A World of Distractions

Day 3 of Urban Tropical Ecology: I reread the syllabus as to our whereabouts for the day. “Pulau Ubin and Chek Jawa wetlands (bring snacks, long hike)” is written in Times New Roman size 12 font. I check eBird: 175 total bird species spotted all time, 48 in the last 30 days. A solid birding spot. A quick google search shows Pulau Ubin is an island off the Northeast of Singapore, a 10 minute ferry ride from the main island. While not a dedicated birding location, Chek Jawa wetlands has promise for a solid birding day. I pack my day pack. Dry bag goes in first, adding an extra layer of protection against the elements, followed by passport and most importantly camera with extra batteries. I check the batteries, both fully charged. I close the dry bag and fill the rest of the pack with water bottles (a total of 3) and a plethora of snacks. My emergency Clif Bar is still in the back zipper. This Cool Mint Chocolate Clif Bar is a remnant of the pre-pandemic world. Originally placed in this bag for a quick hiking trip in 2020, it had lived forgotten in the rarely used rear most zipper until its rediscovery in the fall of 2022. Since then, it has remained in this bag, awaiting a moment of dire need.

The trek from the docks of Pulau Ubin to the Chek Jawa Wetlands looked to be about a 2 mile walk over a fairly flat paved path through the island’s jungle. While not a bad trek for most, this seemed an impossible task due to one large glaring aspect: be back at the docks by 1pm. I am self diagnosed with “acute bird distraction”. When I spot a bird, I have to stop, get a good look at it and identify what species it is. This can occur anywhere, in class, driving, or even watching a movie and a bird appears in the background. Any bird is enough to catch my eye, but the identity of the bird will determine the amount of time I sit and watch. Here in Singapore, where I know very few of the birds, I am constantly stopping to catch a good look and a picture when possible. Other members of the class have already picked up on it. “Is Nick still back there?”, “Did we lose Nick?”, “What did Nick find?”, are just a few of the phrases I’ve overheard. The glares are perhaps what I notice the most, especially when all that stands between the group and a nice shower is Nick not being at the bus yet because he saw a cool bird. To be completely honest, I generally don’t care about holding up the group, but the fear of making the group miss a ferry back to the main island seemed a line I dare not cross.  We arrived at Pulau Ubin at 9:30. While I may have called my vice acute bird distraction, the truth of the matter is any organism will suffice, as evident with my first stop being a house gecko. After a quick misstep by another class member and a class briefing led by Tom Schultz, we begin the trek to Chek Jawa. The walk was riddled with distractions. A Pacific swallow over a pond, a common amberwing along the path, and long-tailed macaques in the trees slow me down, placing me in my normal position at the back of the group.

Common amberwing
Common amberwing
Long tailed macaque












Per instructions from Tom, we are to stay left at the fork. Turning at the fork, I notice the rest of the group is walking towards me. I’m informed of a directional mishap on Tom’s part. We were supposed to turn right at the fork. The beauty of a directional error is I get a second chance at the section of rainforest I had just covered. Sure enough, another distraction, this time in the form of a common flying dragon. The gliding lizard is quickly followed up by a rufous woodpecker, a rare find in Singapore.

Common Flying Dragon
Rufous Woodpecker





















I eventually make it to the entrance of Chek Jawa, the rest of the group already sitting on the benches around the welcome sign. Little did we know, the distractions had only begun. Chek Jawa proved to be a honey hole for distractions, Malayan water monitors, oriental pied-hornbills, and white-bellied sea-eagles all took precious minutes of the quickly fleeting amount of time we had left on the island.

Malayan Water Monitor
White-bellied Sea-eagle












Noon struck and I faced my final obstacle of the day, a long-tailed macaque with a baby. The temptation proved too much, I had to stop and take a picture. As I was taking my final snapshots of the day, the rest of the long-tailed macaques in the area quickly surrounded me, fellow undergrad Erika Berlik, and several graduate students. We were herded back up the trail, the wrong direction from the docks. Here we stayed along with the rest of the class. Relief washed over me, I was not going to be the reason we were late. These menacing primates have saved me the shame of delaying the entire group. I sat down on the back porch of the visitor center, opened up my aged Cool Mint Chocolate Clif Bar, and watched a long-tailed macaque sprint down the pier to terrorize my unsuspecting classmates. Today was a success.

Long-tailed Macaque