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.

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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.

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Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella
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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.

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Adult Oriental Whip Snake (Ahaetulla prasina)
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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!

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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.

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Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja)
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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.

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Bitter rivals: Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor) and Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)
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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!

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Keel-bellied Whip Snake (Dryophiops rubescens). The grimy appearance of its scales is due to oil from the spill
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The snake being cleaned by NParks staff and HSS volunteer Noel Thomas
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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.

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Sea Herp: An injured Marbled Sea Snake @ Chek Jawa

Sean, Sumita and I were at Chek Jawa, Pulau Ubin that morning, leading a guided nature walk as Naked Hermit Crabs. We were on the boardwalk around the coastal forest when some people ahead drew Sean’s attention. They were looking into the water rather animatedly, and he knew there was something interesting to be seen — and there it was! Looking down into the water, he saw a Marbled Sea Snake (Aipysurus eydouxii) moving rather unusually amongst the seagrass. This snake feeds exclusively on fish eggs and has been observed to play dead when threatened. On this occasion, the snake was acting unusual, even without any threat in its surrounding. We could see that there were some injuries on its body from where we were on the boardwalk.

Photo by Ian Siah
Photo by Ian Siah

At that point, Sean was dressed in water booties, having just come from an ICCS recce. Being properly attired, he was able to get down from the boardwalk and retrieve the snake, improvising using a plastic bag and a wooden stick. This wooden stick was essential, as sea snakes are known to be venomous and should never be handled with bare hands when still alive. He carefully placed it into the bag and immediately called down Serin who raced to down Chek Jawa to assess the snake’s condition. Eventually, he lumbered down to the visitor centre, covered in sweat. On closer inspection, the snake had two large wounds on its side that had affected its vital organs. They had possibly inflicted by an eagle.

Of course, the participants of the guided walk were all curious to what was going on. The air was abuzz with many questions; why was he collecting the snake, whether it was safe and what was going to happen to it. We carefully explained that it had been badly injured, and would not have been able to survive. By salvaging the body, not only could the cause of death be determined, but the body could be preserved and used for research or education. We also explained that Sean was equipped with the appropriate footwear and the necessary field experience to do what he did. Soon after, the snake took its last breath as we transported the carcass back to the NParks office in the van.

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Photo by Becky Lee

The carcass was measured at 0.61m. We placed it into the freezer in the NParks office so that the carcass would not decompose further. This snake did not die in vain. The carcass will be handed over to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, where it can contribute to biodiversity research, education and, be used to encourage a greater appreciation for local wildlife.

If you do happen to see carcasses of wild animals around, please do not hesitate to report them at http://lkcnhm.net/dead-wildlife. These dead animals are valuable to science and can still make contributions to conservation.

REFERENCES
[1] – Li, M., Fry, B., & Kini, R. (2004). Eggs-Only Diet: Its Implications for the Toxin Profile Changes and Ecology of the Marbled Sea Snake (Aipysurus eydouxii). Journal of Molecular Evolution, 81-89. doi:10.1007/s00239-004-0138-0 <link>

MORE INFORMATION
[1] – Ecology Asia Factsheet <link>
[2] – Wild Singapore Factsheet <link>
[3] – Ria’s account of the incident at Wild Singapore <link>

Ubin Day(s) Adventure!

An adventure on the legendary island of Pulau Ubin! During the day, Ubin plays host to a variety of very interesting animals (not necessarily limited to herptiles). Ubin Day was held on 13th and 14th June 2015. Some of the HSS members went down to the island to volunteer for the day’s activities.

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Photo by Min Lin Lee

Having had a very busy day helping out with the day’s festivities, we were very grateful to spend the evening at the beach with a BBQ dinner. The dinner had been kindly hosted and sponsored by the Ubin fish farmers. We sat at Jelutong Campsite, watching the sun set, while resting our tired legs. But we were far from done! We set off on a night adventure, our bellies full of lamb and seafood!

On a previous Ubin stay-over, we found a Dog-toothed Cat Snake (Boiga cynodon) actively foraging on a IMG_7406tree, as well as many other interesting herps. So we were excited to discover what awaited us! We followed a guided walk conducted by the Vertebrate Study Group from Nature Society (Singapore). Our lead guide was Timothy, who brought us to Puaka Hill, the tallest point of Pulau Ubin, at 74m high. Along the way, we kept our eyes peeled for herps.

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Photo by Lena Chow

We had the privilege of seeing an Oriental Whip Snake (Ahaetulla prasina), which was sadly theIMG_9917 only snake seen during the walk. We had better luck with amphibians, probably due to  the heavy rain the previous day. The night air was heavily saturated with the sound of amorous anurans. We came across a pair of mating Dark-Sided Chorus Frogs (Microhyla heymonsi). Along the way, we also saw a IMG_9898single Asian Toad (Duttaphrynus melanosticus). Thus we ended the night, As we returned to our campsite, the calls of fornicating frogs engulfed us and continued well into the night.

The next day, we began the morning with Pedal Ubin organised by the NUS Toddycats. It was a great experience despite the rain. While passing a section of mangrovesBlack Marsh terrapin, we noticed this little creature; a Black Marsh Terrapin (Siebenrockiella crassicollis)  drinking from a puddle of fresh water formed by the rain. We took this opportunity to tell the participants of Pedal Ubin about the chelonians of Singapore!

All in all, we may not have seen a lot of herps, but we definitely had a lot of fun. Ubin is one of the last few strongholds of biodiversity in Singapore. It is certainly something that we must value. You can read more about the Ubin Project here.

P.S. Team HSS will have our very own booth in the Festival of Biodiversity. The FoB will be held at Vivocity on the 27th and 28th of June. We will have specimens, models and posters on display. So, do drop by and say hello! We’re very excited about this!

Lower Peirce Recce (feat. Youth for Ecology and NUS Toddycats)

The HSS is currently developing a Lower Peirce Guided Walk toAhoktQsXTfT9xiRKpYZLcDhM16cRTXkzS6MqrT879ZWH open to the public. To plan a proper route and to identify key checkpoints, we organised a recce trip to the Lower Peirce Boardwalk on the 24th of May.

Jonathan Tan (JT) from Youth for Ecology expressed interest in joining us  for this walk, so we invited him along too! So, JT, Almira, Ing Sind and I met up at Casuarina Curry to have the obligatory teh tarik (just for luck). Once that was settled, we set off onto the boardwalk.

Almost immediately, Jonathan spotted the first herp of the day. It was a Black-beardeDSC07597d Gliding Lizard (Draco melanopogon)JT saw it glide right in front of him, after which it scurried up the tree. This was JT’s first time seeing a Gliding Lizard. Congratulations! On the picture on the left, see if you can spot the long dewlap that gives the Black-bearded Gliding Lizard its name.

Psyched up by the early herp appearance, we walked on. There was a section of the boardwalk that ran parallel to a stream. As we looked down, we didn’t reIMG_5475ally see anything. Suddenly, a splashing sound was heard from the stream. “OH!”, JT and Ing Sind shouted at the same time.

And then we saw what they were pointing at. The endangered Malayan Brown Snake¹ (Xenelaphis hexagonotus). It had adopted its signature ‘tripod’ pose, with the head and neck sticking out of the water’s surface. This is the typical position that the Malayan Brown Snake adopts while hunting prey (usually fish and small frogs). The snake then proceeded to patrol the stream, presumably searching for food.

We informed the rest of the team about the snake. Serin AmTXruC7hLgwibH3f3x-sNhvmIz1ffakIMn2V0p96DBIgot so excited, he took a taxi all the way from Tampines to see this snake! That’s dedication. Half an hour later, we saw him lumbering down the boardwalk, covered in sweat. Happily, the snake was still patrolling the stream. Serin even managed to get a video of this truly fascinating behaviour. You can view it at http://tinyurl.com/Xhexagonotus. To add to all the excitement, ANOTHER Malayan Brown Snake showed up. We noticed that the two serpents were swimming past each other from opposite ends of the stream, even chasing away a nearby snakehead(Channa sp.). It is possible that this is actually an example of co-operative hunting, which is not commonly observed in snakes!

I got a notification on my phone from Joelle (from the NUS Toddycats),saying that she was doing Operation No Release at Lower Peirce Reservoir. Excited, we hurried over to the other end of the boardwalk, where we met Joelle. While shAjVbPtJqPbaVmJcWbaCX5E33mDtRepkknM1KduIzypZQe did not see anybody releasing anything into the reservoir, she did find out that many people were unaware of the ecological harm that releasing animals into the wild can cause. In fact, shortly after that, we actually found an American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeiana) sitting on the rocks at the fishing grounds. Closer inspection revealed that the left leg of the frog was severely damaged, possibly due to a predatory attack. These non-native frogs are often released (along with several other types of animals) into ponds and reservoirs as a way of receiving religious merit, or good karma. However, these frogs may out-compete local amphibian species. Such acts do more harm than good to ecosystems and even to the animals that are released, as this particular frog illustrates.

On the way back, we met a boy named Ethan, who was walkingAqS0CELsKvzWiQu37n4dZykHG8a9lNjrgPVZAjJGN8XJ with his father, Eugene. Young Ethan was very excited to join us on the final leg of the walk. We were worried that all the herps would have gone into hiding, but we managed to find a juvenile Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) for him to see. Eugene had to carry Ethan to get a better look at this pretty lizard!

In this day and age, a Singapore without Lower Peirce Reservoir may be hard to imagine. Yet, that was almost the case in 1992, when a 120 hectare plot of land in the reservoir was proposed to be turned into a golf course! A large public outcry caused the proposal to be abandoned, certainly for the better. As we have seen, Lower Peirce is home to many rare organisms (not just the herps). As long as the public appreciates this green space and takes proper care of it, we will be able to keep it for many more years to come. To end off, here is a beautiful panorama of the Reservoir, taken by Almira.

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REFERENCES
¹: Baker, N. (n.d.). Malayan Brown Snake. Retrieved May 31, 2015, from http://www.ecologyasia.com/verts/snakes/malayan_brown_snake.htm

A Night Herp in Mandai

Having a special permit to study the herptiles of the Mandai area, we were stoked to check the area out. We arrived at Mandai with high expectations and uncontrollable anticipation. IMG_6034The night air carried a vibe of a solid night awaiting us. We encountered a roadkill juvenile Malayan Racer (Coelognathus flavolineatus), which was collected to be sent over to the museum. We than heard an unusual call coming from a grove of trees. Suddenly the Greater racquet-tailed Drongos (Dicrurus paradiseus) start calling harshly and divebombing a large bird. It was a Buffy Fish Owl (Bubo ketupu) and he was not alone, he had a partner! Buffy Fish Owls are one of the largest resident owls in Singapore and it is an awesome hunter. IMG_9245This handsome predator has even been recorded taking on a Shore Pit Viper (Cryptelytrops pupureomaculatus). We continued on after this amazing encounter with these rare birds. We came upon a small stream where we found two species of frogs. Malayan Giant Frog (Limnonectes blythii) on the bottom left and a Black-eyed Litter Frog (Leptobrachium nigrops) on the bottom right. The Black-eyed Litter Frog was calling the night air was filled with the calls of at least 10 different individuals. The Malayan Giant is a massive frog and it has been seen clearing more than 2 metres in a single bound. The Malayan Giant is also one of only 9 species of amphibians that occur outside the nature reserves. IMG_6139 IMG_6071 We strove on hoping to encounter a snake. Ing Sind’s keen eyes picked out a flying squirrel (Most likely Iomys horsfieldi) at the top branches of a tall tree. As I rounded a tree to get a better view i came face to face with a sleeping IMG_6102Striped Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis caudolineatus). It was a massive individual, well over a meter and was quite robust. Its beauty was resounding and even though it is deemed a common snake, its beauty made us pause to gaze at its vibrant colouration. The Striped Bronzeback is one of 6 species of Bronzebacks in Singapore. Both this species and its cousin the Painted Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis pictus) are the only Bronzebacks that occur outside proper forest and can be found in grassland and suburban woodland habitat. IMG_6171We then trekked to a different part of Mandai where we came across 3 more species of amphibians. The first two were a Malesian Frog (Limnonectus malesianus)  and a Copper-cheeked Frog (Hylarana labialis). The Malesian Frog (left) is often mistaken for a Malayan Giant Frog due the similar size and coloration, however the key feature that separates the Malesian is a prominent ‘W’ on the back of the neck. The Copper-cheeked Frog (below)  can often be found perched low on branches that are nearby streams. They have calls that sound much like the sound of dripping water!IMG_9295 We pushed on a little further to try our luck and we were rewarded with an uncommon Golden-eared Rough-sided Frog (Pulchrana baramica). This little frog is stunning in both features and colouration. It was also a lifer for Sankar! This frog is uncommon to moderately rare is Singapore as it is restricted in its range.IMG_6156 Thoroughly satisfied, we called it a night and left extremely happy and eager for our next herping adventure.

Solo at Lower Peirce

I hadn’t seen a snake all week and my arms were itching. It was high time to go herping. Sadly, nobody was free to herp with me. So I decided to go solo. On the bus to Lower Peirce , it dawned on me that it was my first time going to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve by myself.DSC07527

As I walked in, I texted the group that I was in Lower Peirce. They bade me good luck and told me to call them down if I saw something cool. And I reassured them that I would.

It was an interesting experience, to say the least. Since it was a Tuesday afternoon, there was literally nobody at the reserve. The canopy cover provided much needed respite from the blazing afternoon sun. There was a good wind blowing across the water. I was also happy to see that there was nobody releasing animals into the reservoir!

As I ventured in, I heard several sounds. A Woodpecker pecking on wood in the distance, a Greater Racket Tailed DDSC07535rongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) making a metallic call and a Plantain Squirrel (Callosciurus notatus) squeaking nearby. Usually, the starting area is a great place to find Black-bearded Flying Lizards (Draco melanopogon). Sadly, I saw none. I did, however, see several birds, including an Orange Bellied Flowerpecker (Dicaeum trigonostigma) eating the fruits of the Senduduk (Melastoma malabathricum) and a Drongo bathing in the reservoir.

The first herp of the day turned out to be a gorgeous Clouded DSC07549Monitor Lizard (Varanus nebulosus). It was foraging, flicking out its tongue and digging around in the leaf litter in search of food. It seemed not to mind my presence and went about its business.

As I headed on, I met a jogger. I asked him if he had seen anything. He told me that there was a group of Wild Boars (Sus scrofa) up ahead. I took my time to walk up to the end of DSC07552the trail. Sure enough, a large family of Wild Boars were wandering around. The mother was followed closely by her piglets, which resemble brown watermelons.

I reached the end of the trail, disappointed at the low herp count. I was about to head off, when I was hit by a craving for Teh Tarik. I decided to turn around and head to the prata shop at the other side. I had barely taken 3 steps in the other direction, when I was greeted with this sight.DSC07555

A large Striped Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis caudolineatus) had slithered up onto the boardwalk behind me to bask in the sun. It was interesting to see the flattening of the body to increase the exposed surface area. This harmless snake generally eats frogs and lizards. This snake is distinguished from other bronzebacks by the thin black stripes on its body. The dorsal scales are reddish-brown. Interestingly, this bronzeback has a very weak eyestripe, which can be found in most of the other bronzebacks.

As I approached it, the snake slithered away into the undergrowth and climbed up into the trees, out of sight. Satisfied, I rushed to the prata shop (it was threatening to rain) to get some well deserved teh tarik.

SK

One hour of Herps: Jagah Duty at BTNR

Jagah [jah-gah] (v) : To guard, take care of.

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Picture courtesy of Joelle from the Toddycats!

Becky, Ing Sind and I signed up to do Jagah duty at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve on the 26th of April 2015. We turned up at Hindhede Road at 2pm to get briefed. We were, of course excited about the job at hand. But we were also nervous. Trying to look confident, we climbed the hill. With us, were Joelle and Kai Scene from the Toddycats!

Ing Sind, Joelle and I stayed on the summit to guard against illegal entry and to advise the public about appropriate behaviour when dealing with the resident macaques. Becky and Kai Scene were stationed at the foot of the summit. We spent a few uneventful hours there. All the visitors were very co-operative and friendly! There were no incidents with the macaques either.

At the end of the first half of our shift, Becky, Ing Sind and I decided to patrol the foot of the summit to ensure no illegal activity. What followed was an hour of opportunistic DSC07263herping. As we reached the foot of the stairs leading to the summit, I saw a Peninsular Rock Gecko (Cnemaspis peninsularis), with its tail coiled, sitting on a large tree trunk! Almost immediately after that, Ing Sind spotted a Five Banded Gliding Lizard (Draco quinquefasciatus) resting on a nearby tree with its patagium flared slightly. We took the opportunity to point it out to some passers-by.

As we walked on, Ing Sind spotted a Brown Tree Skink (Dasia grisea) slowly DSC07269climbing up the trunk of another tree. Despite its diurnal habits, this lizard is rarely seen. It is a resident of lowland secondary and primary forests. We proceeded with the patrol and found nothing suspicious. Becky then mentioned that Ing Sind and she had seen a Clouded Monitor (Varanus nebulosus) before I had arrived that day. It dawned on us that we had seen representatives from the major lizard families that can be found in Singapore in a single day: Varanidae, Gekkonidae, Agamidae and Scincidae. Impressed with the day’s herp turnout, we turned back.

It only got better. Back at the summit, we noticed  a group of visitors pointingIMG_9159 and taking pictures of something in the undergrowth. Intrigued, we ran over, only to see the tail of a Blue Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis cyanochloris) as it disappeared into the brush.

At 5.30pm, we began the end of day duty to close the summit trail. As we walked DSC07270down, we saw two visitors looking at a small plant next to the staircase. A closer look revealed it to be a juvenile Wagler’s Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)! We were ecstatic! After admiring the viper for a while, we continued to the entrance, ensuring that all the visitors had left the reserve by 6pm.

We saw 5 herps (3 of which are relatively rare) in an hour. I think that speaks volumes about the importance of maintaining the health of BTNR. It is a great place to jog and spend time with friends and family. But the reserve is also a home to a great diversity of living things (not just the herps). While certain spaces are closed for slope stabilisation and forest restoration, we should respect the opening hours and the designated boundaries. BTNR is for the animals AND for the people. Let’s keep it that way for as long as possible.

Note: Since April 4, BTNR has been accessible to the public via Hindhede Nature Park from 7am-6pm on weekends only. The last admission to the reserve is at 5pm.