Whistling Wonders

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I will never stop being excited about the Western Ghats.

There, even being woken up in the morning is a thrilling experience, because the bird doing the waking up is the Malabar Whistling Thrush, a bird you will see – or, more likely than not, hear – nowhere else in the world. The Ghats have a stunning sixteen species of endemic birds. For an area that’s not an island, it’s an impressive total; indeed, it shows the uniqueness of the habitats found in the Anamalais – the sholas, the rainforests, the swamps…

Let’s pull some organisms out of a hat and see what happens. Got a tree? There’s a one-in-two chance it’s endemic – betting odds, I would say. Even better, catch a frog? Two-in-three chance. Best yet, tiger beetle? Four-in-five odds. And that’s not even counting the species yet to be discovered. Just recently a species of frog was found that not only hadn’t been seen in a hundred years, but was also proven, after genetic analysis, to be an entirely new genus – as in, a member of a group of frogs entirely new to science.

Ahhhhhhh.

So, no, I will never be annoyed at the Malabar Whistling Thrus, even if it starts singing at 4 in the morning. (It often does.) It’s a symbol of the amazing biodiversity of the Western Ghats, of the enormous and barely-understood treasure contained in those hills’ valleys and peaks – and that, that is something I can never stop being excited about.

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Birding the Chaff

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Put it simply, I do not know European birds.

Which is why I saw this one and sighed. Its vagueish eyebrow indicated its membership of that hated family: leaf warblers. A brief history – I have seen several in the Himalayas, probably some in the Western Ghats, and a total of nil have been identified. Their song is beautiful, but their bodies themselves are far from as colorful as it might make them out to be. All are the same oliveish tinge and the glances I get are usually not enough to figure out is the venting yellow-olive or more creamish?

That’s why it’s always nice to go somewhere new with someone who knows the area. When travelling, however, that luxury is ill-afforded; the next best thing – research. Research, research, research.

And that is how we ended up wandering down a road in the middle of (semi)rural Spain in the middle of the morning, searching for birds. A series of coincidences had led us there – some happy and some not so, but the end result was our arrival at a place knows as the Llobregat Delta. Every site I had visited had pointed newbie birders to Barcelona there, citing its proximity to the airport and diversity of waterfowl and, well, I rarely turn down an opportunity to bird, even if what I end up birding are birds I haven’t the faintest clue what they are, because all the field guides are in Spanish. My most likely chance of any identification was to meet a fellow birder.

Unfortunately, all the birders were also Spanish – and extremely apologetic about it, too. Through a series of hand-gestures and monosyllabic phrases that are the stock of any tourist in a foreign land, however, I managed to communicate my sighting of the above bird, at which point frantic nodding ensued and this (Spanish) field guide opened to the appropriate page. I backed up five meters to photograph it with my long lens, having forgot, as usual, to bring a notebook.

Then I went home to Singapore, because that was our second-to-last day there, and when processing my images, I stumbled across the picture of the field guide.

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I duly googled the scientific name, and I duly realized how little I know European birds.

It was a chiffchaff – as in a common chiffchaff, as in resident/migrant to most of Afro-Eurasia, as in not some obscure species of leaf warbler I had no chance of identifying.

And I suppose my severe overestimation of the bird is simply just the unbearable optimism any birder possesses – that any day might be the ‘lucky’ one, the thrill you get when leafing through a field guide. And I suppose that’s the reason I bird in the first place – for that optimism, and for the chance to encounter new species, common or not, for the thrill, and for the hoping, and for the song of a warbler on a sweet, sweet afternoon.

Contemplative Cormorants

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Two Little Cormorants sit on what appears to be a submerged light pole in a reservoir in a Coorg coffee plantation. Coffee offers much more support for biodiversity than its more homogenous counterpart, tea, largely due to its requirement of shade trees and sometimes mixing with other crops, such as pepper. Unfortunately, those self-same trees are often invasives, like silver oak, and in due course another ecological problem is introduced.

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.

Superbird

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The delight with which I pounced on my camera and lens after having restricted use of both for two days (because Barcelona isn’t exactly known for a place where you can leave stuff lying around and expect to see it there a minute later) was almost Gollum-esque in its intensity. Despite the fact we were in an airport parking lot, it was Spain and there were birds. (All of which were probably common as mynahs. But still. They were all fantastically, fantastically new and wonderful and beautiful and argh European species I can’t even handle *dissolves into puddle of awe*)

One of those birds was this cute fluffed up thing. I venture sparrow as to its identity; it seems overly large though and so I hesitate at venturing further. Europe is a whole new continent for me.

It's a bird! It's a plane! ... Nope, it's a bird.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! … Nope, it’s a bird.

Purple Rising

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A Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) perches on a tree at a reservoir in Bangalore, Karnataka, watched over by apartment buildings. Despite there being no rivers in the city, lakes are plentiful in what is now supposed to be known as Bengaluru. Most were constructed through dams in the sixteenth century, but now are homes for a multitude of flora and fauna – including the above bird. Modernization, however, is taking its toll, with only 17 healthy lakes remaining out of the 51 recorded in 1985.

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.