Our sunsets are lined with the silhouette of skyscrapers, and sunrises obscured by The Housing & Development Board (HDB) flats, and condominiums. Tiles and concrete pave the ground we step on, and dried leaves are swept away daily.
With the inevitable growth of urbanisation, Singapore makes it a point to conserve what’s left of her nature to preserve the city’s greenery. All students who have been to school locally should be very familiar with the mandatory school excursions to nature conserves, such as the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve or the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
But while we are taught to extend kindness to the flora and fauna around us, we are never exposed to an in-depth education about the wildlife, which lives in the very nature we protect – or even the living things that flutter and flap in our everyday environment.
In 2012, the Nature Society Singapore came up with two free mobile applications, the Butterflies of Singapore, and Birds of Singapore, with hopes of perking the interest in the public, and especially in youths.
Mr Alan Owyong, 68, is the past Chairperson of the Bird Group of Nature Society Singapore, and headed the development of the Birds of Singapore application two years ago. He says, “They will not want to pay for expensive guide books and carry it around. They are the smart phone generation and having the guide in the palm of their hands is the best way to get them interested.”
Also, gone are the days where vivid bird watchers flip through pages of thick guidebooks while peering through their binoculars. Most bird watchers now would definitely prefer the ease of using digital technology for faster references and note taking.
“Visiting bird watchers from overseas can download the app and get to know the bird species before coming here. Also they don’t need to buy a guide for a few days of use,“ he adds.
Mr Owyong feels that “bird-watching is part of a love for our natural surroundings. Being out in the wild areas and greenery in our urban landscape is very soothing and therapeutic”.
Despite Singapore’s small land space, she has close to 400 more bird species as compared to the United Kingdom. Birds are the most visible wildlife and are also the best indicator of the health in our natural environment. Many of the bird species that are found in our sunny island are rare and nationally or globally endangered.
This makes it important to urge more people to take an interest in wildlife and natural habitats. Studying wildlife behaviours, and registering their movement to be compiled into data for their status and conservation leads to conservation efforts of their habitats in this tiny island.
The Nature Society Singapore has tried to make learning easy by reaching out to youths through their mobile phones – the device that has engulfed the lives of every youth. It is comforting to know that youths who might take interest in butterflies and birds can know more about them through an application.
No need for books, just read, listen and observe, it almost make learning effortless.
Mr Gan Cheong Weei, 51, current Vice Chairman of the Nature Society, highlights the unique features of the application, which makes it a simpler way for the Butterfly Group to record sightings of new butterfly species.
The Butterflies of Singapore has a smart search feature that allows users to search by tail, colour, size, flight speed, and eyespots, and by typing the species’ commonly used or scientific name. Users can look up similar looking species and can also have a side-by-side comparison for similar looking species with the application’s ‘Compare’ feature.
The application also proves handy during the Butterfly Interest Group’s regular butterfly walks, as recording and sightings can be more efficient and accurate now. As compared to the traditional method of jotting down characteristics on a piece of paper and then transferring it onto an Excel spread sheet, the application is fast, efficient and obviously, less cumbersome.
Wherever they are, bird and butterfly watchers can whip out their phones to identify and record a particular species on the application. Not constrained by size, cost, weight or space, a lot more information can be read from our small devices.
“We designed our app so that it caters to the need of the expert as well as novice butterfly watchers,” says Mr Gan, who is a veteran butterfly watcher himself.
Mr Gan started watching and learning about butterflies when he was a young boy. It was during the ’70s and ’80s when he was captivated by their “beauty and their ever presence” around him. He says regretfully that some butterfly species are now extinct and some are becoming endangered due to the removal of their habitat as a result of urban development.
It is a pastime that encourages him to venture out to the wild and also does not cost a single cent. Mr Gan was fascinated with the butterflies’ “amazing metamorphosis process and how their abundance and distribution are closely association with plants”.
To date, it appears that there are more bird watchers than butterfly lovers in Singapore as the Birds of Singapore has surpassed 5,000 downloads whereas the Butterflies of Singapore has close to 2,000 downloads.
Mr Anuj Jain, 29, Chairman of Nature Society Butterfly Interest Group says that since the launch, “Both the [applications] have been well received by both experts and novices”.
The ecologist who was first interested in plants before he was in caterpillars and butterflies, says, “…There are many more bird enthusiasts in Singapore than butterfly enthusiasts, though quite encouragingly, butterfly-watching has been growing quite steadily. ”
Mr Anuj jokes that it is much better to be a butterfly watcher than a bird watcher because of the optimal time to watch butterflies. Butterflies are active when it’s hot and sunny – which makes Singapore a good location to butterfly watch – and the best time to watch them is from 9.30 A.M to 3 P.M.
“So you can sleep in more unlike birds who come out crazy early in the mornings,” he points out.
Like any other social survey, it is difficult to tell if the number of downloads are directly proportionate to the increase in bird and butterfly watchers.
Nevertheless, the Bird Group will be creating the Android version for the Birds of Singapore and they aim to launch it by the end of 2014 with some enhancements for a smoother flow. This upcoming version will have an updated checklist and additional birdcalls. The Butterflies of Singapore also plans to improve the user interface as well as add new species, which were sighted since the application was launched.
Mr Owyong recommends different locations to bird-watch for different species. The Central Catchment Nature Reserves is a good pick for forest birds; Woodland species can be found in Pulau Ubin; The Botanic Gardens nests garden and parkland species; and there are healthy sightings of shorebirds and migrants at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserves.
Well, what are you waiting for? Go forth and bird-watch! And next time, we can better appreciate the Tropical Swallowtail Moths when they turn up in future June to August periods.