Sunday, April 20, 2008

Chek Jawa mornings

I had another enjoyable morning at Chek Jawa today, giving Gerald and Ai Kit from my NIE GESL group a brief introduction and tour of the Chek Jawa boardwalk.

Things got off to a pleasant start when I was pointing out the durian (Durio sp.) flowers that still littered the trail, and we managed to see a male white-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus).

I seriously need to make notes of where the fruit trees are situated along the trail, considering that I managed to miss them twice. And I just need to brush up on my skills at identifying plants. I still think plants are rather dull compared to animals, but still, there are times when I do wish I was able to casually identify the plants I was looking at, the way I can with most animals.

Chek Jawa, 13 April 2008, 9.21am.

Chek Jawa, 20 April 2008, 9.49am.

I had expected the tide to be pretty high today, compared to last week, but I was quite surprised at just how high it really was. So high, that even the huge colony of fiddler crabs (Uca vocans and Uca annulipes) was completely submerged. At least the tiny sand bubbler crabs (Scopimera sp.) were still out and about along the sandy shore areas close to the mangroves.

While we were within the mangroves, we did get to spot a number of fiddler crabs of a different species, probably the rosy fiddler (Uca rosea), although these were much smaller and not as active as the orange fiddlers. The usual cast of characters was out and about, including frisky little dusky-gilled mudskippers (Periophthalmus novemradiatus), a giant mudskipper (Periophthalmodon schlosseri), and the numerous tree-climbing crabs (Episesarma spp.) hanging around the mud lobster mounds.

I managed to share about the sea hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus) and the interesting relationship it has formed with various ant species. I didn't manage to find any cotton stainer bugs (Dysdercus decussatus), although there was a small group of white mealybugs underneath one of the leaves. I wonder if they were tended by the black ants that I saw crawling all over the plant, and whether this could be one way a supposed symbiotic relationship can result in one species exploiting another. Attracted by the secretions of the sea hibiscus, it is possible that this ant species might exclude other insects, but only because these would compete with or prey on the mealybugs, which would thus prosper at the expense of the sea hibiscus.

One main advantage that plants have over animals is that they don't run away, and can usually be relied on to provide topics for guides to talk about. The large grove of nipah palm (Nypa fruticans) did not disappoint in this regard, since several of them were fruiting, and further up, close to the Jejawi Tower, one of them was in flower.

Out on the coastal boardwalk, I was unable to show them the riches of the seagrass lagoon, because all of it was underwater. Fortunately, the resident pair of collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) put in an appearance several times, and my friends learned to recognise some of the birds they could hear: the collared kingfisher and its harsh cackling laughter, the melodious warbling song of the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), and off in the distance, the strangled crowing of the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) cock.

The usual herons, egrets and raptors were absent today, which was somewhat disappointing, but we did get a nice view of a whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) as it flew past the boardwalk, and seconds later, a black-naped tern (Sterna sumatrana) came flying in the opposite direction.

The highlight of the trip though, took place near the shelter along the coastal boardwalk. I was the first to spot something large swimming in the water, just off to one side beneath the boardwalk ahead of us, and we tried to contain our excitement as we approached. I was crossing my fingers, desperately hoping that it was an otter.

It turned out to be an 'ordinary' Malayan water monitor (Varanus salvator). Even though I have become a little jaded to seeing water monitors, Gerald and Ai Kit were thrilled at seeing one so large; it was a huge specimen, the largest I've ever seen on Chek Jawa to date. This individual was at least a metre long, and nearly as massive as some of the hulking monsters I've seen prowling around Sungei Buloh.

Unfortunately, despite its huge size, it was extremely shy, and the reptile spooked before we could get any photographs. Thrashing its tail and splashing water everywhere as it tried to dive, we barely caught a glimpse as it vanished into the murky waters. It surfaced momentarily, on the other side of the boardwalk, but disappeared again before my friends could scoot over to get a good look.

Oh well. Hopefully, in time, the babies and juvenile monitors we've been seeing lately will be able to survive and grow into giants like this one.

As we left the boardwalk and started to head back towards the Information Kiosk, I was pleased to see that the golden web spider (Nephila pilipes) that we'd discovered last weekend was still there. This particular spider provided an excellent opportunity to talk about kleptoparasites, as there were quite a number of tiny red silver spiders (Argyrodes flavescens) sharing its web.

I'm puzzled as to what is going on with the Rescue Tank at House No. 1 though. The fish have all disappeared, and now the only creatures I could find were a solitary glass shrimp and a noble volute (Cymbiola nobilis) baler shell (Melo melo).

We headed out to the viewing jetty, where I managed to find a large spotted scat (Scatophagus argus) lounging around one of the pillars of the jetty. Unlike the previous time I brought my GESL group members here, we didn't manage to spot any huge shoals of fish, but we did see a pinkish jellyfish with long trailing tentacles as we were heading back towards House No. 1.

Back at House No. 1, a pair of straw-headed bulbul flew past and landed in one of the trees, but unfortunately, they flew off before I could alert Gerald and Ai Kit.

I guess I also really ought to work on identifying butterflies, since quite a number of species can be seen flitting about Chek Jawa. How odd that I tend to ignore such a colourful, showy and distinctive group of insects.

We spent some time watching snippets of Remember Chek Jawa, which was playing on the television screen at House No. 1. Now I'm really keen to get my hands on the DVD and watch it in its entirety. Besides, it is slightly amusing to see so many familiar faces in the show, looking several years younger.

Though we did not manage to see many of the things other friends had seen on previous trips, we were treated to a number of fascinating sights and sounds. That's the magic of places like Chek Jawa: you can go again and again, but it never gets dull. There's always bound to be something new or fascinating, and half the thrill comes from being on your toes, always on the lookout, not quite expecting what you might encounter as you travel down the boardwalk.

As we were ready to leave Chek Jawa, we began to see the crowds that were starting to trickle in. And at the Ubin Jetty, bustling with the activity of bumboats arriving and departing, it was plain to see just how popular Pulau Ubin is as a weekend getaway.

While we were heading back towards mainland Singapore, I couldn't help but snap several photos of the various crafts plying these waters. From fishing boats and ferries, to huge barges and container ships, to sailing yachts, these are busy seas.

Which makes the survival of the rich marine ecosystems on our northern shores even more magical.

Till next weekend...