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There are over 200 species of birds here, about two-thirds of those found in the entire island. They come for the fish and insects which are abundant here.
Sluice gates control flooding in one of the 10 brackish water ponds to ensure that the birds can feed and roost on the mud flats. 'During high tide in Singapore, many of the shorebirds congregate here', said Mr James Gan, a senior conservation officer at the National Parks Board and bird expert who can recognise almost all the birds there.
'I have been watching birds for more than 25 years. Just like you recognise a person by his facial features, how he talks and where he likes to hang out, I listen to the unique bird calls and look out for size, shape, profile, plumage and the way they fly,' he said. A keen ear helps. Visitors are likely to hear the distinct call of the white-collared kingfisher, for example, before they spot the electric blue figure flitting amid the mangrove trees or diving for fish.
Other birds are so used to people that they ignore them as they go about their own business. One white-breasted waterhen was most comfortable dodging tables and legs at the cafe during a Straits Times visit recently.
Between September and March, visitors get their best chance to see birds that are not native to this part of the world. This is because it is migratory season for birds from northern areas such as Siberia, and the animals stop over here on their way to warmer climes such as Malaysia and Australia. Then, the wetland is a pit-stop for up to 3,000 migratory birds on any day, including the Pacific Golden Plovers, which alight in flocks of hundreds while doing aerial acrobatics, and Redshanks, with their red legs, that can be seen foraging for food in the mudflats.
At other times, perennial favourites include the grey and purple herons, Singapore's largest birds, which stand about 1m tall, picking their way delicately through the mud and water for fish.
A legacy of disused prawn farms, the reserve's healthy mangroves have produced land rich in all that is delicious to both local and migratory birds. But the area was almost given the kiss of death when it was slated for agro-tech farming in the 1980s. Then, a group of bird watchers from the Singapore branch of the then Malayan Nature Society chanced upon the site and persuaded top government officials to visit. The rest is history.
Apart from being gazetted as a nature reserve in 2002, the 130-ha wetland has also been recognised as a site of international importance for migratory shorebirds by Wetlands International, a global organisation dedicated to wetland conservation and sustainable management. It was also accepted as a member of the East Asian Australasian Shorebird Site Network, and is an Asean heritage park.
While birds are its undoubted stars, there is more to the wetland than its feathered inhabitants. There are 17 recorded species of mammals, close to 100 types of marine and freshwater fish, 36 reptile species, 50 kinds of butterflies and eight species of amphibians.
A firm favourite of visitors and staff alike is the family of smooth otters which entertains with clownish antics; holding fish in their paws before crunching down with relish, sand bathing or just frolicking in the placid waters.
Charming oddballs include the mudskippers, the curious fish that can live out of water in a form of reverse-diving, by storing mouthfuls of water in their cheeks. Then there are close encounters of an almost prehistoric kind, with estuarine crocodiles or Singapore's largest lizard, the monitor lizard. Creatures up to 2m in length can seen ambling across tracks.
Less well-known is that Sungei Buloh is one of the best places in the country to watch fish in their natural setting. Said the reserve's assistant director Ng Sock Ling: 'They are a very important part of the ecosystem and some-thing you can see all year round, unlike migratory birds.' Residents in its Sungei Buloh Besar river include sharp-shooting banded archerfish, which spit water to dislodge insects from their perches beyond the water, as well as the green chromide, sea bass and schooling mullets.
More about Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
Related articles on Singapore's biodiversity and Wild shores of Singapore
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