore Branch of the Malayan Nature Society (MNS), with mainly British colonial officers as members (Wee, 2006). There were also the British Army Bird Club and the Royal Air Force Ornithological Society. These three groups joined forces to undertake bird-ringing activities to study the migration patterns of birds that arrived to the region (Wang & Hails, 2007). The Bird Study Group of the MNS continued such ringing activities after independence and in 1997 a team led by Ng Soon Chye went on to study migratory birds arriving at the Serangoon Sludge Treatment Works.

It was only in 1986 that the MNS, now Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS, formed a Bird Group (BG). Clive Briffett had then arrived from Hongkong to take up a teaching post in the National University of Singapore. An accomplished birdwatcher and an energetic and passionate birder, he became the first Chairman of the BG, introducing activities like guided bird walks, an annual bird race and bird surveys, recreational activities targeted at local members (Wee, 2006). He also got members to make observations on bird behaviour in addition to collecting data on bird sightings and nesting information. The Singapore Avifauna was then started to document information gathered by members. Under Clive's leadership, the BG grew from strength to strength.

Six years later Clive graciously stepped down to allow a local birdwatcher, Lim Kim Keang, to take over the leadership of the group. Full of enthusiasm but lacking in international experience, the group ended up in a decade-long period of recreational activities (Wee, 2007). On the plus side, members developed excellent skills in field identification of birds that proved valuable in listing of species from different habitats and in bird surveys. The minus side was that members lost their abilities to study bird behaviour. So the culture of ticking checklists and listing species become second nature to most of the local birdwatchers.

This deficiency became painfully obvious when local birdwatchers failed to recognise anting, a phenomenon where birds use ants for feather maintenance. An avid naturalist, Kelvin KP Lim, noticed anting as far back as April 1988, but it was only 17 years later that the significance finally sank in (Wee, 2008). Similarly, it was not generally known that birds other than raptors and owls cast pellets, that is until photographers exhibited their images of pellet casting (Wang et al., 2009).

The entry of digital photographers in the early 2000s, followed a few years later by the formation of the Bird Ecology Study Group (BESG), then a special interest group of the NSS, brought in a new age of local birdwatching (Tsang et al, 2009; Wee & Tsang, 2008; Wee et al., 2010).

Be as it may, birdwatching is a healthy outdoor activity and there are many enthusiasts all over the world. Singapore is no exception. Although the majority are traditionalists, there are many modern-day birdwatchers that make similar contribution to the local ornithological knowledge, if not more so. The availability of digital cameras has revolutionised not only birdwatching but introduced a new breed of birdwatchers as well.

At the end of the day, whatever genre of birdwatcher you belong to, the information collected, if openly shared, will contribute tremendously to the ornithological knowledge of local birds. After all, we are all citizen scientists in the service of science (Wee & Subaraj, 2009).

Traditional Birdwatchers

Traditional birdwatchers are those who view birds through their binoculars. Their interest in birds is to see more and more species, and in the process pad up their checklists. At a moment's notice they would go off to any locations where a new or rare species appear - see HERE. In any bird trip they are enthusiastic in increasing their species list and are most ecstatic when they encounter a so-called "lifer". Most dismiss the camera as not being useful, preferring their trusted pair of binoculars. They go into the field in groups, treating such outings as social. One or more leaders would point out the birds encountered, shouting out their common names. Generally they have no patience to sit and watch birds, preferring to move on and locate more species. When not bringing groups, a few may indulge in private trips, again more social than serious birding.

Data that are normally gathered include sightings of the less common species, appearance of vagrants, early and late arrivals of migrant species and breeding data such as courtship and nesting. These data are collated and published in their newsletter. Through the years they have no doubt contributed immensely to local ornithology but if only they had continued to focus on bird behaviour, knowledge on nesting behaviour and other behavioural traits would not be as sketchy as it is now, as seen in the two volumes by Wells (1999, 2007) on the birds of the Thai-Malaya Peninsular.

However, all is not lost. The NSS's Bird Group, under the new leadership of Alan Owyong, has been encouraging members to go out and study bird behaviour in an effort to meet the challenges of the 21st Century (Wee et al., 2010). Members are also encouraged to photograph as well as to videograph birds, not for portrait shots but to capture the many and varied aspects of bird behaviour. This is a good move but one bird does not a summer make and it would take time before the tempo of the pre-1990s days return.


These are a handful of new breed independent birdwatchers that are seriously making use of the camera, sometimes even the video cam, to document birds.  They may be traditional birdwatchers once, but broke away from moving in groups to birdwatching alone, or at most with a companion. They make use of the camera to document bird behaviour, sometimes even using a video cam. They are the major contributors to the BESG website and their accounts are usually accompanied by photographic images and even video clips.

These birdwatchers are most effective as citizen scientists, as seen in Amar-Singh HSS and Daisy O'Neill, two active and prolific modern-day birdwatchers from north of the causeway. In Singapore, we have people like K. C. Tsang and Lena Chow among others, who are naturalists with interests in birds. The have some background knowledge of bird but have never been involved closely with traditional birdwatchers. Then there are Kwong Wai Chong and Sun Chong Hong, newbies to birdwatching, who scour the outdoors and make detailed documentation of bird behaviour, freely using the camera and video cam. These are the birdwatchers without the baggage of ticking and listing, whose approach to birdwatching is refreshing. They are the modern-day citizen scientists contributing the most to ornithology (Wee & Subaraj, 2009).

Bird Photographers

Bird photographers came onto the birdwatching scene in early 2000s. These are the photographers interested in birds, as these are the most easily encountered wildlife in Singapore (Chan et al., 2007; Tang et al., 2009). Initially, there was a group of photographers interested in resurrecting the then defunct Photo Group. Unfortunately the NSS failed to welcome them and so was formed the Nature Photographic Society (Singapore). Members of this society together with independent nature photographers subsequently proved their expertise in seeking out birds and documenting their behaviour. Now, traditional birdwatchers are courting them for their excellent images for use in newsletters and in publications.

The Future

Our knowledge of bird behaviour since 2005 has increased exponentially, thanks to independent birdwatchers, bird photographers and naturalists in general. This has in turn enriched the quality of birdwatching in Singapore. To quote Wee et el. (2012): "If the late 1980s is seen as the golden years of birdwatching, the 2000s may well prove to be the dawn of a new era if all interested groups can come together and work for the good of ornithology."


Chan, Y.M., K. C. Tsang & Y. C. Wee, 2007. Bird watch: A field guide to the passion for birdwatching in Southeast Asia. AsianGeographic 46(7):62-72.

Tsang, K. C., R. Subaraj & Y. C. Wee 2009. The role of the camera in birdwatching in Singapore. Nature in Singapore 2: 183-191.

Wang, L. K., M. Chan, Y. M. Chan, G. C. Tan & Y. C. Wee 2009. Pellet casting by non-raptorial birds of Singapore. Nature in Singapore 2: 97-106.

Wang, L.K. & C. J. Hails, 2007. An annotated checklist of birds of Singapore. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, Supplement 15: 1-179.

Wee, Y. C. 2006. Forty years of birding and ornithological research in Singapore. Birding Asia 5:12-15.

Wee, Y. C. 2008. Anting in Singapore birds. Nature in Singapore 1:23-25.

Wee, Y. C. 2009. From watching birdwatchers to watching birds. http://lampinfoo.com/2009/07/16/from-watching-birdwatchers-to-watching-birds/ (Accessed 8 Dec.2012).

Wee, Y. C. & R. Subaraj 2009. Citizen science and the gathering of ornithological data in Singapore. Nature in Singapore 2: 27-30.

Wee, Y. C., R. Subaraj & R. Hale, 2012. The BESG and its impact on birdwatching in Singapore. http://www.besgroup.org/2012/06/22/the-besg-and-its-impact-on-birdwatching-in-singapore/ (Accessed 24 Jun.2012).

Wee, Y. C. & K. C. Tsang 2008. The changing face of birding in Singapore. Nature in Singapore 1: 97-102.

Wee, Y. C., K. C. Tsang & R. Subaraj 2010. Birding in Singapore and the challenges of the 21st century. Nature in Singapore 3: 53-58.

Wells, D.R. 1999. The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsular. Vol. I, Non-passerines. Academic Press, London. 648 pp.

Wells, D.R. 2007. The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsular. Vol. II, Passerines. Christopher Helm, London. 800 pp.

Wikipedia, 2012. Nature Society (Singapore). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_Society_Singapore#cite_note-38. Accessed 01Mar. 2012.

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