A move to a new continent is a challenging and exciting life experience. For a wildlife enthusiast, it opens up a whole new world of exotic species. A couple weeks in to my Singapore adventure, and it was time to look for green spaces and the island wildlife. A little research in to the local bird population revealed that the jewel in the crown for me would be the small resident population of Oriental Pied hornbills.
My best opportunity to see these extraordinary birds would be on a small island off the north east coast of Singapore called Pulau Ubin. This small, sparsely inhabited and largely vegetated island reveals a glimpse of history; what Singapore may have felt like before it became the booming metropolis that she is today.
For S$2.50 one-way, I took a small, 12 passenger bumboat from Changi Point Ferry terminal on a ten minute trip to Ubin. From there I had a choice of walk or rent a bike. For the first visit I decided to walk. The heat is ferocious and the thick, humid air clings to you like a warm wet blanket. It isn’t long before water or a sugary beverage is needed, so I stop at one of the small houses along the road selling cold drinks, and carry on exploring. The visit was a triumph; I had found a green tropical oasis and spotted many new species, although the hornbill was nowhere to be found.
On the next visit I hired a bike so I could cover more ground, faster. The challenge with a bike is that a rider moves too fast and makes too much noise to really be able to notice the subtle signs of wildlife. On this day I got lucky, though. I stopped to take a much needed drink and heard a squawk from directly above, followed a few moments later by a fleeting glimpse of a hornbill swooping through the canopy above. The flash of that spectacular yellow beak was enough to have me hooked on hornbills and have me visiting Ubin on a regular basis.
The Oriental Pied hornbill almost certainly went extinct as a resident in Singapore, but returned as a visitor to Ubin from nearby Malaysia, where they remain fairly common. A concerted conservation effort has re-established a continually growing, breeding population. The efforts have included the use of specially designed nest boxes that support the bird’s unusual breeding habit. They nest in large holes in living trees, where the pair work together to seal the female in the nest hole using a mix of mud and plant fibres. This mixture is collected by the male and constructed by the female, leaving a slot big enough for the female’s beak, for feeding purposes. The male then brings a diet of fruit, large insects, small crabs and the occasional lizard for the female and chicks.
Although the Oriental Pied is the smallest of the Asian hornbill species, it is still a large bird, measuring up to 60 cm (24 inches) with the bill growing up to 19 cm (7.5 inches). The banana yellow bill appears even larger with the addition of the casque on top. The sexes are similar, with the female being slightly smaller with a flatter, less rounded casque. The eye appears black until the light hits it, revealing a rich, dark cherry marble.
Hornbills are now spreading to other parts of Singapore, including mainland Changi, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the other neighboring small coastal islands such as St John’s, which is the last place that I saw a group feeding before I left Singapore.
On my next visit to Ubin, I saw the bird was at close range. A small group of them swooped down from the canopy and landed in a farmer’s small-holding banana plantation. This time they were not shy at all. If I was hooked on hornbills before, now I was in love with them! It was a joy to watch them bouncing on spring-loaded legs, along the tops of palm fronds, while they chatter nosily to each other and angrily to me; clearly an unwanted distraction to their lunch.
During my time in Asia, I was fortunate to see four other hornbill species and photograph (badly) three of these. The Malabar Pied hornbill in Sri Lanka was easy to find, as it would stand proudly on high dead trees in plain sight.
The other species are shyer, preferring the dense canopies and heavy foliage of the tropical rainforests. I saw the Bushy-crested hornbill whilst walking in dense jungle behind a camp site in Sabah, Borneo. I followed a small group of them, trying to get a photograph, until I got lost. It is incredibly easy to become lost in heavy jungle. After some effort, I escaped back to the camp site.
The most spectacular of the Asian species is without doubt the Rhinoceros hornbill. I was enthralled by this huge bird (122 cm or 48 inch), with the extraordinary fire red casque, seeing them 3 times; flying over the canopies in Sabah, Brunei (Borneo) and Sumatra (Indonesia). I did not get close enough to capture a good image of this beautiful bird but I certainly hope to do so one day.
Singapore is quite rightly known as the Garden City, but it is still a major metropolis where nature has to adapt to the green spaces that we provide. It is encouraging that the Oriental Pied hornbill has been able to re-establish a breeding population here.
Many people visit Singapore, often as a stopover destination. Some of these people speak with me of the incredible shopping malls, spectacular food, cutting edge architecture and oppressive humidity. If you find yourself there for a few days, and you love nature, make the time and spend the S$5 return boat fee and look for this bold, comical, fantastic bird of the tropics, while enjoying a side of Singapore that many don’t get to see.
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