Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Monkey Roadkill

Monkeys in Singapore are forced to live in close contact with humans, and this often results in monkeys getting hit by cars. Of course, accidents happen and sometimes no one's to blame, but the problem is exacerbated by people who drive carelessly around parks and nature reserves.

Unfortunately, one of the Hindhede monkeys became another sad statistic last night after getting run over by a car. Dora was Camille's youngest daughter, and was very fun and vivacious. I named her Dora because she was always exploring ("Dora the Explorer") and wandering, sometimes causing Camille to yank her back by her tail. Her adventuresome nature may be part of the reason that she got hit by a car, but I suspect that the individual who hit her was probably driving too fast. Camille has long been one of my favorite monkeys, so naturally her daughter had a special place in my heart. Today, Camille looked everywhere, as though she might be able to find Dora if she looked hard enough. She kept making a very sad honking sound, known as a "distress coo." It was difficult to watch her go through such a hard time. Below is Dora off on her own, and below that is Camille with Dora shortly after Dora was born.I'm on Hindhede Road frequently and people drive like maniacs around there. They speed up and down the road, into and out of the reserve, disregarding the fact that there are monkeys as well as human children playing on the street frequently. It's incredibly frustrating to watch people drive like this, and I always feel an overwhelming urge to throw rocks at people driving too fast on that road, but I control myself. It would be very unSingaporean to flip my lid and start chucking debris at passersby. I do wish that there were more speed bumps on the road. Even the ones that are there are very small and do little to slow people down.

So it was a sad day at Bukit Timah. And I know that I just posted a total downer about the dog attacks, so I'll try to post some more upbeat monkey stuff soon.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Singapore Camping!

Since moving to Singapore, we've really missed going camping. Bryan and I have both done a fair amount of camping, and it's something that we enjoyed doing together in the U.S. There aren't a lot of places to camp, but we'd heard that Pulau Ubin has a few places, and we decided to give it a shot.

It's been raining pretty much every afternoon for the past month and the weekend forecast predictably included rain for Ubin. Our tent didn't come with a rain fly so before we left for the island we decided to detour to VivoCity to pick up a tarp. VivoCity had a cool sculpture that I missed on our last trip there.

After VivoCity, we headed to Changi Point Ferry Terminal to catch the bumboat to Ubin. The bumboats run on a pretty casual schedule; boats just leave whenever twelve people arrive. The ride's cheap (S$2.50 a person) and short, only about 15 minutes. When we got to the island, we talked to an NParks guy about our campsite options. He said that they were all pretty similar, except that campfires are only allowed at the site nearest to the jetty, the one called Jelutong. Since campfires are half the fun of camping we decided to check that one first. It turned out to be a little disappointing because the sites were all very close together and the fire pits were huge and looked like they were meant to be shared by multiple sites. It was also facing toward the main island of S'pore, so there was a lot of boat traffic.We decided to check out Mamam campsite, on the opposite side of the island, facing the Johor Straits and peninsular Malaysia. But first we rented bicycles since the bag I was lugging (which contained all our camping gear) was getting a little heavy and the walk wasn't exactly a short jaunt. Poor Bryan is still injured so I did all the heavy lifting. He felt pretty silly for toting a small daypack while his girlfriend huffed and puffed with the big pack. It probably looked like I was being punished.

Anyway, we got on our rickety bikes and pedaled across the island to Mamam campsite. It was all right- it seemed quiter than Jelutong, but it still wasn't the best place for camping. There's a path that goes off to one side of the campsites, and it gets a fair amount of bike traffic. We briefly contemplated checking out Noordin, the third camping spot, but at that point I was ready to put the bag down, so we just set up camp there. The sites are first-come first-serve, and we were the only ones there, so we picked a shady spot and pitched our tent with our jury rigged tarp on the outside to protect from rain. The tide was low when we set up our tent, but it was high the next day. It made a huge difference!After setting up camp, we decided to go on a hike. We headed off in the direction of the Chek Jawa area, on the east side of the island. Along the way, we took some side paths. At one point Bryan got all excited about a bird that he had spotted but I didn't see it. We rounded the corner and I spotted a bird that sounded like the one he'd described. It was on the ground, nestled into the underbrush. We looked it up later and discovered that it's a large-tailed nightjar, a nocturnal bird.Not long after we saw the bird, we spotted this crazy spider. It was gigantic! If you include its legs, it was bigger than Bryan's hand. A little research revealed that this is a female golden orb web spider, and the tiny red spiders in her web may be male spiders who are so incredibly minute that they can sometimes live in the web of the female without her even knowing!  Or they could be a separate species of spider called red silver spiders, which live in the nests of other spiders and snatch their prey.  Sneaky!On the side of one path we found an abandoned building!!! Everyone knows how much I love abandoned things, so I was pretty stoked. And this one was pink! Pulau Ubin has a lot of abandoned buildings, most likely because many of the inhabitants left Ubin for mainland Singapore as S'pore became increasingly urbanized.The skies were growing darker and thunder was grumbling, but we kept going and eventually arrived at Chek Jawa. I went to the toilet there and saw a bride putting the finishing touches on her makeup while glancing nervously at the sky. What a cool place to get married! And in the end, the rain held off for her.

We caught the tail-end of low tide at the intertidal flats, so we saw some cool shells, snails, mudskippers, and fish.

Judging from information I found in the Chek Jawa Guidebook, I think the photo below shows knobby periwinkle, tiny algae-grazing snails.

The mussel with the green rim was my favorite!

These yellow, snot-like blobs are actually colonial ascidians, a type of simple animal.
We also saw some interesting birds. I think this is a white egret, but I'm not sure.As we moved off of the Chek Jawa boardwalk and back onto the mangrove area we began seeing more and more crabs.
In one spot we'd stopped to watch the crabs when we heard some squawking and branches crashing. It was an Oriental pied hornbill!! Apparently they're not very graceful.
After walking all over Chek Jawa, we decided to go back to our campsite to pick up our bikes. On our way, we stopped by one of Ubin's abandoned quarries. The island used to be heavily mined for granite ("Pulau Ubin" actually means "Granite Island"), but now all the quarries are abandoned. This one was called the Balai Quarry and was my favorite because of all the colors- rich red earth, cerulean water, bright green trees, and a baby blue sky with fluffy white clouds. I look really moody in this picture, but it's only because I'm squinting at the brightness.Back at the campsite, our tent was now surrounded by other tents. The people to the right of us had a huge group and about six tents. So much for for a campground all to ourselves! Anyway, we picked up our bikes and rode into town for some dinner. I wasn't too optimistic about my options, since I was attempting to get something vegetarian on a seafood-crazy island, but my fried rice turned out to be delicious and Bryan raved about his black pepper beef. An ice cold Tiger washed it all down. We got a couple more beers and some bottled water (you can't drink from the tap on Ubin!) and headed back to the campsite. Sitting by the beach and watching the sun set was a great way to end a day full of hiking.
We sat around for awhile longer, draining our Tigers and waiting for it to get completely dark. There was some moonlight and Bryan and decided to go for a walk to see if we could spot any night wildlife. We brought along my headlamp to try to find some eyeshine.

The island was so much quieter at night. During the day, it's crawling with people on bikes, cycling all over the place. At a talk I went to last week, I heard a guy who does research on Ubin say that people may be "loving it to death," by frequenting it for its nature. It's not so surprising I guess, S'pore is so packed that people, ourselves included, are often looking for a getaway and Ubin is one of the most convenient options. It was much more peaceful at night after most everyone had departed on the last bumboat at 9 PM.We roamed awhile and didn't see much, but it was enjoyable anyway. It was so nice to hear the night sounds and to not see anything that reminded us of the city- no lights, no skyscrapers, no cars, not even any other people.

I spotted some eyes off to one side and I think it might have been a civet, but I'm not sure. We saw lots of little glints that turned out to be spiders, and we also spotted another nightjar. At one point we stood perfectly still and turned off the light. After a few seconds, something BIG started crashing around in the trees to our left. Even after we turned on the light and pointed it in that direction we couldn't see what it was, but it really sounded huge!

After our walk, we headed back to the tent and got ready for bed. Someone else had set up a tent right next to ours, which seemed a little obnoxious to me, but I supposed that this was just like the rest of S'pore- there are just a lot of people and not much space. Our neighbors (the big group) was being pretty loud and listening to music, but it was still pretty early and I figured they would quiet down soon. Oh man, was I wrong. The night went like this:

11 PM: Try to go to sleep, despite the horrible, old American pop blaring from a boombox about 15 feet from our tent (LeAnn Rimes? N*SYNC?!? Boyz II Men?!?!?!)

12 AM: After stewing about the rudeness of these people for over an hour, I put on my boots and go over and ask them to turn down the music, because we are trying to sleep. One girl in the group is very apologetic and suggests that they move the party up the beach. Everyone leaves, but GET THIS. One guy stays. With the stereo. And doesn't turn it down.

1 AM: Still awake, silently cursing these people and wondering what on earth is wrong with them. Have they absolutely no consideration for other people? Why is this one guy such a loser? Is he leaving the music on just to be a mean jerk?

2 AM: The party that had moved up the beach returns, and the fun rages on...for them.

3 AM: I conclude that death is a suitable punishment for disturbing the peace. Right around when I decide this, everything abruptly gets quiet. The music turns off and everyone goes to bed. I finally fall asleep.


9 AM: Give up trying to sleep, and get up to start the day. Am unsurprised to see that everyone else that was not associated with the raging party has already packed up and left. The partying neighbors are hanging out in front of our tent.

I brushed my teeth while glaring at our neighbors, and then Bryan and I left for a hike. As we were walking away, we found cool wildlife right by our tent. Jellyfish!And a flatworm fireworm, which apparently stings with those hairs (thanks, Ivan)!A very well-camouflaged mudskipper!We walked by a local's house. The man that lives there sells cold drinks and keeps a small garden and a hutch full of rabbits. As we walked by, someone waved us over to show us the wild boar that the man had caught and was keeping in an enclosure in his yard. It made me sad to see it- I'm sure that boar had been much happier out in the wild, free to go where he pleased and without annoying people yelling at him and trying to get his attention. I tried not to be bummed about the poor pig, and the cute little frog we found helped a little bit.Then we found ANOTHER ABANDONED BUILDING! Obviously, this made me happy.There was some weird stuff inside, like an entire corner full of cups. Bryan let me take over the camera (he usually takes all of the photos on our outings since I get the camera during the weekdays at Bukit he's better at photography than I am!), so I took a bunch of abandoned building shots.Strangely shaped spiderweb in the corner of the side door.This is the upstairs. I should probably get some health insurance if I'm going to make a habit of scaling rotting staircases, but it turned out all right this time!Back on solid ground, Bryan went inside so I could take his photo through the barred window. He was about to pose when he saw a big, nasty spider and made this wonderful face instead.I relinquished control of the camera when we left the building, and Bryan snapped this shot of me in the jungle.After hiking around a bit more, we went back and got our bikes again to cycle around the island awhile. Most of the western part of the island is restricted because it belongs to Outward Bound Singapore, but we went until we saw the boundary and then turned around. For the first part of the ride, the sun was really beating down and it was almost unbearably hot. We stopped in town for a 100 Plus (mmmm) and while we cooled off it started thundering and then poured down rain. I suggested that we continue anyway and it turned out to be lots of fun to bike through the rain on mostly empty roads. At some point on our journey, we saw a red junglefowl! They're the ancestors of domestic chickens and they look almost identical to regular chickens, but they're very good at flying. I call them tree chickens, haha.
In the afternoon, we biked back to our campsite and packed up our tent (it was a good thing we did- our neighbors had moved some of their tents so that they were boxing us in on all sides. They had pretty much absorbed us. Weirdos). Anyway, we went back into town, dropped off our bikes, and walked over to the jetty. Catching a bumboat back is a distinctly unSingaporean experience. I'm used to everything in S'pore being somewhat orderly, but the bumboat ordeal is disorganized and there are lots of people shouting and pointing and it's hard to tell who's in charge. We just stood patiently and waited for someone to point us in the right direction and it all worked out in less than 10 minutes. Here we are on the boat, a little sunburned and sleepy but happy nonetheless!Back in Changi Village, we were looking forward to Mexican food at Tequila Blue, but they were only serving drinks at that time of day so we went to Subway instead. As we headed there, Bryan heard some screeching up in the trees. In the trees were two very colorful birds! They're red-breasted parakeets, which are not native to S'pore but have been introduced here and now survive in the wild in a small breeding population. They were likely introduced from Java and Bali as part of the bird trade.
After a very satisfying meal, we splurged and got a cab home. It was nice to be back at our place and to have a very quiet night's sleep!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bukit Timah Dog Attacks

These events actually happened a few months ago, but it's taken me awhile to be able to write about them coherently without going off on a tangent about mean people who have no respect for animals.

Back in January I was out at Bukit Timah, just having a pretty average day with the monkeys- collecting data and taking photos for identification sheets. Late in the afternoon, I headed up to the Visitor Center for a meeting with my advisor (Dr. Gumert) and some of the people from NParks. The meeting went smoothly, and Dr. Gumert and I left at around 7 PM. On the way out, we spotted the monkeys raiding a trash can at one of the condos near Bukit Timah. Although I'd been working with the monkeys for several months, I'd never actually observed the monkeys with Dr. Gumert, so it was nice to be able to point out some of the young ones that I'd identified and to have him explain some behaviors that I'd been curious about.

The residents of the condos were less amused with the monkeys' antics than we were, however. One of them sent out her puppy after the monkeys. I presume she was hoping that the puppy would chase them away, but instead he joined in the fun, gobbling up spilled garbage right alongside them. Frustrated, the woman called her dog back in. Right after that, a woman down the street opened her gate and pointed her dog toward the monkeys. The medium-sized dog came trotting down the street and some of the monkeys scattered, but a few of the juveniles were absorbed in their trash looting, and kept right at what they were doing. The dog charged right into the middle of them and scooped up a baby monkey, right into its mouth.

I was horrified. I knew that there was nothing that I could do about this situation- interfering would only put me in the line of danger: the monkeys would have no way of knowing that I was trying to help them, and would be very likely to attack me. As soon as the dog scooped up the baby, the air was filled with the sounds of loud monkey alarm calls (a trilling kraaaaa sound). All of the juveniles went high into the trees and seemingly out of nowhere, all the big males popped up- it was like watching the cavalry ride in. The males set in on that dog, charging, biting, slashing, grunting, and barking. Then a female (the mother of the unfortunate baby) came streaking around the corner and dealt that dog a mighty bite on the backside. The dog dropped the baby and turned his attentionto fending off his attackers. Much to my surprise and great relief, the baby ran away and climbed about six inches up a gate before freezing, obviously still terrified. The mother ran to the baby and tried to pull it off of the gate but it took her several tries, as the baby was clinging on for dear life. Eventually the mother pried him loose and clutched him to herself. He grabbed onto her, and she ran away, carrying him beneath her. The male monkeys continued taking turns scaring the bejeezus out of the dog until it turned tail and ran for home.

Even after the dog was gone, the monkeys remained on high-alert, alarm calling and grunting and looking around for potential threats. "Don't look them in the eye," Dr. Gumert reminded me. Looking the macaques directly in the eyes is always a bad idea, as they take it as a challenge, but when they're already agitated making eye contact easily provokes them. My eyes swept toward the ground and on the way I glimpsed an adult male out of the corner of my eye. Apparently that was all it took, because the next thing I knew, I had a very angry monkey charging toward me, closing the twenty-foot gap between us in what seemed like a millisecond. I've been charged before, but never by such an outraged monkey, and I was scared.

My hands flew to my ears, an inexplicable reaction that I have every time I get charged by a monkey. I closed my eyes so that there would be no confusion about where my gaze was directed, and I backed up...right into a parked car. Now I was stuck between a pissed-off monkey and a huge parked car. I could hear the monkey's angry grunts right at my feet and when I peeked I saw a back with raised hair. I slowly edged toward Dr. Gumert, and he placed his long umbrella firmly on the ground between the monkey and me (I usually carry a stick for this purpose, but didn't have it this time because we were leaving a meeting). The umbrella thumping the ground seemed to break the spell, and the monkey grunted once more and walked away.

I scooted down the street and into a taxi at warp speed. I think I talked a mile a minute all the way to my flat, but Dr. Gumert was a good sport. When I got back to my place, I was shocked when I realized that the whole incident had lasted less than ten minutes. In retrospect, it seemed like my entire afternoon. I hoped never to see the monkeys that stressed again. I much prefer when they're mellowed out, like Nad here: I thought that was about the peak of the excitement that I'd experience with the monkeys, but a month later I was proved wrong. Dr. Gumert had brought guest speaker and fellow researcher, Dr. Noë, to NTU, and he wanted to show him what we were up to at Bukit Timah. So, one February afternoon the two of them met up with me along the bike path, where I was watching the monkeys. It had been a pretty typical day and the monkeys were just hanging around, resting and munching on fruits. It was all very calm for about a half hour and then I heard some rustling behind me.

"Is that a dog?" Dr. Noë asked.

Oh no. Not again. I whirled around and saw a mass of dirty brown fur rooting around in the leaves. For a minute I just thought it was one of bigger monkeys, and then I saw a dog muzzle. I backed away, and then spotted another dog further up the path. I pointed it out to the men, and they pointed out a THIRD dog. All three of the dogs were huge.The monkeys had been slow to react to the presence of the dogs, and I wasn't too surprised- I hadn't heard any of the dogs make a sound. It was as though they'd materialized right where they were. But the monkeys were well aware of them now, and were raising quite the alarm. The alarm calls mixed with the crashing of branches as the monkeys fled to the trees, and along with the dogs' barks, there was quite a cacophony.

The dogs didn't appear to be friendly, and Dr. Gumert advised me to pick up a rock. I still couldn't tear my eyes away from that dog rustling in the leaves- he'd been in the middle of a mass of juveniles, and they'd all taken to the trees rather quickly, but I'd seen him lash out at a few of them. I knew that there were injuries, but I couldn't determine whether they had all made it out alive. Keeping my eyes focused on the crazy scene unfolding before me, I stooped and picked up a huge rock. I mean, in retrospect, it was comically large. It looked like I intended to slay a dragon with it rather than fend off a dog. Two of the dogs took off running and headed down a nearby hill. When the rustling dog finally came out of the leaves, he looked straight at me and I clutched my behemoth of a rock a little tighter. This dog did not look like he wanted to play fetch. I was grateful when he turned away and trotted into the forest, away from the other two dogs. I turned back to the spot where he'd been rooting around, and my heart sank. In the leaves lay a twisted and broken little monkey. I made a strangled little sound and then reminded myself that I was with two grown men, both seasoned primatologists, and that it might not be very flattering if I started blubbering in the middle of the woods.

You can't see much in the video below, but you can hear the chorus of alarm calls in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

The men spotted the dead monkey about the same time that I did, and Dr. Gumert asked me if I knew who it was. I inched a little closer and was met with a resurgence in the alarm calls, so I backed off. I couldn't ID the monkey for sure, partly because it was hard to get to close without inciting a monkey riot, and partly because the monkey was pretty mangled. I was almost grateful that I couldn't provide a positive ID, because that meant that it probably wasn't one of the monkeys most near and dear to me- it certainly wasn't Kevin, Punk, Izzy, or Xerxes. (I wasn't going to share my morbid photo, but right when I took it, a butterfly landed on the monkey's nose and I thought there was something really sweet about that. The butterfly's wings are up in the photo, so it's a little hard to see, but you get the idea).

The dogs were gone, but the monkey panic continued. It appeared that the adult males had formed a protective circle around the little monkey's corpse, and they were protecting it fiercely from up in the trees. We didn't dare get any closer to investigate. After Sidious threatened Dr. Gumert, he determined that now might be a good time to go get some lunch so that the monkeys could cool off a little. I couldn't imagine eating, but I readily agreed anyway. Over lunch, the men talked about the rarity of actually witnessing a "predation event." It's really unusual for a person to witness a monkey dying for a couple of reasons. For one, predators often strike at night, and people are less likely to witness these events. Also, animals with researchers following them around are generally safer than other animals, because a lot of predators want to avoid humans and therefore will be unwilling to prey on an animal with a human in close proximity. Furthermore, monkeys in Singapore have relatively few predators. Cars typically pose more of a threat than anything else. As we all talked science, I felt my mind wandering rather unprofessionally over and over again to the same thought- "My poor little monkey."

After I managed to eat a surprising amount of my vegetable biryani (I had been hiking all day, after all), we decided to head back to the spot where the monkey had died to see what was going on, and to see if I could get photos of the monkey so that I could try to make an ID for our mortality data. The monkeys were still in the same spot, but to my surprise, the body was gone. Uma, one of the adult females sat in a tree, staring unflinchingly at the spot where the monkey had been killed. I usually try not to project emotions onto the monkeys unless they're making interpretable facial expressions, but I have to say that Uma looked decidedly forlorn. Keira, another female, kept creeping slowly to the spot where the body had been, and then darting away at the last minute, as though she'd seen a ghost. It was very bizarre behavior.

We determined that the dogs must have come back and carried off the corpse, and we decided to call one of the NParks rangers to alert him to the presence of the dogs, since they were certainly a threat to the monkeys and didn't seem too keen on people either. Before the ranger arrived, Dr. Gumert found the monkey's body on the other side of the path, back in the trees. We moved in to get some photos, but didn't get too close.

It appeared as though the monkeys had kept up the alarm calls since the initial attack. They had been loud and shrill at first, but when we came back from lunch they had tapered off and become quieter and less frequent. Just before the ranger arrived, the alarm calls went off the charts again, reverberating through the forest. I looked around and was frightened to see that one of the dogs had returned, but he seemed to be just passing by. The rangers arrived and took a look around. They found a nest nearby that looked as though it might belong to stray dog. They said that they would monitor the situation and would try to trap the dogs if they needed to, but that trapping a dog in monkey territory can be quite difficult, given that they're every bit as likely to end up inadvertently trapping a monkey and causing monkey chaos. The rangers left, and Dr. Gumert and Dr. Noë decided that they would go ahead and continue to hike around a little more of Bukit Timah, as they had originally planned. Dr. Gumert asked me to try to get a biological sample from the monkey if I could do so safely, e.g. if the other monkeys moved on and I was confident that the dogs were no longer around. He handed me a plastic bag and told me to just pull out some of the monkey's fur. I tried not to look appalled, and nodded.

I sat alone in the forest, which was finally quieting down a little. I stared at the monkey's body for a few minutes, trying to identify exactly what I was feeling (I later decided that the feeling was nearly exactly how I'd felt when I was 12 years old and my guinea pig, Oreo, had died). I cringed at the thought of having to yank fur out of the poor monkey's sad little body, but I tried to channel Jane Goodall and be brave. As it turned out, I never had to carry out the stomach-turning chore because a few minutes later, the air was again electrified with stress and alarm calls as a dog made another appearance. He strode up to the monkey, gingerly picked up the body in his mouth, and disappeared into the forest. I sighed deeply, and then got out of there. By that time about five hours had passed since the attack and for once, I'd had about all the monkey action I could handle.

The next few weeks were pretty rough. I think that some of the male monkeys associated me with the death of one of their crew, and they were standoffish for awhile. I could handle that, and tried to be respectful of their space, but one monkey simply did not want anything to do with me (if you guessed that it was Sidious, then you've been a very attentive blog reader). Sidious made my life difficult. He grunted aggressively at me for no apparent reason, and he charged me repeatedly, sometimes covering great distances just to scare the crap out of me. As I said before, I've been charged in my time with the monkeys, but in the past I've always been able to tell why- I was too close to an infant; I accidentally walked by a mating that I didn't see occurring behind a tree; I spent too long watching one monkey. This was totally different. Sidious was coming after me all the time, without warning, and for reasons that I couldn't discern. That's him in the photo below.
After a stressful few weeks, during which I developed a near phobia of Sidious, things slowed down again and Sidious returned to his normal, mildly disagreeable self. I breathed a sigh of relief and told Dr. Gumert that I was terrified to have him join me in the field again. During my time in Singapore I had witnessed two dog attacks, one each on the days that Dr. Gumert had joined me in the field. So far, there was a 1-to-1 correlation between being with him in the field and seeing a monkey in the jaws of a dog. No thank you.

I suspect that that little monkey wasn't the only victim of the pack of roving strays. Over a couple of weeks, Michelle and Fang also disappeared. They were both kind of odd- Fang liked to hang out on the outskirts of the group, and Michelle had some sort of mental deficiency and often became lost. I think that their odd, independent behavior probably made them susceptible to predation by dogs.That's Michelle below with the crazy eye and Fang below that with the gnarly tooth.
This was a rather distressing post, so I'll leave you with something a little more cheerful. Remember Catherine, the monkey with the broken wrist? When I first got to S'pore, she had an infant and it ended up dying a rather slow death (this isn't the happy part). Well, a few weeks ago, she had another baby and it's growing up healthy and strong! Catherine's been a very attentive and competent mother. Here's Mama Catherine and Auntie Julia doting on the sweet new infant. Now isn't that happy?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Saturday Stroll

The Park Connector Network is a series of bike and pedestrian-friendly paths that runs around Singapore and connects parks and nature reserves to one another. The network was organized and is maintained by NParks, and is generally structured to be a lot more scenic than walking along sidewalks and streets. I'd never used the so-called PCN (another of S'pore's many beloved acronyms), but I was still getting over being sick and it sounded pretty low-key, so Bryan and I decided to go for a walk on Saturday.

We picked up the Jurong Park Connector near our flat, at the intersection of Boon Lay Way and Jurong East Central, and started walking in the direction of Chinese Garden. It was a blessedly pleasant day for Singapore and there was actually a breeze, which is pretty unusual. The first part of the walk was pretty bland. The trail just goes under the MRT track near the road and there isn't much scenery. As we got closer to Chinese Garden, things got a lot more lush and the trail went away from the road. We stopped a couple of times to explore random patches of forest, and on one of our diversions, I was surprised to spot a young water monitor. I hadn't thought of such big animals living so near our flat! Bryan explored a small patch of forest as I hung back, again feeling like an 8-year-old boy as I devotedly observed a busy little habitat full of snails and fish.

As usual, Bryan and I were playing the lizard-spotting game, and as usual, I was kicking his butt. (To be fair, my eyesight is perfect and he has glasses, so I don't really know that we're equally matched). The score was about 10-6, and we were staring up at a couple of ordinary changeable lizards that I'd just spotted high in a tree. After a few seconds of staring I began to look elsewhere and then jumped back, startled, when I realized that the two tiny lizards we'd been ogling were only a few feet above a GIANT water monitor. Woah! And add another one to my score : )
We stopped at a drink stand for an ice cold Coke and a 100 Plus (an "isotonic drink" available in S'pore, which I have developed a taste for). As we stood on a bridge, sipping away, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was just one of the super common red-bellied squirrels, but as it turned around, I realized that it was a rat! Now I know that most people don't get too excited about rats, and maybe this demonstrates that Bryan and I are kind of weird about loving all sorts of wildlife, but this was totally exciting for us. The rat was up a tree and was moving all around so Bryan had trouble getting a good photo, but he got one that was decent. We sat around with the photo and our wildlife book later and decided that the rat is either a brown spiny rat (aka Rajah spiny rat) or an accurately named Singapore rat, which also goes by the name of the Annandale's rat.

As we followed the rat's progress through the trees, Bryan pointed out a gigantic spider. I wasn't too excited about it since I see the same type of spider (known as the Batik golden web spider) at Bukit Timah often, so I just nodded and went on watching the rat and yet another huge water monitor that we'd found lounging beneath a nearby tree. Bryan continued watching the spider and exclaimed suddenly- as he stood and watched, the spider had caught a huge flying insect in its web, and was now in the process of wrapping it up! He snapped away with the camera, quietly mumbling about our need for a better camera for wildlife photography, as our trusty point-and-shoot has some shortcomings when it comes to things like low lighting and close-up shots of small animals.Not long after the spider in action, we saw a huge bird flying overhead with a fat fish in its talons! But alas, it all happened so fast that we didn't get a good picture. We walked along to a part of Chinese Garden I'd never been to before. Usually we hang out on the opposite side of Jurong Lake, so the views were different from this perspective. The pagodas are generally awesome from any angle though.The whole time we were walking it seemed as though a storm was following just behind us. We kept hearing thunder and seeing lightning, but apparently we were walking just fast enough to beat it. In a very scenic spot along the lake, we found this makeshift little temple. Even though we were the only ones around, there was still a flame burning inside.The temple's in the bottom left corner.These lovely, funky flowers were nearby, and just beyond them was a purple heron!We passed by Lakeside MRT station, and things got a little less scenic for awhile. Eventually we popped up at Jurong Central Park, which is decidedly less cool than the original Central Park. It was all right though- lots of kids were flying kites, and there were plenty more lizards (the score was about 22-16 by this point, and I was still crushing Bryan). The best part of the park is a small little wetlands area. We could hear frogs croaking and we saw tons of little tadpoles swimming around, but didn't spot any full-grown frogs.Jurong Central Park is right across from Boon Lay MRT station and Jurong Point mall, so we went into the mall to get some dinner. But first we went to Billy Bombers to share a yummy vanilla milkshake. Milkshakes in S'pore are one of those hit-or-miss types of things, and Billy Bombers has the best ones I've tasted, but only if you get plain vanilla- the chocolate tastes a little off. Afterward, we walked around for awhile, longingly looking at cameras. We go to Jurong Point every so often for dinner or a movie, but we usually take the MRT. It seemed weird that we'd walked there.The crowds at Jurong Point were overwhelming, so we gave up on shopping pretty quickly. We headed down to Din Tai Fung, the yummy dim sum place downstairs, but there was a massive crowd of people waiting for tables (despite the fact that there were about eight empty tables visible from where we were standing...but I won't get started on the miserable state of Singaporean customer service again). Anyway, we gave up and went upstairs to Anjappar and it was quieter and delicious.

After dinner, we took the MRT back to Chinese Garden and then walked through the garden a little bit. It was weird to be in the park at night, since I'm used to American parks being closed at sundown unless you're camping. The sculpture garden was really pretty at night. Confucius looked even more prophetic than usual.On our way out of the park, I was delighted to spot a couple of toads in the grass!! Of course, I don't know much about amphibians so I don't know what type they are (possibly the common Asian toad?), but they're pretty cute! Bryan also redeemed his low score in the lizard-spotting game by spying a black gecko on a black pole in the dark. It was pretty skillful, I have to admit.After our walk I was surprised by the wildlife we'd seen, considering that we'd been mostly in areas that are mowed and carefully maintained. It made me think of hiking in the Organ Mountains where, even on long hikes into total wilderness, you might go for miles and never see a single animal. I suppose the abundant wildlife here is one of the many perks of living in the tropics, although you have to brave the heat to enjoy it.

So the Park Connector Network turned out to be pretty fun! We saw cool wildlife right near our own flat, we had a really enjoyable walk, and we ate a delicious meal! Plus now I feel like I know my own neighborhood better than I did before. A pretty successful adventure, I would say.

(Thanks to Wild Singapore, a website about all the wild happenings in S'pore, for posting a link to this entry under their "Best of our Wild Blogs"! See the rest of the list at