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  Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless otherwise credited.
Copyright ゥ Ecology Asia 2014
   

 

   
     
     
  Pulau Ubin  
    ... the last rural corner of singapore  
       
 
Introduction
   

   

Early morning in Ubin Village

   

Lying between Singapore's main island and the mangrove-dominated southern coast of the Malaysian state of Johor lies Pulau Ubin. As its Malay name attests to this is an island made of granite (Pulau = Island, Ubin = Granite). Virtually none of the island's vegetation, or indeed landforms, can be considered as original. In the last century the land was extensively cleared for rubber plantations, mangroves were drained for conversion to prawn ponds, and granite quarries were established which removed hillocks and created a series of deep quarry lakes. However, nature generally has a way of adjusting to man's shaping of the environment, and so Pulau Ubin is now an island brimming with ecological diversity.
 

Ubin Village

Upon arrival at the boat jetty next to Ubin Village the first-time visitor may feel he has just stepped back fifty years. Ramshackle, yet charming, two-storey shophouses stock simple essentials for the 200 islanders and rent bicycles to weekend visitors from the "mainland". A couple of simple restaurants, a colourful Chinese temple and an empty stage for Wayang (Chinese Opera) completes the scene.
 

   

The Giant Mudskipper Periophthalmodon schlosseri (left) and the
Blue-spotted Mudskipper Boleophthalmus boddarti (right) 

 
       

Prawn Farming

Just a few minutes walk from Ubin Village lies an extensive area of Prawn Ponds, and these are still in use to this day. The prawn ponds are alive with small fish, the most obvious of which are the mudskippers. These fish are able to spend considerable periods of time out of water; at low tide they may be seen resting half-submerged in round water-filled depressions which they have constructed, or else they might be squabbling over their territorial patch of mud. Keep an eye out for the different species which include the Blue-spotted Mudskipper Boleophthalmus boddarti and the Giant Mudskipper Periophthalmodon schlosseri, the latter being reputed to reach a maximum size of nearly 30 centimetres.
 

Birder's Paradise

   
 

Two of the common species of kingfisher - the
Collared Kingfisher Todirhampus chloris (left) and the
Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis.

       

Locally, Pulau Ubin is well known for its rich diversity of resident and migratory birds. The prawn ponds and mangrove inlets are alive with kingfishers; the largest resident species is the Stork-billed Kingfisher (37 cm) which tends to inhabit the deeper tidal mangrove inlets, and the smallest the Common Kingfisher (17 cm) which can be found in the prawn ponds.  

Don't be confused by the title "Common Kingfisher" - the commonest kingfisher is in fact the ubiquitous Collared Kingfisher (24 cm). The raucous cackling call of this species will be heard long before the bright flash of azure wings is seen. Other species which are commonly seen are the resident White-throated Kingfisher and the handsome Black-capped Kingfisher , a "winter visitor". 

 

A pair of Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata
feed on grass seeds in the bright morning sun.

 
   

Inhabiting the grasslands is a group of birds known as munias. These charming, diminutive members of the sparrow family will be seen early in the morning in excited, chattering flocks feeding on grass seeds. Of five species of munia resident in Singapore, four are to be found in Pulau Ubin. They build well-hidden spherical nests in low bushes and shrubs, and, if the viewer is still and quiet, these birds may venture within a few feet while feeding. The commonest, and perhaps the most charming species is the Scaly-breasted Munia.

Extensive secondary forest covers large areas of the island, much of it taking over from neglected rubber plantations. Though not as well developed as the woodlands in the Central Catchment Forest on mainland Singapore, these areas are the preferred haunts of pigeons and doves which nest high in the branches. Becoming active in the late afternoon, the Pink-necked Green Pigeon Treron vernans is a common sight, and along walking trails the hiker will come across the Zebra Dove, also known as the Peaceful Dove - a name which well describes the quiet nature of this species. Their habit is to rest in pairs on the ground. An extremely rare visitor to these areas is the handsome Cinnamon-headed Green Pigeon, which was once resident. 

   
 

The Zebra Dove Geopelia striata (left) and a female
Pink-necked Green Pigeon Treron vernans (right)

       

Brightly coloured woodpeckers are harder to catch sight of, but look carefully on the trunks of dead trees and you may find them busily tapping away searching for insects. The Sunda, Rufous and Laced Woodpeckers are all common but the lucky visitor may spot the rarer Common Flameback Dinopium javanense. Once seen this bird will not be forgotten - with its bright red crown, its zebra-striped cheeks and its golden coloured mantle this is indeed an attractive species. 

A curiosity which will be heard in the forests close to human habitation is the Red Jungle Fowl Gallus gallus - the ancestor of the farmyard chicken. As with all fowl species, the male is vibrant in colour with gorgeous golden neck feathers and long dark green tail feathers. Close to the kampongs (villages) the males will interbreed with domestic stock, producing a range of hybrids. However, the pure strain of the male Red Jungle Fowl can be identified either by its grey legs and white cheeks, or by its truncated call.

 

The Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, common along the north coast

 
   

The coastline is the haunt of the Brahminy Kite and the White-bellied Fish Eagle (see Langkawi for photos of these species). Common along the north coast visiting Grey Herons - this species nests in large colonies elsewhere in Singapore however in Pulau Ubin they are usually to be found roosting alone. Less commonly seen is the Purple Heron Ardea purpurea. During the wader migration season, from September to March, numerous waders can be seen on exposed mudflats and sandbanks in the east of the island. 

Pulau Ubin is also one of the few places in Singapore where the Southern Pied Hornbill can be sighted. Shamas, barbets, dollarbirds, bee-eaters, coucals, parakeets, pittas, shrikes, bulbuls - birds of every shape and variety, common or rare are to be found in some part of Pulau Ubin. In all, over 150 bird species have been seen on the island.
 

 
 

Large-tailed Nightjar Caprimulgus macrurus 

   

Night Life

At twilight the nightjars appear. In the fading light these birds may be seen swooping low to snatch winged insects for their supper. Two species are resident here - the Savanna Nightjar and the Large-tailed Nightjar. Under a torchlight these their eyes reflect a deep red colour. They are to be found roosting in mangroves, or quite often resting at ground level where they lay their eggs on the bare earth. Once the last rays of light are gone, the Collared Scops Owl Otus lempiji can be heard making a typical "owl-like" call. More confusing, however, is the call of the rare Spotted Wood Owl Strix seloputo - this large species makes a blood-curdling sound rather like a large, aggressive dog.

   

The Common or Lesser Dog-faced Fruit Bat
 Cynopterus brachyotis at rest and feeding on figs. 

 
       

In the tropics bats play an important ecological role as the agents of pollination of flowering trees and as seed dispersers. Many edible fruits, such as the durian, rely solely on bats for fertilisation. At night time, fruiting fig trees will attract bats like bees to a honey pot. The Common or Lesser Dog-faced Fruit Bat can be seen pulling the figs mid-flight from the trunk and branches of the various Ficus species.

Pulau Ubin's other mammals too become active at night, including the numerous Wild Pigs, which can be heard rooting around in the soil, and the Common Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus which can be found quietly eating fruits in the upper branches of fruiting trees.
 

The Future

In the face of Singapore's relentless development and consequent shortage of land for housing, industry and recreation is Pulau Ubin's wildlife assured a safe future ? The only answer to this question is "possibly". Slowly the island is being "improved" with wider roads and tourist resorts; or will such changes slowly erode the rural charm which attracts visitors in the first place ? Clearly, the best way for Ubin's charms to be preserved is for the general public to recognise the island's value and to visit the place and enjoy its sights with as minimal impact as possible.