On a recent trip to Singapore’s Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, two elderly gentlemen who crossed my path eyed the camera in my hands, shook their hands and declared, “That’s not long enough!” True enough, my modest zoom lens is far from sufficient to capture the fine details of the many waders that flock to the reserve’s mudflat every winter and draw a horde of serious nature photographers.
What I usually seek along the trails, however, are more humble creatures, many of which can be found year-round and require just close observation and subtle movements to detect and capture in digital print. Some of these beauties are certainly cryptic by nature, but others offer moments of magic for visitors who are willing to quietly walk and wait for the appearance of beasts that are happy to feast or frolic before your eyes.
(Left) A water monitor could easily go unnoticed as it swims amidst the water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and floating debris.
Text and photos by Marcus Ng.
Marcus Ng also blogs at The Annotated Budak
The mangrove boardwalk that starts from the visitor centre offers many close encounters with the residents of a fragile habitat. Mounds created by mud lobsters litter the swamp and serve as miniature “condominiums” for animals such as tree-climbing crabs that occupy almost every peak. These crabs, which are adept at climbing trees to escape aquatic predators, serve as the swamp’s recycling crew, eating dead leaves and other fallen vegetation, thus enriching their habitat with nutrients from their waste and very bodies.
The mangroves form a zone where the sea meets the land, and every day brings fresh cycles of tidal inundation followed by ebbs that leave the swamp high and nearly dry. Thus, many of the marine creatures that live here have adapted to partial life above water and have invaded semi-terrestrial niches. Even some fish have modified their bodies and habits to invade the land and feast on its bounty of insects. Mudskippers bear froglike heads with cheeks that retain water for respiration and strong pectoral fins that act as limbs for climbing. The largest species in the reserve, the giant mudskipper, reaches nearly a foot in length and is often seen resting in water-filled pits or displaying to rivals with raised dorsal fins and intense colours.
It pays to look where you tread for the reserve is home to creatures with the power to maim. Reaching nearly a metre in length, shore pit vipers are sometimes seen on low branches by the trails, where they ambush lizards and other small prey. This young individual occupied the space between two planks on the mangrove boardwalk, where it rested amid a drove of footsteps that passed with no inkling of what they missed.
It’s probably fortunate that few visit the reserve in the late hours, when the boardwalk throngs with animals that rule the night. During a rare night walk, large huntsman spiders could be seen every few metres on the railings, where they stake out territories and overwhelm unwary insects with blinding speed and venomous fangs.
Though they may seem a mess, pockets of leaf litter around the visitor centre provide a refuge for numerous animals such as frogs that call out with startling strength. Barely an inch long, this chorus frog is frustratingly hard to spot amid the fallen leaves and issues high-pitched “kriiicks” with a ventriloquial quality that make it nearly impossible to trace the origin of the sound.
Just as deafening are the shrill songs of cicadas, which pulse through tepid afternoons as males attempt to woo their mates. The insects “sing” by rapidly vibrating membranous parts of their exoskeleton to produce high-frequency clicks that are further amplified by resonance chambers in their body. Fertilised females lay their eggs near the ground, where the nymphs feed on roots before emerging for a final moult into adulthood, leaving behind translucent shells called exuviae.
Dragonflies, too, have no pupal stage, with the aquatic nymphs shedding their old exoskeleton to reveal a winged adult form. Masters of the air, these predatory insects can be seen at the freshwater pond by the visitor centre, where they bask in the sunlight and capture smaller insects on the wing.
A hunter with a different strategy is this crab spider which lurks by the trails of weaver ants. Resembling its prey in colour and bearing eye-like spots on its abdomen, the spider probably derives protection from its own enemies by mimicking one of the swamp’s most aggressive insects. To avoid the colony’s assaults, the spider makes a quick leap at its chosen victim before hopping off to dangle safely in mid-air from a silken strand attached to a twig or leaf. The ant quickly dies from the spider’s venom and the feast soon attracts flies that specialise in sharing the meals of spiders.
Related to spiders, pseudoscorpions weld a pair of claws but lack the stinging tail of their feared namesakes. These arachnids pose no threat to anyone save insects such as springtails, being just half a centimetre long. I found a population of these minute hunters on the reserve’s main bridge, where they nestle in cracks and venture out with the bravado of blind bullfighters.
Few visitors can miss the reserve’s dominant large animal: the monitor lizards that prowl nearly every inch of land and water and make way for humans only as a last resort. One of the biggest lizard species, the monitors are able to make a meal out of almost anything that moves, from insects and crabs to birds and terrapins. They are not above a free meal, however; this individual helped itself to the carcass of an otter lodged on a rocky bund and probably suffered no ill effects from a feast of putrid flesh and pestilence.
Perhaps the only creatures able to outmatch the monitors are the saltwater crocodiles that make periodic appearances in the main river. The reserve’s apex predators seldom cross paths with human visitors, but it’s still a good idea to stay away from the water. Recently, one resident crocodile was observed catching a medium-sized monitor lizard in its jaws before disembowelling its reptilian kin with rapid flicks of its head. In turn, the crocodiles are known to fall victim to abandoned fishing nets and lines that trap and drown the air-breathing beasts.
Just as the crocodiles are often mistaken for floating logs, the green whip snake is usually overlooked on shrubs by the trails, where it stalks lizards. Adults blend perfectly against their green background, while juveniles match the brown of tree branches and trunks. Though mildly venomous, these elegant snakes pose no danger to humans and prefer to glide away with sinuous motions when approached.
In recent years, a family of smooth otters have adopted the reserve and show up regularly at the visitor centre, where they play and fish in the freshwater pond. A small clearing between the pond and the river now serves as a daybed for the mammals, which are regarded by old timers as fish thieves but enjoy relative safety at Sungei Buloh.
A few birds, too, display similar boldness by the trails, where they might pop out from the foliage to eyeball visitors who refrain from excessive noise and movement. A resident bird confined to mangrove habitats, the copper-throated sunbird is more often heard than seen, but at times, one may pause for a moment and reveal a shimmering array of colours that sparkle in the diffused sunlight before vanishing once more and, with hope, not for good.