Rectifying a 4 year old dip…
In early 2013 I was in Singapore teaching, but had a day to bird in Panti Forest when not lecturing. I hired a car from Changi Airport and drove in the wee hours across the causeway to Panti. Once there I had a funny old day. The birding was slow, compared with my previous visit there with a group of Singapore birders (one of my best ever days of Asian birding, see Panti Forest, Malaysia, Aug 2011). Part of the reason was that a group of Malaysian Army soldiers were camped at the stream crossing that had been the most productive site on my previous visit. When in the early afternoon I was still struggling for birds, and I heard shots – they were presumably starting some exercise – I decided it was a good moment to beat a retreat.
With a few hours still to spare before I needed to be back in Singapore I decided to travel back via the Le Grand Palmeur Golf Resort, Johor, to try and connect with a family of Barred Eagle Owls that were known to be roosting in trees around the resort. I arrived tired and with a splitting headache (not enough fluids during the day) really just wanting to back at my hotel to get some painkillers and rest. A quick look around the spot I believed the owls to be in revealed nothing and I left empty-handed.
Now, 4 years later in Dec 2017, I found myself again in Singapore with a bit of time to kill; a day of work and a day of birding…
For the birding I looked into hiring a car but the costs were astronomical, so I decided to stay local. A tip-off from Martin Kennewell, who had found Singapore’s first Booted Warbler the week before, settled what I would do: subway/bus to Kranji Marshes to look for the warbler, and see whatever else I could.
I arrived at Kranji and walked the km or so along the road to the tower, observing a few nice but common Singapore birds along the way (Long-tailed Parakeet, Pink-necked Green-pigeon, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Brown Shrike, Bayan Weaver, Black-naped Oriole, Olive-backed Sunbird, Common Sandpiper, Purple Heron, Blue-throated Bee-eater). Once at the tower I waited, scanning the trees where the warbler had been regular for much if the last week. From the tower itself I noted various raptors including White-bellied Sea-eagle Easteren Marsh Harrier, Brahminy Kite, and Black-shouldered Kite.
After an hour or so, while I was standing on the bridge below the tower, the Booted Warbler popped up to checked me out and disappeared again. After another 30mins he appeared again, in response to some pishing, and I got some passable record shots of the Booted Warbler.
At about 11am I started having thoughts about the Eagle Owls again. Kranji is on the north side of the island, tantalisingly close to the causeway and so I decided to go for it, and make up the transport arrangements as I went. First, I got the “Kranji Express” ($3) to get back to Kranji Stn.
There I was able to work out that for $1 I could get a bus to take me across the causeway. Although the queues to cross were appalling (the immigration hall was absolutely packed with thousands of people lining up, and it took me a good 90mins), once into Malaysia I was able to negotiate a fixed taxi fare of around $30 to get me to the resort.
I arrived at the hotel and was greeted at the reception. My binoculars and camo clothing at a golf resort must’ve been a give-away: “You are looking for the owls, yes?”. “Yes please”. Miss Julie, head of housekeeping was summoned, and I followed her down some corridors to the NW corner of the main accommodation block, near the pool, and vaguely familiar from my 2013 visit.
The owls have nested here for several years; they are justly famous, and loved by the staff. Miss Julie took me into an unoccupied suite on the 4th floor. From the balcony we peered across and down into a couple of large trees, and there, fantastically, was a female adult Barred Eagle Owl, no more than 15m away. A little further away, and somewhat more obscured, a male was sleeping. I proceeded to fill my CF card with images of the stunning beasts.
Miss Julie seemed concerned: “I can’t find the chick”. She took me down to the next floor and the next, again checking from unoccupied rooms, but to no avail. Then she let herself into the next room, clearly occupied. I waited outside, uncomfortable at barging into some random guests’ room . I heard exclamations, then a minute or so later, Julie emerged, holding the chick! Though these are wild birds, it seems the staff treat them almost like pets. “Jasper”, as I found out Julie calls the chick, is in the process of fledging – he had made his way down to a balcony and apparently got stuck there. Julie relocated him to the 4th floor, sitting on the balcony of the unoccupied penthouse. Straight away the adult female flew down to keep a closer eye.
I decided I’d used enough of Julie’s time so I bade farewell (she refused my efforts to leave a tip) and ate my snack lunch in the shade of the owls’ trees.
At this point I probably should have asked the resort people to get a taxi for me, but instead I walked in the heat the 3km from the resort back to Johor airport where I got a taxi to the border, a bus back across the causeway (confusing, but eventually found my way to the right spots, and mercifully there were not the same queues as at midday), and subway back to my hotel at Changi. Overall, perhaps not as convenient as a rental car, but much cheaper, and also somewhat adding to the adventure!
Two months later, in rather different climatic conditions at the other end of the earth, I would head out on a quest for another cracking owl. That will have to wait for the next blog post…