The Morning Forest: Gap Year Week 2

I am now two weeks and three countries into my gap year. The last eight days were spent in Sri Lanka, where my extended family—aged three moths to 77 years—gathered for a holiday. Over the trip, we circumnavigated by the country by bus, boat, and seaplane, from the coast to the hills. I took over 1800 photographs, saw 101 bird species, including 15 endemics, and ate far more than I’d like to number.

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Tales of Shieldtails


Shieldtails are primitive burrowing snakes found mostly in southern India and Sri Lanka, with only one species ever reported elsewhere – from the Eastern Ghats, on the other side of India. So named because of their flattened tail – resembling, you guessed it, a shield – we spotted this still-unidentified individual on a cool, leech-infested morning in the Western Ghats.

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The Internet and Nature: How I Got Here

So, on Thursday I gave a TED talk.


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.


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.


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.

The Pit Viper of Pasir Ris


*loudspeaker voice* Who here’s afraid of snakes?

You? You? And you? Well, if you are, be glad you didn’t meet this one. Probably one of the hardest snakes I’ve ever photographed. At least ten times I thought it was going to bite me; it was so active, moving up and down, I could even see its fangs, dripping with venom, and this one time it struck out and bit the air right in front of me, man, that snake was murderous –

And, also, asleep. If I had any trouble from photographing this reptile, it resulted solely from the fact that the light was fading; if I had a tripod, I literally could’ve set up a one second exposure and not have any fear of the reptile moving during that time. It was a statue.

Come night, though, I wouldn’t have wanted to meet it. This is a Shore Pit Viper (Cryptelytrops purpureomaculatus), also known as a Mangrove tree-dwelling pit viper (because *gasp* it’s found in mangroves and lives in trees), and is listed as Endangered within Singapore: its intertidal habitat ensures that Singapore’s constant reclamation of land puts it in more and more danger every day. It’s not like it can’t defend itself, though: it can get aggressive and strike out at people disturbing it. Other than that, however, it’s a fairly shy snake and camoflauges well with the tree branches it’s so fond of gripping onto with its prehensile tail.

Still scared of snakes?