In 2015 I flew to Coimbatore and from there drove four hours and 40 hairpin bends into the hills to Valparai, a small Tamilian town nestled among acres of tea and coffee plantation. I had just finished my freshman year of high school and knew that I kind of liked birds and wildlife and stuff like that, and maybe it’d be cool to find out more stuff about them, like research? Continue reading “Into the Hills: Gap Year Week 5”
Mornings in the Ghats are an exercise in pastel. Continue reading “Morning in the Ghats”
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
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.
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.
In Valparai this summer, I went for several walks in the surrounding coffee plantations – in the solitude, there was a quiescence such that I had not known before; it felt wild in a way you cannot find in Singapore, even despite the manicured coffee plants.
One encounter with a Nilgiri langur, one of the Western Ghats endemics in the region, stood out to me.
Indian gaurs are the largest bovine in the world. Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, they are only surpassed in weight by rhinoceroses, hippopotami, elephants, and giraffes. Overhunting has threatened them through much of their south-east Asian range, however, notably in Vietnam and Cambodia.
In protected areas, they flourish – and can indeed coexist with humans, if not disturbed; this individual regularly fed some fifty meters from tea workers in the Western Ghats. It’s not a consistent trend, however – that same area records a death per year from gaurs not noticed in the dark by people wandering off the roadside.
Being able to observe them in their natural habitat is nevertheless a privilege – they hold a dignified air about them, a firmness in intent, and sometimes an almost-human confidence in their glinting eyes.
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 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!