Fav Apps

This is why I finally bought an iPhone – it is really cheap for a mobile computer. I will complete this list in time. For now, some critical ones I use in the field. I am unfamiliar with the Android but imagine there are the same or equivalent apps there.

Battery life need not be limiting even with energy-expensive GPS apps. I use a Choiix Power Fort 5600mAh external battery charger which keeps the iPhone going for two additional charge cycles.

Field notes

  • Twitter – because photos and comments can be shared on twitter immediately. My tweets are imported to Facebook immediately and friends are more comfortable to comment there, which helps raise awareness or source for information.
  • Twitter in combination with BackUpMyTweets, provides for a virtual field notebook, recording critical information such as location details of a roadkill.

Maps and GPS

  • Google Maps – detects current location, route suggestions to a known point (use postal codes where possible), distance of route, approximate arrival time, traffic conditions (use to divert past bad traffic)
  • Pocket OneMap, uses the Singapore government’s map, which may be critical with iOS6 removing the Google Map app. OneMap keeps improving and agencies all use this.
  • Runkeeper – easiest interface with which plot route on foot or bicycle, has live tracking for other to monitor, tag photos to points along route, keep a archive of routes online. More sophisticated tools exists for greater needs like Motion-X GPS
  • Digital Compass Free – in case you prefer a digital interface instead of your analog iPhone’s compass. I find a compass useful for reorientation in a dense patch of forest to help me get out using short cuts, and even in unfamiliar urban environments if I am unfamiliar with landmarks. Still, always keep a proper compass in your field pack for when your battery runs out. The iTunes Store has some interesting variations like Free HD Compass


  • WeatherLah – taps NEA data to project sound of crackling thunder loud enough to alert me on a field trip. The early warnings about the possibility of an oncoming storm with attendant dangers of lightning strike and falling branches is helpful and prevents me from being caught unawares, especially when focus is elsewhere.
  • SG Weather – this projects NEA’s rain cloud radar map which I used to determine the size of the thundercloud, its speed and angle of approach. A decision to clear a beach of undergrads often rests on careful use of this app!


  • CleanLah for photo-reports of trash and other problems direct to NEA
  • Dengue Lah – early warning if there is a dengue cluster in an area I might venture into. If there are two cases in a 150m radius within 14 days, I alert students and volunteers to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Most times it is the densely populated urban areas with enough of trash catching rain water which pose a bigger threat.

First Aid


  • ComfortDelGro Taxi Booking – summons a taxi to odd places with clear instructions – I use Google Maps or One Map to determine the specific location and try to get a postal code. The app’s location suggestion is usually inaccurate. There is also SMRT Book a Taxi.

If you have suggestions, drop me a note or tweet to @sivasothi!

What and where are the Peatlands in Southeast Asia? (ebook and poster)

Southeast Asia is host to 60% of the world’s tropical peatlands and much of it is threatened from logging and fires. Singaporeans came to know about peat swamps and of our inter-connectedness to the environment of our neighbours during the 1997 Southeast Asian haze.

As a major carbon store, the degradation of peat swamp forests will further contribute to global climate change.

Learn the basics about this forest in our backyard (including some 50ha in Singapore) from this 2011 ebook, Peatlands in South East Asia: a profile

aseanpeat.net - Peatlands in SEA: A Profile

Where exactly are the “Peatlands in Southeast Asia”? Well, a poster with a map lays it out for you. It is available from aseanpeat.net

‎aseanpeat.net - Peatlands in Southeast Asia

All resources listed here are available from the ASEAN Peatland Forests Project at aseanpeat.net, and you can follow them on Facebook.

See my note on peat swamp forests in Raffles Museum News, 29 Jan 2006.

Thanks to Noor Azura Ahmad, Programme Officer, Peatland Programme, Global Environment Centre, for the updates.

Map on a wall – the Geological Map of Singapore

On the wall at the Raffles Museum yesterday was the Geological Map of Singapore. There for yet another discussion about some aspect of the galleries at the Lee Khong Chian Natural History Museum, there were rocks on the table and the map on the wall.

This second edition was published by DSTA in 2009 and I remember it well because Mok Ly Yng regaled me with enthusiastic stories during the “Vignettes in Time” exhibition at the National Library that year. And Tan Swee Hee assured me it was indeed a long walk in DSTA to get to the book, which costs a pretty penny.

Geological Map of Singapore

With the yellow (recent) alluvial distribution glaring at me from the wall, the discussion about plant distribution with the entrance of Adrian Loo, turned to the forgotten freshwater swamps of Singapore’s past. Talk about map and swamps and Tony O’Dempsey’s enthusiasm got dragged into the conversation.

Well, there was quite a bit about the origin of life too.

You can purchase the book from DSTA. 90 pages, it includes nine folded colour maps. Put it on a wall and let it influence your conversation.

We all need maps on our walls.

What we tell NEA’s Dept of Public Cleanliness (DPC)

The good news out in March was the formation of the new Department of Cleanliness at the National Environment Agency (CNA, 30 Mar 2012):

“The new department will integrate and manage public area cleaning contracts for greater efficiency and better coordination in the long run.

Currently, different public agencies look after the cleanliness of public areas.

For example, the National Parks Board manages cleanliness at parks, while the Land Transport Authority is in charge of cleanliness at footpaths.

From now till 2016, the department will progressively take over the contracts from other public agencies such as national water agency PUB, the Singapore Land Authority and the National Parks Board.”

This means liaising with only one agency for the many sites we coordinate around the island in September. How lovely!

Dinesh, the ICCS Recce Captain, alerted us about this earlier in the year and its now time to communicate with them.

For many areas, a lap post number of BBQ pit number would do. For Saturday’s cleanup and sites in the North-West Zone in particular, its helpful to include a map. Google Maps and Skitch come in useful.


See WildSingapore for all the articles about the new DPC – link.

BTW, members of public can now call the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) hotline to report any public cleanliness problems: 1800 600 3333.

Detouring around a hornet’s (Vespa affinis) nest in Mandai Besar mangrove

On a recce of Mandai mangrove and mudflats, I rounded a corner and froze. A hornet’s nest, holy cow! From my position I briefed my companions about the recommended reaction if they swarmed.

When I was in the army, a platoon-mate inadvertently disturbed a nest up a tree. That sent us scurrying and lobbing smoke grenades in a flash! These insects, however, were calm, so Joelle, Weiting and I chatted a bit while “Iceling” observed us somewhat nervously, wondering what to make of my “holy cow!” exclamation earlier. Her first trip to the tropics and all that. I had nly warned her about snakes, broken glass and mangrove whiprays, but the bit about moving slowly evidently covered scenarios like this!

After we had observed the hornets for some time, I decided a wide detour was appropriate since the soft ground could transmit vibrations to the nest – it was hanging off a fairly young tree. I could still remember my platoon-mate’s swollen neck when he returned from the hospital. Well, at least he didn’t need to do any more trench digging that day!

Vespa affinis nest, Sg Mandai Besar
The nest and a close-up. Hopefully Weiting’s camera did a better job!

This nest is not very high up a tree and could be easily disturbed by an unsuspecting researcher., especially someone focused on something on the ground or tree dbh! My first thought was of Rick Chin Leong and Dan Friess who frequent this area (and leave their untidy trademarks all over the mangrove). So from a respectable distance, I sent the google map placemaker to the blog, tweeted Dan and later emailed them both.

I remarked to Weiting, this is why we instruct Site Captains and Organisers to walk their site in the morning before participants turn up for the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore.

Kranji 2003 - pre-cleanup inspection
Conducting the pre-coastal cleanup dawn site inspection at Kranji in 2003 (photo by Charith Pelpola).

Hornet nest in Mandai Besar - 1.436344,103.761541 - Google Maps
Click for map

The hornets appeared to be the common Vespa affinis (lesser banded hornet) as the first two abdominal segments were yellow (see Chan, 1972. The hornets of Singapore: their identification and control. Singapore Medical Journal, 13(4): 178-197.

John Lee who maintains vespa-bicolor.net has lovely photos such as this one below:

John Lee: Lesser banded hornets (Vespa affinis) in Singapore :: 6 -- fotop.net photo sharing network

He observes that “In Singapore, it can frequently be found on the beach, staying near rotting mussels which smell bad and attract flies. … they were simply creeping into the mussel shells and hiding there to ambush the flies!”

He also says, Vespa affinis is not particularly defensive near the nest so it possible to approach for observations. Then comes a big ‘however’ – “large numbers of workers will swarm out and attack pugnaciously when the nest is disturbed. ”

Oooh. Nice that we detoured!

Mandai Besar 24 May 2012
“Ice-Ling”, Weiting and Joelle – recce over and not a single swollen neck!

Oh well, otherwise, we’d make pretty impressive exhibits during the Festival of Biodiversity – all of us will be there, so join us at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, 26-27 May 2012!

To read more about John Lee and his work, see “Hooked on Hymenopterans!” Part 1 and Part 2 by Marcus Ng. Celebrating Singapore’s Diversity, 03 Feb 2010.

Why we need to talk about the birds and the bees

Doesn’t Singapore’s green heart looks nice and healthy in Google Maps’ terrain view?

CCNR Terrain View.jpg


That’s a fairy tale, really, to look at when you feel depressed. Reality is a click away in the gritty satellite view which reveals every scar in lovely detail – well Google tries to keep up, but we are ever so eager to change that view, aren’t we, Singapore?

One person, exploring our tiny island, zoomed in to one spot in the forest and saw this:

Google Maps-1.jpg


That “Holy Cow!” moment had @joeljoshuagoh asking on twitter, and @eisen retweeted. What were these structures in the Upper Peirce forest?

Well, these water storage tanks have been around for over a decade but our access to Google Earth was not always this handy. I have not thought about this site perhaps since I last visited in 1998 on a long walk though our forests with botanists Adrian Loo, Evelyn Seah and Ian Turner. We knew the site was to go by then, to give way to what would be called the Central Service Reservoir.

It’s fascinating what we can learn by simply looking at a map and I am really grateful that today, I can call up such detail via Google Maps on my handphone!.

Google Maps-3.jpg
Central Service Reservoir (top left), Central Catchment Nature Reserve
and that historically scarred area across the water is SICC


The BBR Holding(s) Ltd page about the project reveals that the Public Utilities Board’s Central Service Reservoir was constructed over 33 months between 1999 to 2001.

The five water tanks are three with a diameter of 95m and a height of 13m and two smaller ones of a diameter of 82m and a height of 13m. These were constructed in the forest along Upper Peirce Reservoir for a contract sum of $6.18 million.

And before all that construction, NParks removed and replanted a Dracaena maingayi which you can see in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

“Water tanks being built in forest.” The Sunday Times, 23 August 1998. An area of protected forest the size of 14 football fields has been sacrificed by the authorities in order to build five giant water storage tanks.

“The tanks, large enough to hold one-quarter of Singapore’s daily water needs, are being built in nature reserve land. The site selected is a hill overlooking Upper Peirce Reservoir, which is off Old Upper Thomson Road.

The $66-million project will occupy 11 ha of land. Known as the central service reservoir, the above-ground concrete tanks will hold 318,000 cu m.

The project is the latest in a string of Government initiatives to ensure Singapore’s long-term water security.

Mrs Choo Wai Chan, public relations manager of the Public Utilities Board (PUB), told The Sunday Times that the covered tanks were required to store treated water destined for the northern and eastern parts of Singapore, including Woodlands, Yishun, Punggol, Sengkang, Pasir Ris and Tampines towns. Construction should be completed by 2001.

She said the tanks had to be constructed on high ground to ensure that peak demands were met with adequate water pressure.

The location was picked after close consultation with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the National Parks Board (NParks), the official guardian of Singapore’s nature areas.

The choice of a site gazetted as nature reserve land has, however, raised some environmental concerns.

NParks public affairs manager Karen Bartholomeusz explained that no site outside the reserves met the requirements for the project. “Only those projects that are essential, of national importance, and where no other alternative sites are suitable, will be considered to be located in the reserves. The central service reservoir is one such project.”

Singapore is really a petri dish for the region! Well, that 11ha was a painful loss but discussions within government had deemed this critical. And by the time it trickled down, this was accomplished, and we learnt that it was an issue about water. Once the neighbours are involved, local environmentalists have always put their cudgels down.

Similar issues with forest patches in various other places around Singapore would emerge over the years, repeatedly as urbanisation got under way. Not all were discussed or publicised, some consultation went on behind closed doors and not all engagements moderated impact. Some for sure, actually did and this should be remembered.

Still, Dominic Nathan would later write that “In land-scare Singapore, flora and fauna do not hold freehold tenure over any spot, even protected nature reserve land.”

Well, we need imaginative people in government and the private sector, thinking about better and more sustainable ideas in the design and management of cities and their needs. It’s difficult to restore loss of this sort, which does not occur in isolation but is accompanied with extensive ramification. And we’ll need an increasingly active community, aware of the issues and willing to engage. And, energetic enough to do so.

This is happening somewhat, because it is a fundamental need if our state is to persist. And some smart ideas have emerged. But we are always in need of new ideas and one hopes, thinkers who come with an adequate exposure or are able to learn very quickly on the job.

This is probably why the naturalist community, which in any generation has experienced tremendous change and loss, pay a great premium to education and engagement with the public. The field comes with an immediate sense of urgency and it becomes a second nature to many to learn, share, organise and motivate. So they have been talking for decades.

A quick peek into Wild Happenings will astound you with diversity and number of offerings in Singapore.


Recently, the community got together as a Biodiversity Roundtable, to talk, for we rarely sit down to do so,s and to plan. Mostly about wrestling with difficult conversations in the meetings ahead. But this indefatigable group also decided to mount an exercise in education and engagement – this time in the form of a central, and hopefully annual, Festival of Biodiversity in May.

We are not yet ready to announce this yet, but the partners are preparing, recruiting volunteers and clearing calendars. We need to be present in enough numbers to engage the bus loads who will be coming to the Singapore Botanic Gardens in celebration of our natural heritage.

This community keeps going, because they feel everyone needs to know about our animals and plants, forests and seas. Find a space for them in our hearts, and we will find a space for them in our land. And in the process, give those who come after us, a cause for celebration.

Mok Ly Yng celebrates with “Singapore ND 2011: Topographical Map”

“From: Mok Ly Yng
Date: Tue, Aug 9, 2011 at 5:12 PM

Hi everyone,

Today (09 Aug 2011) is the 46th National Day of the Republic of Singapore. Last year, I prepared a gallery of satellite images for the 45th ND.

A few major events of national interest and significance happened in 2011. One of which was the closing of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the KTM Railway on Singapore Island. The Railway and Station closed on 30th June 2011 (Thur).

Coincidentally, a new edition of the civil version of the Singapore 1:50,000 scale topographical map was published in July 2011 by the Mapping Unit, right after the Railway closed.

What is the historical significance of this new map? This is the last time that the KTM Railway would be shown as such on this topographical map. The entire length of the railway tracks would have to be dismantled by the end of 2011. In other words, by the time the next edition of this map appears in 4-5 years’ time, there will not be any remnants of the tracks to be seen and depicted on the map.

When the real thing is gone from the landscape, the line drawn on the map would serve as a more ‘accessible’ reminder of its past existence and alignment on the ground.

Left: Map of the Island of Singapore and its Dependencies 1911: Series GSGS 2609 (1:63,360), published Feb 1912. [War Office, London]. Right: Singapore 1:50,000 Topographical Map: Series SMU075 Edition 9 SMU, published July 2011. [SAFMU].

Looking back in time, a full century ago to be exact, there was coincidentally another island map of Singapore dated 1911. The then Singapore-Kranji Railway had been fully linked from Pasir Panjang to Woodlands. The original line which opened in 1903 was from Tank Road Station to Woodlands. An extension was started southwards to link Tank Road Station to the wharves at Pasir Panjang. This extension became fully operational in 1907.

The 1911 map of Singapore Island was therefore the first map to record the full operational length of the Singapore-Kranji Railway from Pasir Panjang to Woodlands. The previous edition of the map was published in 1905, two years before the completion of the southern extension.

A century later, the 2011 edition of the Singapore topographical map would be the last of such maps to record the full length of the KTM Railway (or any ‘real’ Railway for that matter) on Singapore Island.

This new 2011 topographical map can be bought directly from the publisher: the Singapore Armed Forces Mapping Unit (SAF MU) in Paya Lebar Air Base.

For those interested in buying this map, please call the Map Store at 64883199 to make an appointment (for collection of the map) and payment details. Payment is by cheque only. Each map costs S$11.70 (w/ GST). Here’s the location map of Mapping Unit in Paya Lebar Air Base: link

Preview images of the 1911 and 2011 maps of Singapore can be viewed here: link

As today is the ND of Singapore, I have continued with last year’s practice of including a satellite image of Singapore taken in 2011 to serve as this year’s Birthday portrait. Perhaps I should turn this into an annual tradition? 🙂

Best wishes,

Mok LY”

Yes, Ly Yng, PLEASE make this an annual tradition! What a lovely way to celebrate the nation’s birthday, thank you. This will be posted to <a href="http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/"Habitatnews later. – Otterman

Gotta love Skitch and Google Maps – quick map annotation

Skitch and Google Maps make annotating and circulating a map after a recce very easy. I brought the NUS Environmental Engineering students who will be leading the NUS group to the International Coastal Cleanup in September for a recce of their site at Lim Chu Kang East mangrove.

As usual,I tracked my route using Runkeeper on the iPhone. However, the GPS track and map are not aligned in this area. So I used an unmarked map of the area from another Runkeeper activity (Runkeeper magnifies Google Map’s satellite image a little more) and annotated it using Skitch.

ICCS Lim Chu Kang East mangrove recce

It’s going to be a tough job!

New version of NParks map of Pulau Ubin, verdict: I prefer the old map

Update (27 Dec 2015; since many still visit this post) – I love the 2015 NParks Ubin map; download it from the NParks Ubin webpage. And I say so here.

It’s that time of the year when we need to submit our detailed time-tables for incoming students to consult. While doing this, I hopped over to check the NParks webpage since students will be checking their map of Pulau Ubin when they plan their trip there for the second-year ecology module.

I see that NParks has posted a new map, which may be a November 2010 version. It is 3,509 x 2,489 pixels, larger than the old 2,500 x 1,538 map. It omits most of OBS land, focusing instead on the area under NParks management.

PulauUbinMap 2014
Click for larger view or download from the NParks Ubin webpage.

NParks map from mid-2000.

The lookout points are labelled and the streams are clearly defined. The Ketam mountain biking trails are labelled, although I wish the black and blue trails were labelled with the relevant colours. Perhaps those colours didn’t work. But you realise black and blue is the colour unskilled riders come out peppered with!

At times, the symbols get in the way which I never like. The NParks Office symbol in Chek Jawa is sitting on each other. “Jalan Endut Senin” is never clear in both appearances and Jalan Sam Heng is partially obscured. Two brown arrows get in the way of Kelichap and Punai huts on the Chek Jawa route. And you are not sure where the point of Bukit Puaka actually is; arrows should have been used.

“Jalan Wat Siam” is truncated to “Jalan Wat Sia”- must be a mistake, must drop them a note. Bad enough we lost the Thai temple, no need to lose the name as well! The road names are capitalised – mixed case is easier to read. The green dotted lines are not explained. Oh dear, the rivers are not labelled and neither are the quarries!

And I wonder if the name Trjup Hut north of Ketam Quarry is correct.

[Update – One of my students Fung Tze Kwan added a comment to this post on facebook – yes, Pulau Ubin is a rustic destination but the new map gives it the feel of a town park. It should reflect the nature of the destination better.]

I won’t just complain, (complain, complain), I’ll send this feedback in. [update – I did.]

Hmm…so I have to say, I prefer the old map.

If you want to get a grip of Pulau Ubin, I recommend examining OneMap, Google Maps and StreetDirectory, the net result from the three is pretty decent. What I really miss is my 1:1000 colour map, which was accidentally disposed, sigh. Well, there is this.