An as yet unidentified butterfly feeds on a flower in Kullu, India, its delicate proboscis just barely visible. It probably a member of Lycaenidae, otherwise known as the Blues – so named not because of their rather drab outside but rather the brilliant blue that hides in their folded-up inner wings. The largest family of butterflies in the world, it is one of a full third of the world’s butterfly species.
On our last day of Kullu, I went for a walk on my own.
This was not the best decision in some respects. When I came back, half the prickly plants in the Himalayas had decided that my pants would be the best place to hitch a ride on. And I was stuck for half an hour picking them off.
In other respects, however… well. There were Verditer Flycatchers. Plumbeous Redstarts. The chance to watch the world come alive with bird song.
And one very cute bathing Coal Tit.
The route I followed was along the course of a small stream, and it was in the stream I spotted the Tit. The stream dipped down at a section to form a microcosm of a waterfall; where the water fell, the Tit was bathing.
I really have no words to describe what it looked like, and how freakin’ cute it was, so I’ll let this video speak for itself.
One of the things birders both love and detest in equal measure are splits – i.e., when a bird species is split into two different species. While this may mean an increase in bird lists and ‘lifers’, this also means a headache in identification. Birds differ significantly from one place to the other and taxonomists have the problem of figuring out whether the difference in coloring warrants a new subspecies, species, or dismissal as just a local variant. If I may be allowed to backtrack to popular culture, the well-named Birder’s Guide to Everything is proof of this conundrum. (Birding club. Birds. More birds. Romance involved; can be dismissed. DIscussion of ethics in birding to some extent. Birds. Need I say more?) An unusually patterned duck, in this case, is far too similar for comfort to the extinct Labrador Duck, and serves as the plotline of the film.
If this can drive an entire movie, you can tell this is somewhat of an issue.
The Oriental Cuckoo is one example of this. While perhaps not the most exciting one, it illustrates neatly what happens far too often for many species. Formerly a supspecies under the rather generic ‘Himalayan Cuckoo’, differences in size and sound led to it being split from it. The bird above got stuck with Himalayan Cuckoo (Cuculus saturatus), while the slightly larger Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus) became a new species. In fact, a third species was split as well – the darker Sunda Cuckoo became Cuculus lepidus.
Of course, differences in range, commonness (that is a word), and other associated factors often abet in identification. Still, you can get bogged down for years in the vast labyrinth of taxonomy. Birds are wonderful. Identifying them – not so much.
Stars as seen from the campfire in Kullu, India. My inability to identify any constellation other than Orion’s belt has been a source of great frustration for me; my brother, Neel, has had greater success. Nevertheless, being able to see the stars – even if I can’t understand them – is a wonderful feeling. In Singapore, due to our residence in a condo, we’re lucky if we see the moon most days. My envy for those living in the countryside or somewhere where the stars can be seen regularly is reaching unparalleled heights.
Misidentification is a problem all birders (and, indeed, any naturalist) will know. Birds – to put not too fine a point – are complicated. The tiniest speck of brown in the venting (i.e. the space under their tails) can mean an entirely different scientific name.
Perhaps I’m overexaggerating. But when most sightings of birds last for no longer than a couple minutes (at most) it’s pretty hard to differentiate in the dense foliage whether it had a red cheek or a red cheek with a speck of orange. Photographs often serve to confuse more than correct.
This is especially a problem for – well, amateurs (amongst whom I count myself). In the ridiculous over-optimism that characterizes beginning birders, we tend to assume the best. In birding, this often isn’t the best course of action. It’s far more likely you saw a juvenile yellow-vented bulbul than a species that’s entirely new to Singapore, especially if you spot it within an urban condo.
I arrived in Kullu armed with a 100-400 lens, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, and an almost-depressing optimism that I would surpass my goal of 25 different bird species. The Himalayas – the home of the migrants that were then gracing Singapore, somewhere deep inside I had a vindictive delight in spotting common birds here that were rare-beyond belief there. One example is the White Wagtail, whose presence in Tampines recently sparked a Facebook avalanche.
When I saw this bird on the banks of the Tirthan, I was convinced that I had spotted the self-same bird. I knew it had come from the Himalayas. When I saw this wagging its tail in the characteristic manner of… you guessed it, wagtails, I was a convert. I even wrote it down in my little book of birds I’d seen. I cross-checked it with the numerous variations of wagtails in my guide!
Then disaster (of a kind) struck. I showed my photograph to some birders there, and they smiled and told me I was mistaken. The only wagtail found here during the fall – they said – was the yellow, which made appearances that were few and far between. The white wagtail lived much further up. That bird, they told me, was a Little Forktail (Enicurus scouleri).
A common mistake? Probably not. Maybe next time I’ll learn not to rely on misplaced optimism and blind faith. Yellow-vented bulbuls, sometimes, are just yellow-vented bulbuls; white wagtails are sometimes just another fork in the bewildering labyrinth of bird identification.
Plumbeous Redstarts are the other species of the two I found on the banks of the Tirthan River. While initially they appear to be a dull black, in proper lighting their glistening slate blue coat is revealed. Though I usually found them perched precariously on a rock dangerously close to the rushing river, this one flew into one of the trees by the riverbank for a moment. These birds are very protective of their habitat and behave aggressively towards any trespasser on their territory. Perhaps that’s the reason why they were less abundant than their relative, with only one or two on the stretch of the river I birded on at the time.