maybe my heart is full of sky

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so maybe the only thing

separating loving and living

is an oh of amazement – the

breathless sound the sky makes

when falling the final gradient

from dusk to twilight and back

again, the way your eyes keep

searching for stars only an

evenmist away, how your fingertips

keep feeling for worlds closeted

within atoms, and maybe

that difference really isn’t as

much as we always thought,

like how your breath can be a

song and a song can be a kiss

from the universe saying you are

here you are here you are here

over and over in seven quintillion

different ways.

This is a chestnut-headed bee-eater I spotted flying over a field in Valparai earlier this summer. I’ve always loved bee-eaters – almost as much as I love kingfishers, actually. The first time I saw one – a blue-throated bee-eater in my condo – I actually could not stop smiling for a solid half-hour afterwards. There’s a sort of exuberance they inspire, the way they swoop and dance over the sky, their quick rests on the bare branches, their confident grace. They’re also pretty damned beautiful, no matter which way you cut it, and the sight of their bright colors darting across the blue is enough to make anyone convert.

On some weeks I’m going to be reposting old photographs and posts. This one is from nearly a year ago, and I thought deserved a fresh glance.

Hawk-Eagle of the Hills

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A Legge’s Hawk-Eagle looks over the hills of the Western Ghats. Formerly a subspecies of the Mountain Hawk-Eagle, its split allowed birders worldwide to add one more species to their lists.

The Prinia Poses

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A juvenile Jungle Prinia poses for the camera in Valparai, Tamil Nadu.

Oh, Shrikes! (pt. 2)

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The long-tailed shrike is known alternatively as the rufous-backed shrike – for reasons that highlight the confused world of bird taxonomy better than anything.

The problem is that there’s this thing called subspecies – which means that, for example, to take collared kingfishers, you can get two birds that are technically the same species but are found in two completely different location and also happen to look completely different. So while this individual is distinctly not rufous-backed – grey-backed is a far more visible descriptor – when you look at other subspecies, such as tricolor or even erythronotus, the name becomes much more appropriate.

It also ties into a debate raging amongst bird taxonomists today – to split or not to split? Growing knowledge of DNA and hybridization has blurred the lines between species, and the problem facing many biologists today is deciding where exactly to split it. Should tricolor be a different species from this one (which I believe is caniceps)? Of course, with specific regards to long-tailed shrikes that might be entirely unfounded in DNA examination. It’s one that’s most certainly affected other species, though – take purple swamphens, which have been sectioned off into several species across their extensive range; what we find in India is now the grey-headed swamphen, which confused me immensely on eBird the first time I saw it.

More species or less species? What do you think defines a species? Let me know in the comments!

Bush Chat at the Bush’s Edge

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A juvenile Pied Bush-chat gives me a piercing glare from the fringes of the tea bushes in Valparai, Tamil Nadu.

Swallow on a Stick

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A Pacific Swallow ruminates on life when perched on a post in Dairy Farm Nature Reserve.

Spoonbill at the Side

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An Eurasian Spoonbill stands on the banks of Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, in Karnataka, India.

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.