Herping Ubin

Today was the HSS’ first Herp Walk held on Pulau Ubin! Previously, night walks had been held in collaboration with the Vertebrate Study Group (VSG) branch of the Nature Society as part of Pesta Ubin 2016, and HSS members also helped survey for herptiles during BioBlitz Ubin in December last year. Given the rich herpetofauna that we observed during those events, it was a no-brainer to have our first Herp Walk of 2017 at everyone’s favourite kampong getaway. However, we were also heartbroken to learn that the recent oil spill had now affected the mangroves of Ubin; more about this towards the end of the post.

As we started off on the walk, we were greeted by two of Ubin’s iconic Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) just next to the jetty! These charismatic birds were once extinct from Singapore, before making a return through natural dispersal from Johor; Ubin was their first foothold. It was good to see them still doing well.

IMG_9133.JPG
Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris)

Our first herp of the day proved to be a male Sumatran Flying Dragon (Draco sumatranus)! This amazing gliding lizard was high up a coconut tree, flashing its yellow dewlap to ward off rival males. As we scanned the trunks of the neighbouring trees, we spotted a Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) and two more Flying Dragons, basking in the bright sunshine. The Green Crested Lizard, like its introduced competitor the Changeable Lizard, is able to change colour; depending on its mood or need for camouflage, it can switch between black and green.

IMG_9136.JPG
Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella
IMG_9138.JPG
Sumatran Flying Dragon (Draco sumatranus)

It wasn’t long before one of our participants spotted the first snake of the day: an adult Oriental Whip Snake (Ahaetulla prasina), probably the most commonly sighted snake in Singapore. A minute later, a juvenile Oriental Whip was discovered in a bush just next to the adult! Instead of being neon green, young Oriental Whips are a dull brown, perhaps so that their very slender bodies can better resemble small twigs.

IMG_9171.JPG
Adult Oriental Whip Snake (Ahaetulla prasina)
IMG_9169.JPG
Juvenile Oriental Whip Snake (Ahaetulla prasina)

As we moved on to the mangroves, the fiddler crabs (Uca sp.) were out in force, with dozens of males flashing their bright orange claws to defend their territories and attract females. Mangroves are important habitat for lots of animals including reptiles, such as monitor lizards, snakes, and crocodiles. The Restore Ubin Mangroves project, which aims to promote natural regrowth of the mangrove forests by making the hydrography more favourable for new seedlings to grow, will thus hopefully also create more habitat for these herps to flourish!

IMG_9181.JPG
Male Fiddler Crabs (Uca sp.)

Many birds made an appearance throughout the walk, including these two bright balls of energy: an Orange-bellied Flowerpecker (Dicaeum trigonostigma), and a Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja)! The former was feeding on the berries of the Singapore Rhododendron (Melastoma malabathricum), also known as Sendudok, while the latter flitted about looking for flowers to suck nectar from. These birds are important to forest ecosystems as they disperse the seeds of plants and help pollinate their flowers.

IMG_9204.JPG
Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja)
IMG_9194.JPG
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker (Dicaeum trigonostigma)

We ended off the walk with a sighting of the introduced Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor), and another Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella). Both these species have similar niches, though the more aggressive Changeable Lizard seems to have pushed the Green Crested out of parkland and urban areas. Ubin however seems to be one of the few places where both can be easily spotted, possibly due to the unique mix of secondary forest and kampong habitat found throughout the island.

FotorCreated.jpg
Bitter rivals: Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor) and Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)
15896126_1366642823355457_760521922093290658_o.jpg
Guides and participants from today’s walk

After the walk ended, most of the guides headed over to Chek Jawa to take a look at the impact of the oil spill. Many of the mangrove roots were covered in sticky black oil, though most of the mudflat seemed clean. There were many workers deployed to clean up the oil that had evaded the absorbent booms just offshore, as well as some volunteers, all wearing protective body suits, boots and gloves. We also received word from our friends at NUS Toddycats that were helping with the cleanup, that a nationally Critically Endangered Keel-bellied Whip Snake (Dryophiops rubescens) had been found coated with oil. Gently retrieving the snake, we rushed it back to the NParks office on Ubin where it was slowly cleaned by staff and left to recover before release. Note: snakes should not be handled except by trained experts, and only where it is necessary and does not harm the snake’s welfare. Do not try this at home!

WhatsApp Image 2017-01-07 at 19.30.02.jpeg
Keel-bellied Whip Snake (Dryophiops rubescens). The grimy appearance of its scales is due to oil from the spill
WhatsApp Image 2017-01-07 at 21.58.26 (1).jpeg
The snake being cleaned by NParks staff and HSS volunteer Noel Thomas
whatsapp-image-2017-01-07-at-21-58-27-1
Oil cleaned from the snake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the example of the Keel-Bellied Whip Snake demonstrates, oil spills can affect a very wide variety of wildlife; even an arboreal snake like this one may accidentally stumble into oil that has been washed up onto mangrove trees. If we are to protect our biodiversity and herptiles from such threats, we need to be well-prepared to ensure that the oil never reaches the shore, or even better, doesn’t spill into the sea in the first place.  Given the large role that oil has in our economy, this will almost certainly not be the last such disaster. Hopefully going forward, this tragic incident will teach us the lessons needed to better handle future incidents and minimise the impact on our precious wildlife.

Of Vipers and Vivipary

Having had to cut short the previous walk in August due to rain, we were delighted to have clear weather for our latest walk in September, once again at the MacRitchie Treetop Walk! We also welcomed two members of the Little Green Men, Sarah and Frances, to join us on our walk; if you’re interested in making a difference for the environment however you can, try contacting them!

img_3525Even before all our participants had arrived, our dedicated spotter Wei Yang found the first herp of the day: a beautiful Oriental Whip Snake (Ahaetulla prasina)! One of the most commonly sighted snakes in Singapore, it ranges widely into parks and gardens to feed on small lizards like geckoes and skinks. With their brilliant green colour and sinuous bodies, they can be easily mistaken for vines or climbing plant tendrils. Mildly venomous, this snake is harmless to humans though it can bite when provoked. As Sankar explained, they are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young! The word “viper” in fact is derived from “vivipary”, as vipers are amongst the snakes that have this trait.

©Herpetological Society of Singapore
Say cheese!

img_3536

As we trekked deeper into the forest,  several Many-lined Sun Skinks were seen basking in patches of sunlight that managed to penetrate to the understory. We also found many weird and wonderful arthropods, such as the caterpillar above! The fact that it was bristling with spines that may also contain venom would have been difficult to swallow for many a bird. img_3541

We were fortunate to have Sean Yap, a member of the Entomological Network of Singapore (ENSING) as well as HSS, to help us identify these strange critters found swarming about on a wooden railing. Apparently these are barklice (Order Psocoptera); harmless insects that feed on algae, fungi, and dead plant tissue that grow on trees, they help keep them clean of detritus!

img_3543We also stumbled across this cool-looking Flat-backed Millipede (Platyrhacus lineatus) with plates whose edges jutted out from the main body. This makes it difficult for predators to attack its more vulnerable underbelly.

pill-cockroachHerps aren’t the only animals that struggle with an image issue. Cockroaches are often hated for being pests that feed on our trash and spread disease. But our native cockroaches play an important role in the forest by feeding on dead organic matter and speeding up the recycling of nutrients! And some of them can be pretty adorable too, like the Pill Cockroach (Perisphaerus sp.) shown above! Who knew that cute cockroaches were a thing!

img_3552Having already trained their eyes with those small little invertebrates, one sharp-eyed participant spotted this Red-crowned Barbet (Psilopogon rafflesii) on a dead tree trunk! Restricted only to our mature forests, it may have been digging for insects or perhaps building a nest.

img_3561img_3573

At last, more herps! The Black-bearded Flying Dragon (Draco melanopogon) on the left was showing off its patagium, the flap of skin that allows it to glide between trees! If you look closely, you can see the rib bones that the lizard swings outwards to open up its wingsuit! This individual may have been displaying to another flying dragon to warn it to keep to away from its territory.

The lizard on the right is the elusive Yellow Striped Tree Skink (Lipinia vittigera), courtesy of our veteran elf-eyed spotter, Ing Sind. Small and nimble, it usually hides amongst the roots of epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants, usually trees, such as orchids) or in tree crevices, emerging to feed on small insects. Like many lizards, it is able to drop off its tail when threatened, and this one was in the midst of regenerating it. The tails of lizards often contain important stores of fat and contribute to maintaining its balance, so losing it, while not life-threatening, can be a major blow; so leave lizards alone, lest they inadvertently lose their head and lose their tail!

img_3577

While on the Treetop Walk itself, we spotted another species of gliding lizard, the Sumatran Flying Dragon (Draco sumatranus)! This one, probably a male, was flashing its yellow dewlap to warn off other males and perhaps show off to nearby females.

img_3587
Viper Number 1

We were lucky to meet not one, put two vipers on this walk! Both were male or possibly juvenile Wagler’s Pit Vipers (Tropidolaemus wagleri), coiled around young tree seedlings along the trail. These are ambush predators, lying in wait for prey such as small mammals and birds to wander past before striking with lightning fast speed and their forward-swinging fangs. With heat-sensitive pits on their snouts and blood-destroying haemotoxin, these are formidable foes to their enemies, and should always be treated with caution. As the vipers were located extremely close to the trail, well within striking distance of unwary hikers, we gently lifted them deeper into the undergrowth with a long stick; this was for their own safety as well as the safety of others.

©Herpetological Society of Singapore
Viper Number 2

img_3113On the way back to the Ranger Station, we came across this blooming Tiger Orchid (Gramatophyllum speciosum)! The largest orchid in the world, it went extinct in the wild in Singapore over a century ago before being reintroduced by NParks in various parts of the island. Each individual plant only blooms every few years, with a massive stalk of up to 80 sweet-smelling flowers. We were fortunate to have come across this specimen while it was flowering.

©Herpetological Society of SingaporeNo Herp Walk is complete without a sighting of at least one monitor lizard, and true enough we found this large Clouded Monitor (Varanus nebulosus) basking in the sun! Unlike their bigger cousins the Malayan Water Monitors, Clouded Monitors are restricted to forests and feed mainly on insects and other arthropods they find by digging amongst leaf litter. The widespread presence of these lizards are a testament to how herps can coexist and thrive peacefully in our city. In fact, just the night before our walk, one of its cousins gained international fame by sprinting across the F1 race track during the qualifying rounds! And although that Water Monitor avoided being turned into a pancake, roadkills of these magnificent creatures are sadly all too common. If you’re a driver, slow down, especially near vegetated areas; it saves lives, both human and herp alike!

14393223_10154380981453564_1576050936_o

As we always like to say, don’t Beware of Snakes (and herps); be Aware of them! Spread what you’ve learned to your family and friends too, so that we can continue sharing this little green dot with our herpy friends for generations to come!

Herp Walk: March for Macritchie

Our latest walk was held as part of March for Macritchie, a series of events organised by various groups in the nature community to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the Cross Island Line (CRL), and the wonderful wildlife that can be found in our Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR). The CRL is a new MRT line that may be built under the CCNR forests, and as the soil investigation works for the project are expected to have a moderate level of impact on the ecosystem even with mitigating measures, we felt it was important that people knew about what was going on.

We started off the walk with a sighting of the Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella), which nowadays is restricted only to our forest habitats. Once widespread even in urban parkland, it has now been displaced by the introduced Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor).

1557680_10153981897128119_7442978813285277721_n.jpg

 

Our next herp was a male Black-bearded Flying Dragon (Draco melanopogon), which was flashing its brightly coloured dewlap! This is a form of territorial display to warn off other males, as well as attract females. With the aid of folds of skin on their body called a patagium, these amazing lizards are able to flatten their ribcages to glide from tree to tree! A number of them were scattered on the tree trunks throughout our route.

 

10420006_10153981897208119_7908729214879820911_n.jpg

Just a few minutes later, we came across a Many-lined Sun Skink (Eutropis multifasciata) splayed out on some dead wood. These beautiful lizards love to bask themselves in patches of sunlight that reach the forest floor, hence their name. We would see a couple more of them before the day was done.

Stopping to take a break, our participants were treated to a storytelling session by Uncle Tony about the history of our rainforests! As the lead author of the Nature Society’s position paper on the CRL that proposed a skirting alignment that avoids passing through the CCNR, he had a wealth of knowledge to share about the value of the forests that would be affected.

12874602_10153982002708119_869340678_o.jpgWe were not the only visitors to the forest that morning, and a huge group of people (about 200) were also on a walk together to enjoy nature. Unfortunately, their large numbers meant that they were rather disruptive to the wildlife of the reserve, as the organisers often had to raise their voices to make themselves heard; the narrow trails, already full of people out for the weekend, were also badly overcrowded. NParks permission is required to bring in such large groups, with a maximum of 100 people within the same day. As our nature reserves already suffer from many other pressures inflicted by human activity, it is important that we follow these guidelines so as to safeguard the forests from suffering unnecessary damage. Hopefully, organisers of such events will be considerate so that everyone can enjoy our reserves.

As the large group was heading for the Treetop Walk, and we found it increasingly difficult to spot wildlife because of the sheer volume of people that were in it, we had to detour to an alternative route instead.

This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as we stumbled across a globally endangered adult Spiny Hill Terrapin (Heosemys spinosa)! The young of these beautiful terrestrial turtles have a heavily serrated carapace for added protection, but in adults these are greatly reduced. Found only in the lowland rainforests of Southeast Asia, they are sadly threatened by the illegal pet trade, making this find all the more special. The terrapin in question largely ignored us, ambling its way amongst our legs as it crossed the trail to move deeper into the forest.10392122_10153981897318119_2382677582909889725_n.jpg

1936457_10153981897348119_525959292808754456_n.jpgWe were also fortunate to spot a Red-crowned Barbet (Psilopogon rafflesii)! Feeding on various fruits, including some figs, this stunningly colourful bird almost seemed to be showing off for our participants’ cameras! Restricted to our mature secondary and primary forests, it is a prime example of the kind of wildlife that will be affected by the CRL project.

10609643_10153981897593119_8324369127986968670_n.jpg10553642_10153981897033119_7237823219565602217_o.jpgOne of the most fragile habitats in the CCNR are our freshwater forest streams, pristine rivulets of water that are host to an array of fishes found nowhere else in Singapore. We were able to spot some of these such as the Saddle Barb (Systomus banksi, left) and Spanner Barb (Systomus lateristriga, right), and their predator, a Snakehead (Channa sp.).

1474586_10153981897598119_8330704355394151678_n.jpgAs we arrived back at the Ranger Station for a break, a Yellow Striped Tree Skink (Lipinia vittigera) was there to greet us, scurrying about on the trunk and branches of a tree. A shy creature and one of the tiniest of our skinks, it is found only in mature forests and rarely seen.

1910617_10153981897633119_4448240626056082870_n.jpgTired but exhilarated, we headed back for the exit. But the herping didn’t stop there! We met an adorable baby Clouded Monitor Lizard (Varanus nebulosus, above right) busy digging through the soil and leaf litter for food! Although we had met several of its larger cousins throughout the walk, this one won everyone’s hearts. As it rummaged about with its oversized claws while flicking its forked blue tongue, someone quipped that he could sit there watching it all day long.
12779270_10153981897118119_6391926316970540943_o.jpgOur final herp of the day, sadly, was a dead Kopstein’s Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis kopsteini, left). A beautiful snake with an orange-red neck that it flares as a threat display, we suspect that it may have been killed by a human before being dumped along the roadside vegetation. Often misunderstood creatures, many snakes are persecuted and killed despite posing little threat to people. If you ever do come across one, leave it be and you’ll get along with one another just fine. If you encounter one in your house, you can always contact ACRES so that it can be relocated to somewhere safe.

All in all, it was a wonderful walk despite the large crowds, and we hope that it inspired our participants to find out more not just about herps, but the habitat they live in and how they can do their part to protect it for future generations to enjoy!

12182944_1128267113859697_1141085194361265466_o.jpg

Duelling Dragons and other Herps at Treetop Walk

The HSS held its second guided walk at the MacRitchie Treetop Walk, this time with Serin as our lead guide! We started off at the Venus Drive carpark entrance before making our way into the forest and embarking on an enjoyable 7km hike. And even before we entered the forest proper, we met our first herp of the day: a Common Gliding Lizard (Draco sumatranus) perched on a tree trunk! It proved to be a good omen, as we would see many more of these throughout the rest of the walk.

Our next herp was found along the Venus Drive stream, basking atop the root ball of an uprooted tree; a large Malayan Water Monitor (Varanus salvator). These big reptiles may look intimidating, but are harmless to humans and never attack unless provoked. In order to get a better angle to warm itself in the sunlight, it was hugging a small palm tree tightly.

Just a little upstream was the remnants of a large strangling fig that had been chopped down for safety reasons; and hiding in the crevices of the old trunk was a juvenile Many-lined Sun Skink! We also got a good look at the various native freshwater fish found in the stream such as the Pygmy Halfbeaks (Dermogenys collettei) and Common Snakehead (Channa striata).

As we continued up the trail, various weird and wonderful fungi caught our attention too. It was while examining a fungus growing on a tree trunk that one of our participants spotted our snake of the day, barely a couple of metres before his eyes: a White-bellied Rat Snake (Ptyas fusca)! This snake can grow up to 4 metres long, and feeds on rodents, frogs, lizards and other small animals.

Besides reptiles, there was plenty of other wildlife out and about. Several troops of macaques crossed
out paths as we headed towards the Treetop Walk, and we even spotted a trio of Lesser Dog-faced Fruit Bats (Cynopterus brachyotis) roosting on a tree! Birds such as the migratory Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpisiphone paradisi), Chestnut-bellied Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus sumatranus) and White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus lecuogaster) were all spotted along the walk too.

Finally, after a long hike, we arrived at the Treetop Walk, where participants were treated to beautiful views of the forest canopy and the nearby reservoir. But they were also in for a special show, as two male Common Gliding Lizards (Draco sumatranus) vied for control of a tree trunk just next to the suspension bridge! Flashing their bright yellow dewlaps and chasing each other round the branches, they made for an arresting sight. Draco is Latin for dragon, and the aptly named Dragons were soon taking to the air, gliding between branches as they sought to assert their dominance without actually coming to blows.  They even performed boomerang manouevres that allowed them to quickly leap to spots lower down on the trunk!

The fun didn’t end at the Treetop Walk though; we continued to spot many herps along the way back! One of them was the Clouded Monitor (Varanus nebulosus), which unlike its bigger relative is largely restricted to forested areas. As the sun continued to rise, many of them were out and about, and we spotted several before the day was done.

Saving the best for last, we were very fortunate to spot the Yellow Striped Tree Skink (Lipinia vittigera) back at the Ranger Station! This tiny lizard is rarely seen in Singapore, making it a very special find indeed! It soon captivated everyone’s attention, and the sort of paparazzi normally reserved for rare birds soon surrounded the tree that it was perched on. It was very heartening to see a tiny herptile get so much attention, and after a brief phototaking session, we left it to its own devices in peace.

Animals such as the Yellow Striped Tree Skink are part of what makes the Central Catchment Forest worth preserving for future generations. Before we finished our walk, we educated participants about the proposed Cross Island Line, which could pass through the very rainforest that they had just walked through. We encouraged them to bring their friends to visit the forest and spread awareness of the consequences of building an MRT line through our nature reserves. Hopefully, we can protect the flora and fauna for future generations to enjoy.

We hope everyone enjoyed themselves, and despite what this signboard says, learned that snakes and other herptiles are not be feared, but to be loved!

Check out more photos from some of our participants!
[1] – Hock Chuan Ang shares some of his photos from the Herp Walk here