Thursday, 23 February 2017

NSS Kids’ Fun with Nature and Culture at Jalan Kubor Cemetery (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice Chairperson

Photos by Gloria Seow & Timothy Pwee

Jalan Kubor Cemetery is a green oasis in the city centre proffering a good variety of wildlife.

Is there wildlife in Singapore's city centre? The answer is a resounding yes, even if this green oasis is surrounded on four sides by busy roads. We confirmed this happy fact in our morning walk at Jalan Kubor Cemetery on 3 December 2016. As the oldest Muslim cemetery in Singapore, Jalan Kubor (‘cemetery road’ in Malay) is located off Victoria Street. The graves of many prominent Malays and Muslims who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries can be found here, nestled amidst stately trees.

Led by Uncle Timothy, our nature and culture walk started at the elevated platform where Malay royalty laid buried. We learnt that royal tombs have rich yellow cloth wrapping the head and foot gravestones, while those of commoners are covered in white fabric or simply left bare. We did not come across any tomb with green cloth, which is reserved for religious leaders. Uncle Tim revealed that Muslims have to be buried (not cremated) within 24 hours of death. The body is swathed in fabric and placed in direct contact with the earth (no coffin). The body rests sideways with the face towards Mecca. Hence, all graves are oriented in the same direction.

A 2014 NHB documentation project uncovered gravestones inscribed in scripts such as Arabic, Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Gujarati, English and Chinese, pointing to the cultural diversity in the Kampong Glam area.

Stepping down from the royal burial platform, Auntie Lena noticed some red ‘berries’ growing as ground cover. This plant was identified post-trip as the Snake Pennywort (Geophila repens), one of just seven existing populations in Singapore, according to a 2010 paper published in ‘Nature in Singapore’ journal. Coincidentally, Auntie Gloria has subsequently found three new patches of Geophila repens in the Toa Payoh area, and suspects that this plant is probably more widespread but under observed. We then turned our attention to the strangling fig trees (Ficus spp) common in the area. Auntie Gloria highlighted the symbiotic relationship between figs and their species-specific wasps that are key to the figs’ propagation.

We came across food plants like Noni (Morinda citrifolia) and Fragrant Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius), likely cultivated by caretakers who used to live onsite in a building that has since been demolished. Next, Auntie Gloria pointed out the distinctive call of the Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus), a black cuckoo named after its incessant ‘koel koel’ vocalisations. This bird is Singapore’s unofficial ‘alarm clock’ with calls starting as early as 4.30 am. The Koel is the brood parasite of the House Crow. Uncle Tim explained that Koels are known to work in pairs. The male tricks the House Crow to leave its nest, whereupon its mate sneaks in to replace the crow’s eggs with her own. Hence, House Crows unwittingly raise baby Koels. Auntie Lena then found a Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) perched high, which we took turns admiring through the scope.

This Banded Bullfrog baby was just one of many we found hopping around.

A 2014 documentation project by the National Heritage Board (NHB) uncovered gravestones inscribed in scripts such as Arabic, Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Gujarati, English and Chinese, an indication of the cultural diversity in the Kampong Glam area. We strolled into another section of the cemetery that used to come under the care of the Aljunied family. Here, Auntie Lena spotted a tiny froglet that was identified by Auntie Gloria as the Banded Bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra) as it had a golden stripe across its crown. Soon after, we were delighted to realise that there were many baby frogs around. We had fun delicately picking up the froglets and observing their tiny forms. This frog bounty was likely due to monsoonal rain puddles conducive to amphibian reproduction.

A basking Changeable Lizard.

We visited the enclosed burial area of the Aljunied family that once held about 70 remains. In 2002, these were exhumed. The verdant Aljunied section also produced a variety of reptile, bird, butterfly and plant encounters. Highlights include a Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor) basking just metres from us; a friendly Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa dauurica); Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida) and its caterpillar host plant Hemigraphis reptans; as well as the Saga (Adenanthera pavonina) and Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) trees. Kids were particularly thrilled with the red Saga seeds that some people are known to collect compulsively. Even as guides, we were surprised and thankful for the diversity of wildlife sightings that morning.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

NSS Kids’ Fun with Caterpillars & Butterflies at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park (Singapore)

By Soh Zhi Bing,10-year old butterfly guide

Photos by Soh Kam Yung & Gloria Seow, Education Committee Vice-Chairperson

Children and adults alike went gaga over the caterpillars that I had been rearing at home.

As the main guide for my second butterfly walk on 18 September 2016 at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore, I was lucky to be supported by veteran butterfly guides Auntie Amy Tsang, Auntie Lena Chow and Uncle KC Tsang. I started by introducing the caterpillars (cats) that I had been rearing at home to kids and their parents. We enjoyed close-up observations of the cats of the Autumn Leaf (Doleschallia bisaltide bisalitide), Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus chrysippus), Lime (Papilio demoleus malayanus), Common Mormon (Papilio polytes romulus) and Tawny Coster (Acraea violae). These cats were a whirl of action, hungrily chewing up the leaves of their respective host plants, oblivious to the enthusiastic chatter and passing around of their mini homes.

We were amused that the Blue Nawab caterpillar resembled a Pokemon character.

Children and adults alike went gaga over the caterpillars. Kids were eager to stroke the safe cats such as the Autumn Leaf and Tawny Coster, as they do not have urticating hairs that irritate the skin. Several brave ones even allowed these larvae to crawl all over their arms. Auntie Amy had earlier loaned from her friend the cats of the seldom-seen Green Baron (Euthalia adonia pinwilli) and Blue Nawab (Polyura schreiber tisamenus). We were amused to find that the Blue Nawab cat resembled a Pokemon character with impressive head structures atop a speckled green body. Uncle KC Tsang then showed us his homemade videos with zoomed-in views of a caterpillar’s constantly moving mouthparts as it chomped down its leafy feast.

The 3rd and 4th instars of the Green Baron caterpillar. The larger 4th instar had just shed its old skin.

I spoke of the various instars that a caterpillar has to grow into before it pupates. I pointed out examples of two instars of the Lime Butterfly, with one cat looking bigger and quite different from its earlier instar. Cats grow rather quickly. For example, the Lime Butterfly which feeds on the leaves of the lime plant, metamorphosises from egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly in just 23 to 27 days. After half an hour of admiring the caterpillars, we split into two groups to take turns exploring two parts of Bishan-AMK park with Auntie Amy leading the other party.

Our game of Butterfly Bingo encouraged kids to look for their own butterflies.

My group went to the park’s compact Butterfly Garden, lush with well-tended flowering shrubs and butterfly host plants. Here, we played the game Butterfly Bingo. Kids were given a sheet of paper with photos of nine common butterflies arranged in a grid. Spotting a particular butterfly species allows one to cross it out. Three species forming a row would entitle one to some candy. This was motivating enough for kids to start calling out what they had found. Some children earned their sweet fix after just a few minutes. Butterflies seen in the area included the ubiquitous Grass Yellows (Eurema spp), Lemon Emigrants (Catopsilia pomona pomona), Plain Tigers, Leopards (Phalanta phalantha phalantha) and the often-overlooked Grass Blues due to their diminutive stature. Unfortunately, we did not encounter the Common Rose, Singapore's National Butterfly by popular vote, even though its host plant the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia acuminata) is found in the garden.

Our sharp-eyed kids found an abundance of Autumn Leaf caterpillars which they handled with aplomb.

We then made our way to a large patch of Asystasia (Asystasia gangetica), the host plant for the Autumn Leaf. We found an abundance of Autumn Leaf caterpillars here. Kids lost no time in gently picking them up for a closer study. We even held a mini race to see who could find and place the most number of caterpillars on their arms. I won the game with 16 caterpillars tickling up a storm, while others were not far behind. Thereafter, we reluctantly said our goodbyes and returned the caterpillars to their host plant.

I felt encouraged that kids and their parents were so open to interacting with Singapore’s caterpillars and butterflies. It was on this high note that we ended our walk.

Our outing was filmed as an example of a NSS activity, and showcased at the Charity Governance Awards 2016 where NSS was the winner in the Small Charity Category. Watch the footage here:

NSS Kids’ Fun with Intertidal Marine Life at Sentosa (Singapore)

Text and Photos by Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

Weekend intertidal walks are few and far between in any given year, as such walks in places like Sentosa island and Changi beach (southern and eastern part of Singapore respectively) are possible only if the tide falls to 0.2 metres and below. Another inconvenience involves the tendency of ultra-low tides to be in the pre-dawn hours and on weekdays. So we counted ourselves lucky to be out jaunting around Tanjong Rimau, a rare natural shore located just beyond Rasa Sentosa Resort, on the clear Sunday morning of 24 July 2016 just after the sun had peeked above the horizon.

 Located just beyond Rasa Sentosa Resort, the exposed rocky shoreline of Tanjong Rimau yielded bountiful sightings.

Uncle Marcus Ng was our erudite lead guide, assisted by Auntie Juria Toramae and Uncle Ivan Kwan who moved ahead as scouts. First up, we found an ethereal Blue-lined Flatworm (Pseudoceros concinnus) in the shallows, a regular encounter on many of our intertidal habitats. Continuing the blue theme, we saw a Pimply Phyllid Nudibranch (Phyllidiella pustulosa), a sea slug around 4 cm long with a hard body sporting clustered bumps called tubercles. Some tubercles even come in colours such as pink, red, grey or green. Kids and their parents were intrigued by the profusion of soft and hard corals, anemones, sponges, seagrass and seaweed that characterise this stretch of wild rocky shoreline.

Next, Auntie Gloria came across an exposed Snapping Shrimp  (family Alpheidae). Unfortunately, this nervous critter was so stressed by our presence that it dropped its pincer as it ducked under a rock. Thankfully, lost pincers can regenerate with time. Like many crustaceans, the Snapping Shrimp can willingly shed its claws when threatened or attacked, as it is better to lose a pincer than its life. Of its two pincers, the enlarged one can produce a one-of-a-kind sound, so loud that it can stun tiny fish prey and even crack the shells of small clams. Snapping Shrimps are responsible for the regular pops that one hears around intertidal areas.

The Pimply Phyllid Nudibranch is a lovely 4-cm long sea slug with clustered tubercles.

We had a really adorable baby Reef Octopus (family Octopodidae) swimming around our booties and wellies. Uncle Marcus gently lifted it out of the water to the delight of many. In general, octopus can survive for between 30 to 60 minutes on land, as oxygen diffusion can still take place through moist skin. It is known to crawl around to get from intertidal pool to pool, or to feed on shellfish or snails found above the waterline. 

An adorable baby Reef Octopus was observed swimming around our booties and wellies.

One of the kids reported seeing a ‘snake’. Upon investigation, it turned out to be a shudder-inducing metre long Giant Reef Worm (Eunice aphroditois). Uncle Marcus said that this was a fierce predator best left alone as it can deliver a nasty bite. Equally crabby creatures populate the intertidal environment. In quick succession, we found a Spotted-belly Forceps Crab (Ozius guttatus) that had both pincers raised in attack-defence mode, as well as the highly poisonous Red Egg Crab (Atergatis integerrimus) that took on a crouched defensive stance. 

Our seekers Auntie Juria and Uncle Ivan brought back several interesting finds including a huge Spider Conch Shell (the classic looking shell that people can hold to their ears to ‘hear’ the sea), as well as a Giant Top Shell Snail (Tectus niloticus), an enormous snail with a pyramidal shell. Other marvellous encounters included the Black Long Sea Cucumber (Holothuria leucospilota), Blue Jorunna Sponge (Neopetrosia spp) and Leather Coral (Sarcophyton spp). 

The rare Masked Burrowing Crab we found is likely the first sighting for Sentosa.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we had our most significant sighting when the group had already dispersed. Auntie Gloria noticed a strange ‘unicorn’ crab barely 3 cm across on a sandy substrate between the rocks. Uncle Marcus promptly identified it as the rare Masked Burrowing Crab (Gomeza bicornis). He pronounced that this was likely the first sighting for Sentosa. The perceived ‘unicorn’ is actually a pair of long antennae joined together with interlocking hairs. The united antennae are speculated to form a breathing tube, used when the crab buries itself in the sand with only the tip of its antennae visible. We were jubilant at this find, a cool lifer for Auntie Gloria, Uncle Tim and Auntie Lena.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Creatures of the Night at Pulau Ubin (Singapore)

By Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

Photos by Lena Chow

The Education Committee and Vertebrate Study Group joined hands in a critter spotting night safari to Pulau Ubin (island off the northeastern coast of Singapore) on 11 June 2016. Given the immense publicity surrounding Pesta Ubin (Malay for Ubin Festival), this activity was oversubscribed by almost four fold. But as regulations go, we could only take in 40 participants. Ubin was already bathed in twilight when we met up with a bunch of eager juniors and their parents. We split into two clusters, with Auntie Bee Choo, Uncle Sek Chuan and young naturalist Saker leading the coastal Sensory Trail, while Auntie Gloria, Uncle Timothy and Auntie Lena took the second group into the forested interior path.

We found a wee Common Tailorbird fast asleep with eyes wide open while balancing on one leg.

First up, we had glimpses of at least two Large-tailed Nightjars (Caprimulgus macrurusas well as several tiny Asiatic Lesser Yellow House Bat (Scotophilus kuhlii) hawking for insects in the inky sky. Then Auntie Lena saw a huge flying form which she believed to be the rare Malayan Flying Fox (Pteropus vampyrus). A few of them had been sighted earlier on Ubin. She promptly found a Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) fast asleep with eyes wide open. This birdy was still perched on the same banana leaf when we looped back some two hours later. It was incredible to see how it could balance on one leg while snoozing soundly.

   A Four-lined Tree Frog posed proudly for us.

At the expansive lotus-and-water-lily ponds, we had good numbers of Crab-eating Frogs (Fejervarya cancrivora) and Field Frogs (Fejervarya limnocharis) that comically leapt out of our way as we trooped in. Next, Uncle Tim spotted a Four-lined Tree Frog (Polypedates leucomystax) up in a bush. It posed proudly for us, illuminated by the waxing half moon, our torches, and some camera flash. Auntie Gloria and Auntie Lena exclaimed ‘Snake!’ in unison when we spied a Striped Keelback (Xenochrophis vittatus) slithering along a narrow side path. To escape, we witnessed the snake lifting up a third of its body and ‘climbing’ into the flanking scrub. Its quick disappearing act meant that only a handful of us got to see this beauty which was a lifer (seen for the first time) for us. The Striped Keelback is a diurnal reptile active during the day, which made it more cool to encounter it at night.

      Our highlight was seeing the diurnal Striped Keelback climbing a shrub.

Returning to the tarmac, we moved as silently as a large group with excited kids could move. Before long, Auntie Gloria picked up a great deal of activity in the branches above us. We saw 10 to 15 fruit bats (likely the Common Fruit Bat Cynopterus brachyotis) zipping in and out of a figging tree as well as hanging upside down to chomp on figs. Kids and parents alike admired the feeding frenzy with yelps of amazement. We pointed out several Spotted House Geckos (Gekko monarchus). The first was camouflaged against some wooden planks left by the roadside, while the second was on a tree trunk.

   A Giant Shield Bug resplendent on the leaves of the Simpoh Air.

On the way back, we bumped into Auntie Bee Choo’s group. They reported seeing the Dog-faced Water Snake (Cerberus schneiderii), a family of Eurasian Wild Pigs (Sus scrofa), Asian Toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus), spiders, mudskippers and mangrove crabs, amongst other sightings. In a cluster of Simpoh Air (Dillenia suffruticosa), Auntie Lena did a quick search and located her target – the Giant Shield Bug (Pycanum spp) – a majestic insect that feeds on the leaves of this shrub. Back at the ponds, we found a sleeping Marbled Goby (Oxyeleotris marmorata) known locally as Soon Hock, a Golden Apple Snail (Pomacea canaliculata) as large as a clenched fist, and more leaping frogs.

We had specially arranged for two ferries to get us back to the mainland. Uncle Tim sent off the first two groups. The rest of us settled down to wait for the boats to come back, and took time to recount the splendid night sights of Unforgettable Ubin. Indeed, the island never fails to surprise.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Fun with Food Gardening at Bollywood Veggies Farm (Singapore)

Text & Photos by Gloria Seow, Education Committee Chairperson

In a departure from our usual walks on the wild side, the Education Committee organised our first food gardening workshop and farm tour at Bollywood Veggies Farm (located in the Kranji area in the northwestern part of Singapore) on 16 April 2016. Our participant profile took an interesting turn – we had over 30 adults and only one kid. Nature educator Andrew Tay, who is conversant in both plant and animal ecology, was our knowledgeable guide.

Bollywood Veggies Farm was a patchwork of fruit and vegetable plots which we saw in our farm tour.

In our farm tour, Andrew fed us an intriguing fact when we came across a cluster of papaya trees – they were either male or female, identifiable by their flowers. Male trees have showy inflorescences, while females produce individual blooms that as young buds resemble the shape of the fruit (see photos). Only females can produce yummy papayas. That solved the mystery for a few participants, of why some papaya trees never yield fruits. Former Plant Group Chairperson Angie Ng introduced us to the Jambu Bol or Malay Apple, a rarer and tastier cousin of the Jambu Ayer or Water Apple, which some of us sampled. We saw a compost heap with a Cocoyam growing in the middle of it. C
omposting is a great way to recycle plant waste material. One can create a balanced heap by adding alternate layers of greens (eg. leafy trimmings) and browns (eg. woody prunings). In time, it will all rot down to produce a nutrient-rich compost, serving as a natural fertilizer or soil conditioner.
Male papaya trees have showy inflorescences (left), while females produce individual blooms that as young buds resemble the shape of the fruit (right).

Bollywood cultivates an astounding diversity of plants with multitudinous uses. We found out that the commonly-seen Moses-in-the-Cradle (aka Oyster Plant), has leaves that can be boiled as herbal tea to relieve heatiness, and treat a range of ailments including fever, cough, bronchitis and rheumatism. The farm grows different banana varieties including the red kind. One participant shared his experience of peeling a wild banana only to discover it filled with huge seeds and little flesh. Many were surprised to learn that only modern banana cultivars are seedless.
Andrew Tay taught us the basics of growing our own food, shedding light on soils, pots, organic fertilisers, watering and methods of plant propagation.

We then proceeded to Bollywood’s open-air shed for the workshop. As an avid gardener, Andrew revealed that he has a thriving food garden along the corridor of his flat. We were impressed with the fantastic mix of plants available for us to bring home – Mint, Sawtooth Coriander, Kang Kong, Rosemary, Lemongrass, Aloe Vera, Basil, trays of cute baby Bok Choy (Xiao Bai Cai), and many other greens that came from his own garden, plus cuttings courtesy of Bollywood. Our first topic was about soil. Andrew had ordered for us a customised blend of clay, sand and compost, with no added chemical fertilizer, pesticide or fungicide. For organic fertilizer, we could choose from pellets of sheep dung (baked till near-odourless) or earthworm poop. Angie was quick to share that the best fertilizer is free – our own urine, properly diluted of course.

A fantastic mix of plants available for us to bring home.
Next, we learnt that plastic pots retain moisture better, while clay ones allow the roots to breathe easier. Participants were encouraged to experiment with what grows best in any combination of pots, locations (outdoors or indoors with morning sun only), watering and fertilizing frequencies. An interesting segment was about plant propagation using cuttings, seeds, rhizomes or clump division. Many vegetables can have their tops cut off with stumps left growing to produce more leafy shoots for multiple harvests. When greens overgrow, transplanting comes in. To ensure success, one should partially trim most leaves to reduce the overall energy burden, and allow the plant to concentrate on forming fresh roots and shoots in the new location.
It was then time for us to get our hands in the dirt. We had great fun picking up small stones to cover the drainage holes of our plastic pot, mixing the soil with a teaspoon of earthworm poop, and potting up our plant selections. Many brought home extra plantlets and cuttings wrapped in moist newspaper. Participants were also given a three-page information sheet that outlined the finer details of eco-food gardening. We ended with a scrumptious set lunch at Poison Ivy Cafe, and were entertained by none other than farm owner and stellar storyteller Ivy Singh-Lim herself. We thank her for the use of her farm venue and nature shed for free. We are immensely grateful to Andrew for volunteering his time and effort, and thank Angie Ng, Moira Khaw, Lena Chow, and Timothy Pwee for being great helpers.

National Library-NSS Bird Walk at Labrador Nature Reserve (Singapore)

By Timothy Pwee

Amongst the old books that the National Library is displaying at its ongoing “From the Stacks” exhibition is Chasen and Robinson “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”. This five-volume ornithological reference for Southeast Asia was first published in 1927. Today, it remains as one of the most important references for ornithologists working in Southeast Asia and serves as a baseline text for regional field guide authors.

The five-volume “Birds of the Malay Peninsular” is on display at the National Library’s “From the Stacks” exhibition till August 2016. All rights reserved, NLB, 2016.

To bring to life the rare book “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”, 31 participants were treated to the wild birds of Labrador Nature Reserve.

To bring this rare book to life, the library asked the NSS Education Committee to conduct an introductory birding excursion to Labrador Nature Reserve (southern part of Singapore) on 19 March 2016, led by Education Committee Chairperson Gloria Seow. On the chartered ride from the library to Labrador, Gloria regaled the full busload of 31 participants with fascinating facts on Singapore’s birds, their habitats, ecology and migration. Timothy Pwee then taught us the basics of using the binoculars, and gave some background on Labrador Park’s history. We were met by three more guides at the reserve: Lee Ee Ling, Gerard Francis and Lena Chow.

The birding was not spectacular in our short hour foray. But for beginners, it proved fascinating even to encounter a handful of colourful garden species. We observed the Pink-necked Green Pigeon (Treron vernans), Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris), Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis), Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis) and various swiftlet species up close through birding scopes and binoculars. A pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds (Nectarina jugularis) even came down to eye level to peruse the flowers, giving those lucky enough to see them sterling views. Many were awed by the highlights: a pair of thermalling Oriental Honey-buzzards (Pernis ptilorhyncus) and a majestic White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) out at sea. Timothy revealed that our sea eagle is in the same genus as America’s symbol, the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

Participants were introduced to other denizens of Labrador Park, including a near-invisible Miagrammopes spider.

Special thanks to Ee Ling and Gerard for bringing along their scopes and to Lena for adding to our participants’ edification by pointing out the butterflies: Painted Jezebel (Dendrophthoe pentandra), Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida), Common Palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra agina) and more. Besides birds and butterflies, Gerard introduced us to the ecology of the fig tree when we came across an Indian Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica). We even found a small green Miagrammopes spider on a broken twig.

The group then returned to the library to view the exhibition, in particular the “Birds of the Malay Peninsula” five-volume set. The first and second volumes were penned by Robinson in the 1920s when he retired from the directorship of the museums of the Federated Malay States. When he died in 1929, Chasen took up the work with the help of Robinson's notes and papers, publishing two more volumes. Only much later in 1976 did Lord Medway and David Wells push out the final volume. Birders might know that Wells went on to publish his weighty two-volume “Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula”.

Collared and White-throated Kingfishers in “Birds of the Malay Peninsula”. Both scientific and common bird names have changed over time. All rights reserved, NLB, 2016.

The NUS Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum has digitised and made available online volumes 1 to 4 at, including the original text and colour plates. However, there is nothing like seeing the real thing. The “From the Stacks” exhibition can be viewed at Level 10 of the National Library Building. It ends on 28 August 2016. As a reflection of the book’s rarity, a complete set today costs upwards of $1,500.

NSS Kids’ Fun with Butterflies at HortPark (Singapore)

By Soh Zhi Bing, Photos by Soh Kam Yung & Gloria Seow

We have been dubbed the “Butterfly Boys” as Daryl Ng (11 years old) and I (9 years old) are butterfly enthusiasts who regularly go on trips with NSS’s Butterfly and Insect Group (BIG). On 16 January 2016, we both became first-time butterfly guides to a group of peers and their caregivers at HortPark (located off Alexandra Road in Singapore).

Daryl (right) and I releasing a newly-eclosed Mottled Emigrant that I had been rearing.

We arrived early that morning. My dad (Soh Kam Yung) and I brought along the caterpillars and pupae of the Tawny Coster (Acraea violae), Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus chrysippus), Lemon Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona pomona), Mottled Emigrant (Catopsilia pyranthe pyranthe), Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus malayanus) and Common Mormon (Papilio polytes romulus) which I had been rearing at home. We were immediately swarmed by kids who were fascinated with the constant chomping of the caterpillars on the leaves of their respective host plants. They asked plenty of questions and were curious about the life cycle of the different butterfly species.

Auntie Gloria then presented Daryl and I as the day’s guides. We each had to tell our stories of how we came to love butterflies. For me, I got interested when I attended the Butterfly Count by NParks where I learnt how to identify most of Singapore’s common butterflies. After that, I bought the book “Butterflies of Singapore” by Khew Sin Khoon which was where I learnt about the rarer butterflies such as the Vagrant (Vagrans sinha sinha). Daryl said that since young, he has always loved nature. In primary one, he reared the Tawny Coster as his caterpillar project. It reached its fifth instar, but the following day he was horrified to see a shrivelled-up brown pupa instead. Apparently, his caterpillar had been infected by a parasitic wasp. He felt sorry for it and soon after, became a butterfly lover. What a bittersweet tale!

HortPark’s Butterfly Garden produced the Striped Blue Crow, Common Bluebottle, and Singapore’s ‘National Butterfly’ by popular vote the Common Rose.

We then walked over to a Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea) patch, also known as Giant Milkweed, located near the park’s entrance to look for the Plain Tiger. Sadly, our first Plain Tiger caterpillar was quite dead. We explained that it was the likely victim of a parasitic wasp (same as Daryl’s first caterpillar) that had injected the caterpillar with its eggs. These eggs had probably hatched inside the poor caterpillar and the wasp larvae will literally eat their way out. No wonder this caterpillar had an ominous black shade to its usual vibrant colours. Thankfully, we encountered another Plain Tiger caterpillar – this one very much alive and chomping. By feeding on the poisonous leaves of the Crown Flower, the caterpillars themselves become toxic to birds. As a bonus, we spotted a huge and hairy Yellow Tussock Moth (Calliteara horsfieldii) caterpillar nearby. We told the kids that the hairs of such caterpillars typically sting badly and should not be handled.

On the walk to the Butterfly Garden which was some distance from the start, we found a well-camouflaged Katydid that feeds on leaves and aphids. We were distracted halfway by a giant ball-in-a-maze puzzle. Several of us had fun coordinating amongst ourselves to manoeuver a metal ball towards the centre of the maze.
Leopard Butterfly resting on its host plant, the Indian Prune.

Arriving at the Butterfly Garden, we were greeted by two large Striped Blue Crows (Euploea mulciber mulciber) gliding past regally. We also encountered the attractive Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon luctatius) which has a faster flight than the Crows. The kids were delighted to say hi to several Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae asteris) butterflies, Singapore’s ‘National Butterfly’ by popular vote. This beauty likely won the most votes for wearing the colours of the National Flag on its wings. Unfortunately, we did not see Singapore’s largest butterfly, the Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus). Both of these butterflies share the same host plant – the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia acuminata) – a creeper that is grown in the Butterfly Garden along with other host and nectar plants. We inspected this creeper, and found a good number of cute Common Rose caterpillars in different instars feasting on it.
Auntie Lena next pointed out the Curry Leaf Plant (Murraya koenigii) on which were many White Tortoise Beetles (Silana farinose) and their brownish larvae. The larva of this introduced species from Sri Lanka carries its excreta above itself as a deterrent to predators such as birds. What a strange and clever defence tactic!

On the way back, we found a tree full of hanging Bagworm Moth (family Psychidae) cocoons. We also came across a Leopard (Phalanta phalantha phalantha) butterfly resting on its host plant, the Indian Prune (Flacourtia rukam). We were both glad to have shown everyone so many things, and to see that people were enjoying themselves.