Moonlight at Changi

December 5, 2010


For the most part, the bird notes were a conventional tabulation of dates and species sighted along with details about locations, markings, calls and behavior. But focus for a moment on the locational aspect and another perspective emerges for the notes also offer glimpses of the Changi landscape and provide occasionally telling snippets of everyday life. The Indian mynah bird swooping over the chicken run near Square Selerang conjures up a broader image than the bird itself, in other words, as does the white-collared kingfisher spotted in the coconut trees near gate number 3. And so it is with scores of other entries.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of the general landscape: Square Selerang, T Block, the football field, the sand dunes, the ‘Changi Tree’ or nearby padang and mosque. Quite often, too, there are detailed descriptions of the vegetation as with the yellow-vented bulbuls spotted among the alstonia angustiloba foliage near A Mess, 18th Division.
Occasionally, there are human touches as when Mr. Batty (surely not!) frets about the birds nipping off the shoots from his tomato plants or when sparrows are seen feeding on the polished rice that has been put out to dry by the company cookhouse.
There are poignant moments too as when a patient is seen feeding a fledgling mynah bird in a vitex tree.
And the observations didn’t stop at nightfall. Sometimes a half or full moon would allow just enough illumination for the purpose. But it was at night that the sounds of the birds were perhaps most vivid. My father writes about the time he lay awake listening to the “knocking” of a Malayan nightjar. No doubt the noise kept others from sleeping too and who knows what anxieties and fears preyed on them as they tossed and turned? But for him, it seems, the nightjar provided something of a distraction. It certainly afforded an opportunity for mental concentration as he tried to describe the sound. “The knocking,” he writes, “has been likened to a hollow hammer hitting a nail but to my ear it is not quite so metallic & more reminiscent of a hammer hitting a wooden peg or even a wooden mallet hitting a chisel.”

Such perhaps are the fine distinctions of a sleepless night at Changi.