Curlews of Stone

great thickknee

Great thick-knees are distinctly odd birds – a combination of a shoebill stork, a sandpiper, an ostrich, a bustard, with a hint of a brief, scandalous dalliance with a chessboard around the eyes. They move stiffly and slowly through the days, breaking out into short runs if hurried, moving deliberately, as if trying to hold all the different pieces of themself together.

The IUCN lists them as near-threatened due to the rapid disappearance of their riverside habitat. This one appeared on the bank like a ghost, landing silently, staring at us carefully for moments as we drifted away across the river.

Portrait of a Cockatoo

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Umbrella cockatoos come in screeching numbers, bright white forms streaking across the sky: angels blasting death metal. Continue reading “Portrait of a Cockatoo”

In Otter Disbelief

They come in a shout, a brief cry of astonishment – something emerging from the water, sleek and brown and running across a small island before slipping back in with barely a ripple to form gravestone to their presence. We blink and it is over. The one picture I manage to snap is ridiculously over-exposed; not even one body is visible. A field of white.

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I sigh. I have waited to see otters for years, it feels. The Bishan 10 did not abandon my Facebook feed for several weeks. Articles of residents complaining at Sentosa perplex me: what does one care for a few fish with the pleasure of having otters in your backyard? (The thousand-dollar price tags of said fish, of course, are of little consequence.) Even in Valparai, someone studying otters kept pointing out places to me: oh, I saw them here once. Oh, I saw them there.

I am a little frustrated. And now I have seen them, and it is hardly enough.

Continue reading “In Otter Disbelief”

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.

Painted Bush-Quail

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Sometimes you don’t get the photograph.

Continue reading “Painted Bush-Quail”

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!