Fair of Face

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Ok, so this photo may or may not have been taken over a year ago. In my defence: #TBT. Or #TBM. Whatever.

Still, this remains one of my most treasured moments from our trip to Kenya.

Continue reading “Fair of Face”

The Internet and Nature: How I Got Here

So, on Thursday I gave a TED talk.

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It was about this blog. And it was about birds. And it was about… well, it was about a lot of things.

Mostly it was about the Internet, and nature, and what happens, has happened, and will happen, between them – for better or worse.

And I think this would be a good place to tell you how I got to where I am today. In bits and pieces, and out-of-order.

But it roughly goes like this.

I suppose it began with a finish line. The Green Corridor Run, 2013. And a couple of pocket field guides for sale, a long deliberation, and finally selection of the butterfly one.

Then again, maybe it began with the rainforest project. Seventh grade science, the ecology unit, unsure but excited, walking up the steps and a huge Atlas moth, and me thinking: hey, I actually like this.

It was probably both. Though if we want to find beginnings, we’ll have to dig deeper than that: through rabbits, and clubs, and whales, and moving.

But that is not the time for that. This is the time for Project Noah, and butterflies, and a girl ready to discover the world.

On my first ‘excursion’ I walk fifty meters and find a lime butterfly. It is Chinese New Year, so they are abundant. Then, however, I do not know what species they are, and I fantasize about rarities, discoveries. Then Project Noah informs me they are unbearably common.

This does not deter me. I vow to discover. One day, I say to myself. One day. (In case you’re wondering, that day still hasn’t arrived.)

I traverse my condo armed with nothing but a bright green iTouch and snap blurry pictures of everything I find. Then I upgrade, to a digital waterproof camera I got for my tenth birthday. My photos are slightly less blurry and I try to figure out how to focus.

I am learning: about cruisers, about where butterflies hang out, about what hides under logs. About what surrounds me, what is there under the surface, what is there above it. About how things are not always what they seem. I learn about Cuban Todies and chat with people halfway across the world. I realize what I have been missing.

I get a 120% on the rainforest project. (The requirement for Project Noah submissions was 10. I had close to 100.)

On the bus home I write down the butterflies I have seen. Painted Jezebel. Lime Butterfly. Chocolate Pansy. I memorize the names. The green pamphlet becomes ragged. I look out the window, hoping for something. Once I see a flash of blue disappearing over a canal. I write down, under the butterflies: kingfisher.

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Then, on the way home one day, I hear something calling from a tree. I run home and grab a camera. It is a juvenile yellow-vented bulbul, and it will take me places.

Beginnings in Bulbuls
Beginnings in Bulbuls

I realize photography works. I start examining other’s work critically. I am unreasonably proud of my first deduction: people like clear backgrounds. I take photographs, filling up hard drives faster than red-billed queleas destroy ecosystems.

I see a leopard, and it teaches me to step back.

Journal Journeys: The 'Chui' (Guest Post)
Journal Journeys: The ‘Chui’ (Guest Post)

I see more and more birds on my way home – rainbow lorikeets. Mynahs. Pink-necked green pigeons. As I wear out a groove in the butterflies within my condo, I explore the other avian denizens, one by one. (I am still exploring. It is hard to finish.)

And then, and then, and then. Bukit Brown Cemetery, MacRitchie Reservoir, snakes and birds and lizards and such, such amazing things. More and more and more and this world has opened up to me, full of wonder, and I am bursting to share it, so I start this blog.

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I realize I am not alone. I realize science is not a lab coat. I realize the Internet and biodiversity are not polar opposites.

I find problems. I look for solutions.

And I explore.

Journal Journeys: Face of the Maasai

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An excerpt from the journal of my cousin, Preetu (a fantastic writer who gives herself far less credit than she deserves*), about her experience in the Maasai village we visited in Africa to accompany rare evidence of my forays into portraiture.

“I remember, as a child, opening up on of those massive geography encyclopaedia things. On that page was a picture and a few words about a tribe called the Maasai. They were wrapped in bright red shawls and wore layers and layers of beaded jewellery. One can’t help but be intrigued by them.

I read what was written on the page, thought – Oh wow! –  and then shut the book and went on with my life.  Little did I know ten years later I’d actually be in their village singing along with them!

The sun beating down on our backs as we stepped out of our jeeps onto arid land.  The glint from this woman’s necklace caught my eye. Strange faces surrounded us. Unfamiliarity and curiosity painted on their faces, as was on ours. We scanned the milieu and found about ten to fifteen small huts arranged in a badly shaped circle and dung.  We manoeuvred skilfully past all the dung as the vibrantly dressed woman led us to centre of the circle and their little settlement. The head of the tribe saw our discomfort as we walked on the cattle excrement and tried to put us at ease by telling us that stepping in cow poo – to put it plainly – was good luck. Not that that really changed much.

We were told that this was where all the cattle was kept. The cattle were now out grazing with most of the men as well. Soon our family was divided into smaller groups and each group was escorted into a hut. The smell of smoke stung as we walk through the narrow passageway. It led to a rather small unassuming room, the only one in the hut. With our heads bent we looked around, bewildered yet amazed at the dark cramped room. This was the residence of four people and two goats. The darkness was attributed to the one hole of a window that might as well have been absent.  One thought that was on everyone’s mind was – How?! The sunlight blinded us as we re-entered the central area.

On our way back to the camp my mind was filled with smiles on the children’s face as we spoke to them and shook their hands, the sound of their voices as they chanted in unison, and the quiet jingle of the beads they wore with so much pride.

The book hadn’t even come close to explaining what they really were.”

Dwarfish

Dwarf Mongoose

There are two species of mongoose regularly seen on the Maasai Mara. The more common is the banded mongoose, but the dwarf mongoose – a small African carnivore found in groups of 15 or less – is also spotted, though less frequently. I expected to leave Kenya with that added to my list of ‘what I’d wished I seen’, places the secretary bird and martial eagle then seemed destined to live.

But a curious combination of fate and luck conspired to the ends of preventing disappointment. When at the checkpoint between the Mara Triangle Wilderness Zone and the Maasai Mara National Reserve, I got out the jeep – with my camera, of course – to stretch my legs.

This proved to be a very good decision.

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Not only did I spot a new species of weaver (which *hint hint cough cough* I have still not identified and therefore has not been added to the Grand Bird List yet), I also saw a small group of mongooses heading off into the shrubbery. One particularly curious individual had perched himself on a rock to observe the surroundings before they all disappeared.

I held my breath, and crept closer very, very slowly. I could see the mongoose tensing, getting ready to run. Luckily, he delayed his flight till the last moment.

Dwarf-size mongoose, maybe. Dwarf-size experience? Definitely not.

Of Paintings and Project Noah

Some of you may recall my recent post of a lilac-breasted roller we spotted in Kenya. If you don’t, refresh your memory. This bird was at the top of my to-see list in Kenya, not despite and in fact because it was so common there. Satisfaction guaranteed. (I also had a second, non-official list, which essentially consisted of the entire Birds of East Africa field guide.)

In addition to the blog post, I also posted the photograph on Project Noah. In case I haven’t fangirled about it before, this site is the best thing ever. (It’s also what got me started on this craziness. In case you can’t tell.) It’s essentially a social media for wildlife spottings. Think Instagram, animal-style. Through it I’ve met so many fellow ‘crazy nature people’ and learned so much about – well, everything. It was a distinct high point for me last year when my spotting of a black rhinoceros received Spotting of the Day, something I’ve been wanting ever since I got started. (Also, on the main page, in the header where all the spottings are featured, click on the fungi icon and scroll a little to the right. You might spot a familiar photograph. STILL NOT OVER IT.) If you love wildlife, and photography, Project Noah is the thing.

I’m not paid by them. Promise.

Anyways, back to the roller. I got a comment on my spotting from Karen Lockyear, a biologist-turned artist, asking if she could paint the photograph, and possibly sell prints of it.

My first reaction: what.

Seriously, I consider my photography to be mediocre at best. I enjoy it, yes, but someone wanting to paint it?

…woah.

So, yesterday I get an email from Karen with the completed painting. And I’m still in a little shock of how beautiful the thing is.

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I MEAN, LOOK AT IT. She has taken my photograph and transformed into something way, way beyond. All things bad about it have disappeared. I do not know this witchcraft.

She hasn’t yet set up her Etsy store, but when that’s up I will definitely link that here. Because. I mean. The above.

So: thank you, Karen. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

If you want to read about snakes instead of paintings, check out my recent post on my other blog, Saving MacRitchie, and learn about some of the fantastic wildlife in the Central Catchment Reserve.

Solitary Spoonbill

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An African Spoonbill rests on the banks of Lake Nakuru in Kenya. This lake was formerly famous for its migratory flamingos; however, when heavy rainfall skewed the salinity balance that had been its primary attracting feature, yearly numbers decreased as the pink birds moved north. Nevertheless, the reserve centered on the water body is home to a variety of endangered animals, including the White Rhinoceros, Black Rhinoceros, African Lion, and Rothschild’s Giraffe, to name just a few.

The namesake contours of this bird’s bill offers it an evolutionary advantage: by opening its bill and swinging it side to side in the water, it not only demonstrates foraging specializations that have evolved over the years for different species, but also easily catches the crustaceans, insects, and fish it is partial to.

Bustard

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One of the most endangered birds in the world is the Great Indian Bustard, which also happens to be one of the heaviest flying birds. Found in India and Pakistan, it is critically endangered on the IUCN Red List with a population that could be as low as 250 individuals. Its counterpart in Africa is the Kori Bustard, which is possibly – amongst the males, at least – the heaviest living animal in the world capable of flight. Its only competition is the Great Bustard, a species found mainly in Europe with (again, possibly) the most sexual dimorphism between the male and female. While the Kori is not as endangered as the Great Indian, it is near threatened due to hunting and habitat loss.

Little in Green

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A Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus) perches on a branch on the banks of the Mara River. Little Bee-eaters should not be confused with Little Green Bee-eaters (Merops orientalis); they are both two very distinct species – the Little Bee-eater is largely restricted to Sub-Saharan Africa with the more common Little Green Bee-eaterm found in areas ranging from Ethiopia to Vietnam.

2014

We have come to the end – of an era, maybe not, but of a rotation around the sun, of the usage of 2-0-1-4 in dates, of – well, really, nothing. Still, it’s as good a time as any to round up what I’ve done and figure out where I’m going. No doubt you’ve been overladen already with these kind of posts, but really, I can’t think of a better time just to say thank you. When I began this blog, I expected nothing. And I mean nothing. As in zilch, zero, nada, in terms of followers, or likes, or really anything. You guys have overwhelmed me. The fact that people want to (or are forced to) actually read my rants about nature is beyond comprehension. This year has been a huge one in terms of my photography and my experiences in nature.

My trip to Africa in July produced many unforgettable experiences which I am far from done with sharing with you guys. In October, I visited Kullu, a district in the Himalayas; aside from 25 species of birds, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the simple beauty of nature. And just recently – two days ago, in fact – I returned from a trip to Coorg and Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary. I’m still at a loss for words to explain my experience there, but when coherence returns you will see what I saw, as best as I can show it to you. Closer to home, I made numerous trips to MacRitchie (including one trip with Lavanya of My Nature Experiences, who is a person so amazing I have no idea why I didn’t meet her sooner, and also my former partner in crime for the Crazy Tiny Insects challenge), Dairy Farm Nature Reserve, Sungei Buloh, Greenleaf Forest, the Green Corridor, and many, many more fantastic places within Singapore. When this was combined with an afternoon spent with Birds of Singapore, my count of birds I’ve seen within – you guessed it, Singapore – was pushed up to a whopping 92, not including swiftlets. (They are irritating little buggers to identify, ok?)

On the photography front, I would like to say I have gained a greater understanding of a) how and when to use my camera and b) how and when not to use my camera this year. Maybe it paid off. I won a Consolation Prize in the NParks Trees for Life competition, and also received third place in an intra-school photograph competition, for a photograph I featured earlier on one of my Journal Journeys posts. (I haven’t mentioned this earlier on my blog, actually. So yay?) In addition, my photograph of Karambe, the largest black rhinoceros on the Masai Mara, received Spotting of the Day on Project Noah. My photograph of a yawning African Spotted Hyena was selected as Pic of the Day on National Geographic’s Great Nature Project.

I have no idea why any of you would have wanted to read all of this or indeed why any of you came here in the first place. I certainly have no idea why I came here or, indeed, where I’m going. So my New Year’s Resolution, I guess, is to keep it fresh. Never forget the feeling of whispering forests in the afternoon, or the call of birds at some unearthly hour in the morning, or the thrill of excitement in identification and realization. Nature is – well, nature is what it is, and that is something uncorrupted by humans, something more beautiful than hoping or wishing or any of these twenty-six letters, really. And nature, I believe, is essential – for us, in the moment of knowing, and for itself, in the moment of being.

Beneath are all of the photographs I’ve uploaded to this blog this year. See at will. This is my 100th post, fitting for my final words of 2014, which (really) don’t matter. Still, for what it counts – thank you.

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Savannah

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The African lion is perhaps the most overly romanticized and/or brutalized animal on the Masai Mara. The classically shaggy mane of hair gracing the males is instantly recognizable. While it is true that in fact female lions are the primary hunters for the pride, male lions are often relied on for sheer brute force. Infanticide is practiced by dominant males to ensure only their cubs survive.