Updated: Sep 6, 2020
"I didn't see any wild animals on Bukit Timah Hill".
It is a frequently-heard comment from visitors to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. But, the nature reserve is home to many wildlife in the central part of Singapore, so the animals are really roaming around in the forests. It is not that there are no animals, it's just that most visitors are not paying attention in seeking them.
For travellers to Singapore and planning to visit Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, which encompasses Bukit Timah Hill, Hindhede Nature Park and Diary Farm Nature Park, you will probably have at most one day to hike and explore the forests. So, it is important to have some basic knowledge about nature in order to have a fruitful trip.
Keep Your Ears Open
While walking through the forests, it is our ears that will pick up rustling sounds in the leaves first before we can know where to look for the animals. So, unplug those earpieces and headphones and open your ears to listen to Mother Nature. She will guide you to the animals and also warn you of imminent dangers, especially falling tree branches from above you or a fast-moving animal heading your way.
Singapore's nature reserves are rather "well-tamed" with not many dangerous animals lurking in the forests — tigers are history, but snakes are pretty common. Since the nature reserves are to be kept as natural as possible, most things are left as it is in the forests except for conservation efforts. Visitors should not be complacent and assume that safety is guaranteed. Never walk in the nature with music blasting in the ears.
Here are some animals that you may be able to discover by listening out for rustling sounds in the leaves, be it up in the trees or among dead dried leaves on the ground.
Monkeys, or long-tailed macaques, in the trees. There are quite a number of them roaming around the nature reserves in tribes. Most of the time, they will be near walking paths and totally harmless. But when they are up in the trees and jumping around, take care when walking underneath them as they can cause tree branches to fall on you.
Recently, a tribe of around 20 macaques were seen crossing a pedestrian overhead bridge to Bukit Timah Shopping Centre. That was probably one of the reasons why they were missed by visitors in Bukit Timah Hill. The monkeys were out for some shopping.
The Malayan colugos are a common sight around the steep road up Bukit Timah Hill with tall trees where they can be easily spotted on clear days. You have to keep looking up and down the tall trunks of trees for them. Erroneously called the "flying lemur", the colugos neither fly nor are they lemurs. They glide when leaping from tree to tree, sometimes rustling the leaves as they "fly" through them. The colugos usually move around at night, some times on the ground in search of food, and are always on the trees during the day.
Don't miss them, the Malayan colugos can only be found in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia). Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is probably the best place to see a wild one as the forest area is smaller. Philippine colugos are of a different specie that can only be found in the Philippines.
This spiny terrapin (endangered) was an extremely rare sight to be seen on the hill. Having a distinctive spine on its brown shell, it was very well-camouflage among the brown dried leaves. Only when it was crawling among the leaves in search of young greens to eat did it made some rustling sounds and was spotted. The scratches and paw marks (or teeth marks?) on its shell are evidence of what this terrapin had been through.
Stumbling on a spiny terrapin was really a lucky encounter but very rare. If you want to see some red-eared slider terrapins swimming, do visit Hindhede Quarry near the Visitor Centre. There are more than 15 of them there on one count. They will hide under shades when the hot sun is glaring down from above in the afternoon.
Another commonly-seen animal in the nature reserve is the monitor lizards. Several species can be found in the reserve, including clouded monitor lizard and Malayan water monitor lizard (above). Unlike other animals that will hide under shades in the hot sun, these reptiles will sprawl on walking paths and sunbathe. They are shy and will stay out of human's way. Just don't provoke it. You will hear them in the bushes more than you see them first. But they will always be crawling away from you.
Monitor lizards do not have keen hearing. They are always being startled by humans, when the latter get too close, and dashed into the undergrowth, which in turn, startle unaware humans. In short, we and these lizards scare one another.
Apart from animals that rustle leaves, some birds do so too. These are usually birds that feed on fruits and seeds on trees and in the bushes. The commonly seen ones are the scaly-breasted munia (above). The straw-headed bulbul (below) is classified as endangered worldwide but they are striving in Singapore. Don't miss these songbirds. And hear them sing (on Youtube).
Other birds that I have seen before are white-bellied sea eagles and blue-collared kingfishers at Singapore Quarry; flameback and banded woodpeckers, greater racket-tailed drongos, sunbirds and hornbills at Bukit Timah Hill. And several others that I could not name. Apart from Pulau Ubin, the nature reserve is also a heaven for bird-watchers.
Two snakes on a walking path. The rat snake was at least 2 metres long. Uhm, where is the other snake?
A close-up view and there is the smaller red-necked bronzeback being swallowed by the rat snake from the tail. Neither of them are venomous. When the rat snake was chasing the little snake through the leaves, the rustling sounds that they made attracted attentions before they were seen. With its prey within reach, the rat snake couldn't care less about the human standing right next to them.
After keeping its meal fully in its stomach, the rat snake crossed the path and disappeared into the undergrowth once again.