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10 October 2018updated 25 Jul 2021 2:45pm

The cry of a mysterious crepuscular bird by a Singapore rain tree reminds me of the joy of staying put

The call is plaintive, at times, sometimes rising in excitement, persistent enough to be an integral part of the twilight hours.

By John Burnside

Over the past several days, I have been following the story of 119 hawksbill turtles, as they emerged from nests on the island of Pulau Satumu, just off the Singapore coast and, using the moon to navigate, made their way over the sands and down to the sea.

That so many of the hatchlings reached the relative safety of water seems to have depended on the alertness of a local lighthouse keeper who some months ago noticed a monitor lizard showing a keener than usual interest in one area of the beach and duly went to investigate.

When he found the nests, he alerted the Singapore Marine and Port Authority, who fenced off the area so the turtles could hatch in peace. Bad luck for one monitor lizard, perhaps, but a happy accident otherwise, considering how scarce hawksbill turtles have become.

On hearing such a story, my first impulse is to go and find out more, and I have to admit to being a little jealous of those nature lovers who have the time and resources to hop in a jeep or a boat the moment they hear of some rare sighting.

However, I know that, apart from the privilege of bearing witness, my presence would be surplus to requirements or, worse, a direct hindrance. So I content myself with staying put and paying attention to my immediate vicinity – and as it happens, staying put is rather an enjoyable option at the moment, since I am currently working in Singapore, a city of great trees and parks – and so of birds and other creatures.

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To be perfectly honest, I’d be glad to spend a lifetime here, sitting in the shade of some great rain tree, a wide-spreading leguminous species whose leaves close up, with clock-like regularity, just before sundown (from which it gets its Malay name, pukul lima, or five o’clock tree).

Staying put is easier in the tropics, given the heat, but the little balcony in my borrowed flat is also surrounded by trees and bushes and I only have to sit a while to encounter all kinds of birds – though admittedly I see barely a fraction of what I hear.

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Not that it matters: we all live too wholly ensconced in sight, our dominant sense, often to the neglect of the others. Listening, I can try to guess what kind of bird is in the tree right over my head, repeatedly calling out its rising, two-note cry at dusk and dawn, but never (so far) in the full light of day.

A crepuscular bird, then? I am curious, but what matters most is the beauty of the call: plaintive, at times, sometimes rising in excitement, persistent enough to be an integral part of the twilight hours. If I didn’t hear it one evening, or while I was sitting down to my first pot of tea, I would know something was wrong.

So it is that, like the lighthouse keeper, I have learned to pay attention to something in my immediate environment. Perhaps this will come in useful some day, but it’s not obligatory to put knowledge to use. It is good for its own sake. Whether it is far from home in the sweet tropics, or in my own backyard, what familiarity with certain sounds gives is a sense of belonging, becoming a living part of the local fabric.

Asked about the significance of the turtles’ nests, ecologist Rushan Abdul Rahman says, in the latest Straits Times: “It is very possible that turtles have been nesting in Singapore way before Sir Stamford Raffles came… The very fact that they have been here for so long means that we have an environmental responsibility to these ancient animals.” All I can say is, amen to that. 

This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain