Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why birdwatchers watch birds… and other birding thoughts

"There is talk of a lion loose in Langata, so let us stick together in a group and not stray,” warns Fleur at the start of a birding trail in Ngong Racecourse that will eventually lead into Ngong Forest. Once in a while, Nairobi wakes up to an event of a lion or a hippopotamus dropping by the township causing panic (in the neighbourhood) and amusement (to people in other areas). As an aside, listen to this: the civic authorities in their wisdom put up cages at various places in the neighbourhood to catch the cat, but reported that while no cat was found entrapped, they did bait a few hyenas! Given that the Nairobi National Park is close to the City Centre, as the pied crow flies, it should be news that these episodes do not occur often. But nothing can deter the ragtag bunch of birdwatchers of the Wednesday Birder's Club or keep them from their weekly date with birds. 

What draws birdwatchers to field trips, come rain or riots, week after week over months and years, to more or less the same places? Doesn't it get monotonous viewing the same garden variety of birds of bulbuls and weavers, or that after a few outings even the uncommon birds become commonplace? Mountaineer George Mallory's classic reply on climbing mountains applies to birdwatching, too. He is known to have said: "Why climb a mountain... because it is there." Birdwatchers watch birds because they are there - all around - in our backyard, in neglected niches of our neighbourhood and in urban forests.  People go on African safaris or Indian jungles to see large mammals - the Big Five, the cats, the elephants, the hippopotamuses - but few have the patience to sweep in the smaller avifaunal species that are transitory, hyperactive and that do not wait out our cursory observation skills. That is precisely why birdwatching and its related nature-watch component of observing butterflies and insects becomes a more subtle and sublime venture. It calls for marshalling of almost all sensory faculties to the point of utter concentration bordering on meditation.

Imagine an amorphous painting with hidden images – an illusionary art – which a child has to figure out? The child spots a dog here, a car there, and suddenly million things stare at him and the painting comes alive with all its differential aspects standing out vividly. Birdwatching is something similar. The monochromatic leaves of trees of the woods assume varied shapes and characteristics and become separate species; birds blended in trees and shrubs break free becoming visible entities; and butterflies cleave from self-same-coloured flowers to fill up bare spaces. The singular green of the trees, brown of the soil and blue of the sky disperse into multicolour mobile mites that, at first, seem obscure.

And that brings me to the magician birder, Kevin. In my previous blog, I focused on the leading lady of the Wednesday club, Fleur, but Kevin is another of those ardent bird lovers who can unravel images and forms from illusory nature. Without binoculars Kevin spots a fish eagle almost two kilometers across the wetland that we have trouble focussing through binoculars; the white shirt front is unmistakable and though the face is obscure, the upright stance is a dead giveaway.   I have never understood how truly passionate birders are also good imitators of bird calls. Kevin takes us to see the Narina trogon in its territory inside the Ngong forest, but we are a big group treading noisily over dry leaves and twigs, a loud threat for the shy bird. Kevin imitates its call and though it does not make an appearance it responds!

He herds us next to see the nest of an African Crowned eagle. I had seen the female crowned eagle sitting by its unwieldy and twiggy nest that was empty, two years back, and after that was going there only today. Meanwhile, the birders had been checking on it on their intermittent sorties. Imagine the exhilaration of seeing a fledgling sitting like a king comfortably on its home perch; the mother was obviously away hunting for a baboon or a small antelope for the young one.  Kevin fills the gaps for me in the life of this particular eagle. It is a privilege to get a window into the isolated world of a giant aviator predator that resides far from the madding crowd of humans and to witness individual stories unfold.  

A fluty call greets us persistently as we walk back by the edge of the forest; this is the yellow-breasted apalis marking its territory. The apalis descends down from trees to a low perch when it makes that call so that it carries far. You realize then that birding is not about simply identifying birds by their appearance - that is but a first fledgling step. Birdwatching is about observing bird behaviour to understand their nature, their language -  their calls and songs, and their needs. It is befriending them to get to know them intimately, to empathize with them and love them, but from a distance. After all, all creatures, big and small, are but a part of the whole, an indispensable ingredient of the world wide web.

Chick of  an African Crowned Eagle in its nest in Ngong Forest

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Wednesday Birder's Club

Even before I had found my feet, or should I say, wings in Nairobi I found myself at the National Museum premises with a motley group of youngsters and senior citizens, locals and foreigners, one Wednesday morning. The only thing that bound the diverse band together was our love of birds. Nature Kenya’s bird-watching club was the best thing that happened to me in Nairobi. This weekly addiction saw me connect intimately with the city faster than had I allowed time to take its own course. Thanks to our birding trips, I spanned the length and breadth of Nairobi from forests (Ngong and Ololua) and wetlands (Brookside and Splash) to tea estates (Kiambethu and Maramba) and golf greens (Windsor Club and Sigona Club); from well-endowed neighbourhoods (Loresho and Langata) and pockets of urban forests (Parardise Lost and Karura forest) to the one and only Nairobi National Park. Considering the diverse ecological habitats in and around the city, it hardly seems incredulous that Nairobi has the unique distinction, as capital cities go, of having the largest diversity of birdlife anywhere in the world! (Incidentally, our very own Delhi comes second, so I am told.) Nairobi National Park itself boasts of more than 300 species of birds. 

Maramba Tea Estate in Tigoni
Splash - Artificial Wetland

Effluent slurry at Brookside Dairy
Paradise Lost

The predominant reason for avidly keeping appointment with avifauna, come Wednesday, was also the leader of the group, Fleur Ng'weno, a European lady with a Kenyan surname. Somewhere in her 70s, this is a lady who has been conducting bird walks for more than four decades and for which she has been recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Nature Kenya, a century-old august organization. Not only is Fleur an absolute authority on birds of Kenya, she also has unfailing eyesight (even at her ripe age) that can spot a bird which for many of us novices is only a blur in the bushes. She has the enviable ability of identifying birds by their sally, stance or song.

Bird-watching in field, as against armchair backyard birding, is quite challenging. On field, particularly in forests, canopies consume birds rendering them invisible; one has to be attuned to their sounds and calls to track them. Even when observed openly, birds are not easy to identify as often distinct species can be similar in appearance, and even within a species sub-species may exist with slight variations. Cisticolas and Warblers are prime examples of the latter. Some birds, such as the Widow bird, look vastly different in their breeding plumage from their non-breeding versions so as to appear an altogether new species, but that doesn’t fool Fleur. She can discern sub-species of Greenbuls that diverge but a jot from one another in the shadows of the forest. While a pictorial guidebook is of great help to identify birds visually, making them out from their song or sally has to be learnt practically. This is where Fleur’s inputs are invaluable. When she imitates the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 trill of Ruppell’s robinchat for you, it is difficult not to recognize it the next time round.

The eclectic bunch of birders - Kenyan youths many of whom are studying to be nature guides, retirees  and wizened muzungus (as the 'whites' are called by Kenyans) who cannot be kept down, and a smattering of expat muindis (Indians!) - comes armed with guide-books, binoculars and cameras. Kevin, an African Kenyan, is the keen eye who invariably spots birds first, while some eager beaver youngster is given the duty of maintaining a log of species seen. Peter Usher, an elderly gentleman and an environmentalist retired from UNEP, is the ‘official’ photographer. He is the silent observer whose pictures promptly posted to everyone the next day, with utterly captivating captions and cheeky humour, serve as valuable documentation. All birders in the Wednesday group are a genuinely enthusiastic lot. Unlike in India, I find that the common man in Kenya is not blasé about the bountiful birdlife around him or her. The Kenyan tour guides, for example, are not only experts on mammals of the African savannas, but are also, without exception, avid birders with more personal than cursory professional interest.

With every visit over last three years there has been wonderment and revelations. Sporadic scenes come to mind, of an African crowned eagle atop its nest deep in the heart of Ngong forest; flocks of Hottentot teals, Egyptian geese, herons and countless other waterbirds on a particularly productive day at Brookside; the resplendent blue-green of Hartlaub’s turaco, when rarely spotted; the Hamerkop’s nest fit for a king; and the romantic duet of the tropical boubous. And there have been sideshows where we have spotted Sykes monkeys and tree hyraxes, exotic orchids and wild mushrooms. Fleur’s knowledge of trees rivals that of birds and often in the absence of bird-spotting in dense thickets we have indulged in tree-gazing, instead. Through Fleur’s immense network of friends we have also visited private bungalows with their 5-acre forest-gardens. One such visit was to an enchanting dig in Karen, originally owned by the renowned botanist Peter Bally, better known as Joy Adamson’s (of the ‘Born Free’ fame) second husband. It was for him that Joy did illustrations of botanical plants which are considered as masterpieces today.

Tree Hyrax
Camouflage sideshow

I often wonder what an alien visiting the earth would think if it were to see a bunch of people standing by the roadside, craning their necks, searching the trees and skyline with their extension eyes and smiling to themselves. We have all seen the stray “mad man” who does something similar. Maybe, the alien must think of us as a flock of ‘cuckoos’, indeed.

Also read: Birdwatching - II

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