Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why we should protect Old, Large, Living Trees?

A group of researchers from University of British Columbia (UBC) emphasizes the importance of protecting old trees to save the homes of more than 1,000 different bird and mammal species. Most animals are unable to carve out their own tree holes and therefore rely on holes already formed. The study found that most animals nest in tree holes formed by damage and decay, a process that can take several centuries.

In forests, tree holes are created either quickly by woodpeckers or more slowly as trees age and begin to decay. Birds like owls, songbirds and parrots, and mammals like flying squirrels and opossums, make homes in the holes of trees because they offer safe environments for sleeping, reproduction and raising young. Insects, snakes and amphibians will also make use of tree cavities.

Kathy Martin, a professor in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC and her research team found that on most continents - South America, Europe, Asia and Australia - more than 75 % of the holes used by birds and mammals were created by damage and decay.

"When wildlife depends on decay-formed cavities, they are relying on large living trees. Most trees have to be more than 100 years old before decay cavities begin to form and often several centuries old before large cavities or many cavities develop in one tree."

"Most forest policies help protect younger trees but promote the harvest of older, larger, living trees - the very trees needed by cavity-nesting animals," says Martin.

“The value of these large living trees needs to be recognized and we need to ensure that a supply of these trees is retained especially in tropical forest systems where decay-formed tree holes last for many years and support a lot of wildlife”.

Read the full story at “Science Daily

Access the research article here

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What are you really?

“Are you a bird watcher, an ornithologist, an ornithophile, an aviphile, a bird lover, bird fancier, bird bander, birder, bird spotter, lister, ticker, twitcher- or what?” asks Roger Tory Peterson.

Famous American bird artist and photographer Roger Tory Peterson’s article “What are you really?” first published in “Bird watchers digest” in March/April 1984, later included in the book “All things reconsidered" edited by Bill Thompson III, is a very interesting article for all who are curious about birds.

“As for myself, I am primarily a bird artist and a photographer, a visual person obsessed by birds. I watch them, and they undoubtedly watch me, their eyes are better than mine.” It is the way he identified himself. Let’s see how he describes others.

“I favour the term Bird watcher for general use because it is inclusive. It describes almost everyone who looks at birds or studies them - at nearly every level, from the watcher at the window who simply feeds birds all the way to elitists……”

There are many arguments among bird watchers, on “who are real ornithologists and who are not”. Some people like to call themselves as ornithologists. These days we hear many people identify themselves as various types of "–logists", which indicate some sort of professional value. Here are the Peterson’s thoughts.

“It is risky to call yourself an artist if you merely dabble with water colors or oils as a weekend hobby. It is equally presumptuous to call yourself an ornithologist just because you identify birds, take notes, or make lists. Ornithology implies a high level of expertise of a scientific nature. Most professional ornithologists these days have degrees, either a doctorate or at least a master’s. A very few non-professionals who devote their time year after year to some specialised problem of avian research might be included in this rarefied category.”

On birder and bird watcher
“The term birding did not surface in the ornithological literature until 1896, when Florence Merriam, one of the founding mothers of the Audubon movement, wrote a book entitled ‘A birding on a Bronco’….”

“Curiously, the term birding slipped from our vocabulary after Florence Merriam used it in the title of her book. Did she coin it? To my knowledge, the meaning of the word birder as we use it today never surfaced in any standard dictionary until Webster published its ‘New Collegiate dictionary’ in 1977. On page 112 we find: “BIRDER (1) a catcher or hunter of birds, esp. for the market. (2) one that birds.” Referring to the verb BIRD, I find “to observe or identify wild birds in their natural environment.” So far, so good. Then turning to BIRD WATCHER, I read: “birder”. They are interchangeable.”

However, Peterson likes to distinguish bird watchers and birders. He describes bird watchers, as anyone who feeds birds. Many people have bird feeders in their backyards, although they don’t know how to identify birds. Hunting birds is still a widespread game (Sport) in many parts of the world. He writes “they certainly watch birds (through the gunsight rather than the binocular), but their focus is on relatively few species.”

“More recently, Robert Arbib, editor of ‘American birds’ arrived at a far more conservative estimate of the number of birders. His rationale was that one is really not a birder unless he or she occasionally goes out looking for birds beyond the confines of the backyard. The birder owns a binocular, field guide, and scope. Arbib discounts “compassionate” birders, go-alongs who are out there only because they want to be with their spouses or children. ….”

On lister or ticker
“Birders make lists of the birds they see; if they don’t, they should. Thus the conscientious birder might also be called a “lister” or a “ticker”. …
There are all kinds of lists. Dearest to the hearts of most birders is the life list, which includes those birds ticked off anywhere in the world during one’s lifetime. ……”

Peterson describes endless variations of lists from country lists to backyard lists. Here is an interesting story on one of his lists.

“When I was a young man, one of my lists was birds heard on the sound tracks of movies. I had a very special list for the Wren tit, a common bird around studios of Hollywood - a bird with an unmistakable voice. The range of this species is almost entirely within the state of California, but my researches in the movie theaters over the years extended its range to Wyoming, lake champlain and even Austria.”

“A ‘ticker is a shade different from a lister. I have known tickers who merely follow other birders around and scarcely look at the bird when they are spotted but wait for theor leader to call them off. I remember particularly a friend who often followed our group, building up his list without the benefit of a binocular.”

“When I first heard the term twitcher, I assumed it meant the same as ticker, but not so. This was invented by the bird watching fraternity in Britain. ….. I asked my friend John Parslow, about the origin of the word. He replied that as a matter of fact, he was one of the very first twitchers. About twenty years ago he and a friend, who tore about the roads of England on their bikes running up lists, learned of a rare warbler that had been reported on the coast. They dropped everything, jumped on their bikes, and paddled like mad for couple of hours, stopping only to have lunch by the roadside. … Another young chap who joined them commented, “You are a couple of twitchers.” And that, according to Parslow, is how the word entered the birders’ lexicon.

Other birders may dispute this origin, but by definition a twitcher is a birder who races around the country frantically collecting rare birds for his list. To quote Bill Oddie again, ‘what distinguishes the real twitcher is his degree of emotional involvement. … If this kind of birder gets to hear of a bird that has been sighted that would be a tick for him he is so wracked with nervous anticipation (that he night see it) or trepidation (that he might miss it) that he literally twitches with the excitement of it all.’

I might comment that twitchers seldom discover their own rarities; they zero in on reports that have reached them through the grapevine.”

Here  is an interesting old report on twitching a bird from UK.

I copied the short biography given in the back cover of the book “All things reconsidered” here.

“Roger Tory Peterson, one of the world’s greatest naturalists, was born on August 28, 1908, In Jamestown, New York. He became passionate about birds as a young boy, went to art school, and at the age of twenty six, published his first book, A field guide to the birds. His visual system of grouping similar species together and using arrows to designate important field marks allowed quick identification of live birds, a departure from the practice of killing birds to study them. That book became the cornerstone of the best-selling Peterson field guide series, which includes more than hundred titles. During his lifetime, Peterson received, every major award for ornithology, natural science, and conservation as well as numerous honorary degrees, medals, and citations, including the presidential Medal of Freedom. Peterson died in his studio on July 28, 1996, while working on revising his field guides.”

In honour of Peterson, The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural history (RTPI) was established in his hometown. Today it serves as an excellent study center for nature studies and environment awareness programmes, while holding large portion of Peterson’s work, both paintings and photographs.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre: Promoting Conservation through Education and Restoration

Affectionately known as "KK", bustling Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah and the hub of tourism in Malaysian Borneo.  Visitors from around the world use KK as the center point for visiting variety of attractions Sabah has to offer including biologically rich islands, and national parks. Situated just two kilometers from  the  main city, the Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre (KKWC) covers 24 hectares of mangrove forest that once existed extensively along the coastal region of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. The center is used primarily as a model wetland for the purpose of conservation, education, recreation and research. KKWC is managed by a local NGO, “Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society” (SWCS), which advocates environmental conservation and awareness on wetland ecosystems found in Sabah as well as in the other parts of Malaysia.

I got the opportunity to visit KKWC as a participant to the recently held Asian Wetland Symposium. The 45-minute or 1.5 km early morning stroll on the boardwalk was a very pleasant experience where you can enjoy fresh air and tranquility, while spotting multitude of interesting birds including the collared kingfisher, which is not recorded from Sri Lanka. The Centre is an important refuge and feeding ground for many species of resident birds, as well as several migratory bird species. The total of bird species observed at KKWC so far is around 83 species from 31 families.  The highest abundance of bird groups recorded are residents such as egrets, herons, storks and bitterns, which are usually easy to be spotted as they fly over the mangroves or while feeding in the exposed mud flats.

The mangroves serve as a green lung for the city and its location is strategic for environmental education, urban recreation and eco tourism. Further, as a natural flood retention area, KKWC plays a major role for the city of Kota Kinabalu, preventing possible downstream flooding, removing toxicants and recycling nutrients. It is also a nursery ground for many ocean fish species. A water quality monitoring program presently being conducted and the information collected allows scientists of “Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society” (SWCS) to strategize with the appropriate mitigation measures to combat water pollution. Because of its close proximity to the city, the wetland is subjected to development pressure. Other processes affecting the quality of water at KKWC include domestic wastewater and seawater intrusion.

Previously known as Likas Mangroves, the area was first designated a bird sanctuary by the Sabah state government in September 1996 in order to foster a better understanding and awareness on the value of wetlands. Under the directive of the then Chief Minister of Sabah, “Likas Wetlands Sanctuary Managing Committee” (LWSMC), an innovative and unique public-private-NGO- community partnership, was established during the same year. The principle purpose of LWSMC was to oversee and coordinate development, planning and management of the Bird Sanctuary. This committee was made up of 16 component members including government agencies, private organizations, community groups and local NGOs, each separately constituted and registered.

With the formation of Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society in August 22, 2005, LWSMC was officially dissolved to make way for SWCS to manage KKCS.  This society is governed by a Management Committee and a Board of Trustees as regulated in its constitution. With KKWC as the successful model SWCS plan to embark on restoration of degraded mangrove sites throughout Sabah in collaboration with forward thinking private sector organizations such as HSBC. Further SWCS together with State run Sabah Biodiversity center are currently working towards obtaining Ramsar designation of KKWC as a wetland of International importance.

In Sri Lanka we have few mangrove areas promoting education and restoration activities such as the Kadol Kelle at Negambo lagoon run by NARA and the Mangrove Resource Center run by the Small Fishers’ Federation at Pambala.  Recently Forest Department too has taken an interest and has established a center at Pubudugama in the vicinity of Puttalam estuary.  Only by joining hands with public and private entities we can take these initiatives forward in a more positive manner.

Visit SWCS web site here

Report and photos: Nishanthi Perera

[Nishanthi is currently doing her PhD at University of Colombo on “Policies on marine and coastal protected areas in Sri Lanka”. She presented a paper titled “Policy decisions and their consequences: The Bundala wetland case study, Sri Lanka” at the Asian Wetland Symposium 2011.]