Monday, June 22, 2009

Darter: the hug me bird

Darters are large sized slender bird that can be found sitting next to water body with its wing spread as if to hug someone. In reality these birds like their closer cousins cormorants don’t produce oil that water proof their feathers and so has to dry their wings constantly, so much so darters found in America migrate to get bright sun. The reason for lack of waterproof feathers is that like most birds they are light and have to increase their weight, waterlogged feathers allows it to dive easily and helps faster underwater movement. However, once they emerge from the water, they need to dry themselves. They also squeeze their feathers through their bill to remove excess water and repel water with oil from their enlarged preen gland at the base of the tail. It has great difficulty getting off the water if it attempts to fly while its wings are wet and takes off by flapping vigorously. Darters are widespread without being common. They inhabit either fresh or brackish water and can be found in lakes, rivers, marshes, swamps, estuaries, bays, lagoons and mangrove swamps. It prefers tree trunks, branches, stumps or posts fringing the water, for resting and drying its wings.

Darters got their name as they use long (about twice the length of the head) sharply pointed bill to spear or thrust prey when they dive, the fish is pierced from underneath, brought to the surface where it is flicked into the air and then swallowed head first. Smaller items are eaten underwater and large items carried to a convenient perch and then swallowed. Darters are also known to spread their wings and tail underwater to lure fish into the shade underneath, before spearing them. They are also referred to as snake bird as they have snakelike head and a very long curved neck, and often swims with only the neck above water, with side to side movement like a snake ready to strike. They have short webbed feet making them excellent swimmers, submerging without even a ripple (10 on 10 effort in Olympics!!) their eyes are set in the beaks for efficient underwater hunting. While its gait is clumsy on land, it can soar gracefully to great heights on thermals, soaring on motionless wings, it makes cross-shaped silhouette when flying giving an impression of a glider.

These birds belong to the family Anhingidae. In south Asia the commonly found darter is refered to as Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster). There are four living species. The word "anhinga" comes from the Brazilian Tupi language and means devil bird or snake bird. The stamp posted herein is from Liberia (President of liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is Africa's first elected female head of state), the painting of darter is from Audubon collection.

I came across these lines by Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988)

"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world,
but when you're finished,
you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird...
So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing - that's what counts.
I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."

How precise!!. Feynman was an American theoretical physicist who was widely regarded as the most brilliant, influential, and iconoclastic figure in his field in the post-World War II era. He was one of the celebrated and revered scientists of modern times, he was multifaceted and had interest in many fields. Feynman remade quantum electrodynamics—the theory of the interaction between light and matter. The problem-solving tools that he invented—including pictorial representations of particle interactions known as Feynman diagrams—permeated many areas of theoretical Physics in the second half of the 20th century. Feynman invented a theory of “partons,” or hypothetical hard particles inside the nucleus of the atom, that helped lead to the modern understanding of quarks.

In his memoir Feynman mentions the reason for being in the Manhattan project. He says he felt the possibility of Nazi Germany developing the bomb before the Allies was a compelling reason to help with its development for the U.S. However, he goes on to say that it was an error on his part not to reconsider the situation when Germany was defeated. Feynman also talks about his worries in the atomic bomb age, feeling for some considerable time that there was a high risk that the bomb would be used again soon so that it was pointless to build for the future. Later he describes this period as a 'depression'. (all inputs taken from Net).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Only the righteous see the kingfisher

One can understand why this is a Irish folk saying (recorded in Richard Mabey’s Birds Britannica) since the most common sighting would be of a small, vivid glint of electric blue darting low across a lake or river and by the time you can say "Look there! A Kingfisher!" it’s gone. Some even call it the “Flying Jewel”. Plumage shining in metallic blue and turquoise, its orange-chestnut head and breast, with the white spot on the throat and its spectacular hunting behavior makes it really a precious bird. When I see this bird my mind talks about Darwin my heart thanks God!!.

Common kingfisher (the pic above taken at Karanja lake Mysuru) is a sparrow-sized bird with typical short-tailed, large-headed kingfisher profile; it has blue upperparts, orange underparts and a long sharp massive pointed bills. Kingfishers are chunky birds, they have short necks and large heads and stubby tails. Their bodies are short and plump, and legs and feet are small, a shape that helps them diving into the water. It feeds mainly on fish, caught by diving, and has special visual adaptations to enable it to pursue its prey under water (I happen to see a program in National Geo. wherein they focused this ability of kingfisher, they did it brilliantly. Every time I watch these programs I am amazed). The flight of the Kingfisher is fast, direct and usually low over water. Its color and brevity always leave an impression. There are 86 species of kingfishers and are found all around the world except polar regions and some oceanic islands. Most species live in the eastern hemisphere, especially in southeast Asia.

Kingfishers range in size from the tiny African dwarf kingfisher, 10 cm long, to the laughing kookaburra of Australia (known for its laughing call), 46 cm long. In India three species are generally seen: White breasted, Pied and Common. The Common kingfisher is smallest and less shy. It is often seen perched on a stick or branch overlooking a ditch or pool watching intently for fish (occasionally hovering above the water's surface), bill pointing down as it searches for prey. It bobs its head when food is detected to gauge the distance, and plunges steeply down, two seconds later it emerges, clutching a prize in its beak and stuns the fish by beating it against the perch before swallowing it.

Kingfishers are highly territorial, and so are always found solitary. They are a vulnerable to habitat degradation through pollution or unsympathetic management of watercourses. They are seriously affected by build-up of chemicals, and river pollution by industrial and agricultural products. The presence of this bird therefore is an indication on not only the standard of water but general ecosystem. They nest in tunnels in earth banks (forest or wood kingfishers may live far from water), therefore concrete water banks in cities do create nesting problems, city authorities can create artificial nests or spaces.

There is a medieval folk tale in Europe that kingfishers were originally plain grey bird it acquired its present bright colors by flying towards the sun on its liberation from Noah's ark, its upper surface assumed the hue of the sky. Phrase Halcyon Days- days of idyllic happiness or prosperity, Halcyon came from the Greek word for kingfisher. It is often considered a bearer of luck and augmenter of money, and also seems to be of importance as a weather prophet. Kingfishers are probably most popular birds when it comes to stamps and almost all countries around the world have come out with stamp on Kingfishers (the stamp posted here is from Luxemburg). The painting herein is by none other than Von Gogh (painted in 1886).

These few lines taken from a poem by Mary Oliver titled The Kingfisher

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is
the prettiest world--so long as you don't mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your
whole life that doesn't have its splash of happiness?

As I was going through these I found that Mary Oliver is an incredible woman. She is a Pulitzer Prize (1984) wining American poet, influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, and is known for her clear and poignant observation of natural world. Oliver has also been compared to Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and interior monologues. I read many of her poems the other day and think she is amazing (I pity myself for not reading her much earlier). Also her liking for Whitman, Thoreau and Dickinson makes her endearing. She loves the outdoors, in the nature. Says Oliver “Whenever I would leave home, I would say ‘I’m going in,’ whenever I would go back in the house, I would say ‘I’m going out.’!!”. Now that is what I love about people. She asks this question “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” . There are some writings that become very personal the moment you read Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Red whiskered bulbul: the ecstatic little bird

Red-whiskered Bulbul is a member of the bulbul family, are short-necked slender passerines is a common Asian specie from Pakistan and India to southeast Asia and China (incidentally this bird is absent in Sri Lanka). It has been introduced to different parts of the world as cage bird. There are approximately 185 species in this genus (red vent bulbul is another popularly found bird in india). The Red-whiskered Bulbul was one of the many species originally described by Linnaeus in 1758 in his Systema Naturae.

Red-whiskered Bulbul’s characteristics are its pointed conspicuous black crest, red whiskers (leading to itsname) red vent, sharp beak curved at the tip, thick black stripe running from its beak to neckline. The tails are long and the wings short and rounded. This bird like cuckoo you hear first before spotting, they are melodiuos unabashed singers. The flight is bouncing, it gives an impression of a bird that is immensely happy with life, the attitude is infectious (the reason why watching birds can be an ecstatic experience). It prefers wooden localities (and hence commonly found in hills) with bushes and shrubs, and are found next to human habitats. They are easily tamed and are popular as a cage bird. They are so popular that many kids are named bulbul.

Bulbuls feed mainly on fruits, berries, insects and sometimes do crop damage. In Hawaii these escaped caged birds are banned they have been accused of destroying orchid plantations because of bud and flower damage as also spreading the seeds of invasive plants.

Bulbuls are non migratory birds, they are known for their songs, the reason why it was taken to different parts of the world as caged birds. In Middle East they even find mention in Persian poetry. Last but not the least like stilts they too feign injury to distract predators from the nest.

The pic taken from hills of Kutta (Western Ghats), it is a small town on the Karnataka-Kerala border. This place was a pleasant surprise, and strongly suggested to bird watchers. Few Kms of morning walk and I saw atleast 30 species of birds (including fan tailed drango). Unfortunately the pics didn’t come out properly except the red whisker as they are tolerant to humans. I guess I might take few more years to get better lens, anyway I shouldn’t be complaining and consider myself fortunate to have atleast this camera.

Carl Linnaeus: poet who happened to become a naturalist

I recall learning about Linnaeus in school, it is only recently I came to know that he was an amazing man. Linnaeus was one of the greatest and inspiring man of his time. Rousseau wrote: "Tell him I know no greater man on earth". Goethe wrote: "With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly. Clearly that is an amazing credential. Linnaeus put the binomial nomenclature in place. This was a major achievement since it put all known species (and elements) in a systematic way, helped in easy classification and study. It was brilliant (in school it was miserable experience trying to mug these!!). He is rightly considered as father of modern taxonomy, creating a universal language. And it is this incredible guy who gave us the name homo sapiens..