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.

Journal Journeys: Solitude of the 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.

Continue reading “Journal Journeys: Solitude of the Ghats”

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.

The Pansy’s Pose

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I first saw a blue pansy in the butterfly field guide I picked up on a whim at a stall from our local nature society. It captivated me: I found the brilliance of its colors, elegance in its wings immensely attractive, and vowed to see it in Singapore.

It would be years (well, two) before I clapped eyes on it there – finally, it was at a carpark, of all places, in a patch of grass that tawny costers and pansies, amongst others, had decided to colonize in unusually dense numbers on an unusually hot day. (Then again, this is Singapore we’re talking. Everyday is unusually hot.)

In Bangalore, however, I was walking one day when I noticed a ragged individual in a bush. It was a happy experience, to say the least – surreal, the fact that something that pretty was right there.

And then, predictably, I found it everywhere from then on. Ah well. I’m not complaining.

Creeping Suspicions

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We’re out of the Llobregat and back up to the Pyrenees to return to a bird which had my heart jumping to my throat. Presenting: the Eurasian Treecreeper.

Continue reading “Creeping Suspicions”

Swamphen Days

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Barcelona’s Llobregat Delta proved to be a fruitful trip for me. However, birds I could identify were in a minority – which, thankfully, included this Purple Swamphen. I can now profess myself to be intimately familiar with this species, after having documented them in the Sandpit Swamphens, based on observations of them in Bangalore this summer.

Looking back on this European individual with a summer’s worth of observations under my belt, these pictures become doubly fascinating. Not only was I afforded a very good glimpse of its exceptionally long toes – which aid in gripping hard-to-balance reeds – but also its foraging behavior, as it brings a nice tender shoot to its mouth. Both of these are characteristics I didn’t see in India, perhaps due to the different habitat – that was deep water with a mat of water plants over it, whereas Llobregat is shallow water.

I think it’s safe to say even after hours and hours of observation, I’ve only scratched the surface of these undoubtedly fascinating birds.

Flurries of Excitement

GodwitsandWhimbrels_ProcessedLogoWe take a break from our (semi)regular posts to bring you a flock of assorted Whimbrels, Common Greenshanks, (possibly?) a few Pacific Golden Plovers… and ten Black-tailed Godwits.

To be frank, the Black-tailed Godwit isn’t a particularly impressive or beautiful bird. It is the dull brown that graces most waders; its black-tipped bill is the main differentiator from the otherwise drab Whimbrels. While graceful, frankly the sheer size of species like the Eurasian Curlew outranks it easily. Its impressive yearly migratory flights – from Mongolia all the way to Singapore – are commonplace for birds during migratory season here.

In Singapore it is merely uncommon – nothing compared to, say, the Nordmann’s Greenshank. Worldwide, however, its population is declining rapidly, and it is listed as near-threatened on the IUCN red list – a keen reminder of why mudflats and mangroves such as Sungei Buloh are so important to preserve.

Still, I could apply all of these descriptions, with a few modifiers, to Bar-tailed Godwits (which have the added distinction of the longest migratory flight ever measured) or aforementioned Eurasian Curlews. So what makes the Black-tailed Godwit so special?

Well, it is my 100th species of bird seen in Singapore. *does happy dance*

Admittedly, my record-keeping began recently, and I am notoriously bad at identification. (Also, I am prone to avoiding any rare birds visiting Singapore, simply due to the crowds associated with said bird. And I hate waking up in the morning, a necessity for uncommon forest birds.)

Still, this one-century milestone represents an added seriousness to my birding: I can now with confidence misidentify birds, rather than somewhat nervously as I did when my list hovered in the mid-70s. Yes, I can say, lowering my binoculars with a somewhat-manic look in my eyes, the venting is indeed a different color and the barring on the primaries do mark it apart. It is most definitely a… One more species and I can even add, I’ve seen over one hundred species in Singapore – I know these things. These hundred species are a badge I can proudly rattle off when prompted: Blue-winged Pitta, Abbott’s Babbler, Black-capped Kingfisher, Buffy Fish Owl… Each one has a story, a day I can recall with fondness – a smile at a flash of blue, or the building excitement as a song becomes increasingly closer; the anticipation when leafing through a field guide, perhaps, or a growing sense of wonder when reviewing photographs. One hundred birds represents one hundred scientific names, one hundred journeys I can take/have taken across the Internet, examining taxonomy and origins and discoverers and evolution.

It means one hundred memories.

And now I can add the black-tailed godwit to that hundred, and to my memories the fluttering, heart-palpitating excitement sweetened by a Sunday afternoon.

And to Each His Throne

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In the Pyrenees of Spain, somehow this (unidentified) bird manages to maintain a ridiculous level of self-contained superiority while sitting on what is really a pile of horse manure.

Birding the Chaff

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Put it simply, I do not know European birds.

Which is why I saw this one and sighed. Its vagueish eyebrow indicated its membership of that hated family: leaf warblers. A brief history – I have seen several in the Himalayas, probably some in the Western Ghats, and a total of nil have been identified. Their song is beautiful, but their bodies themselves are far from as colorful as it might make them out to be. All are the same oliveish tinge and the glances I get are usually not enough to figure out is the venting yellow-olive or more creamish?

That’s why it’s always nice to go somewhere new with someone who knows the area. When travelling, however, that luxury is ill-afforded; the next best thing – research. Research, research, research.

And that is how we ended up wandering down a road in the middle of (semi)rural Spain in the middle of the morning, searching for birds. A series of coincidences had led us there – some happy and some not so, but the end result was our arrival at a place knows as the Llobregat Delta. Every site I had visited had pointed newbie birders to Barcelona there, citing its proximity to the airport and diversity of waterfowl and, well, I rarely turn down an opportunity to bird, even if what I end up birding are birds I haven’t the faintest clue what they are, because all the field guides are in Spanish. My most likely chance of any identification was to meet a fellow birder.

Unfortunately, all the birders were also Spanish – and extremely apologetic about it, too. Through a series of hand-gestures and monosyllabic phrases that are the stock of any tourist in a foreign land, however, I managed to communicate my sighting of the above bird, at which point frantic nodding ensued and this (Spanish) field guide opened to the appropriate page. I backed up five meters to photograph it with my long lens, having forgot, as usual, to bring a notebook.

Then I went home to Singapore, because that was our second-to-last day there, and when processing my images, I stumbled across the picture of the field guide.

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I duly googled the scientific name, and I duly realized how little I know European birds.

It was a chiffchaff – as in a common chiffchaff, as in resident/migrant to most of Afro-Eurasia, as in not some obscure species of leaf warbler I had no chance of identifying.

And I suppose my severe overestimation of the bird is simply just the unbearable optimism any birder possesses – that any day might be the ‘lucky’ one, the thrill you get when leafing through a field guide. And I suppose that’s the reason I bird in the first place – for that optimism, and for the chance to encounter new species, common or not, for the thrill, and for the hoping, and for the song of a warbler on a sweet, sweet afternoon.

Fair of Face

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Ok, so this photo may or may not have been taken over a year ago. In my defence: #TBT. Or #TBM. Whatever.

Still, this remains one of my most treasured moments from our trip to Kenya.

Continue reading “Fair of Face”