Monthly Archives: December 2009

Our cosmic horizon in space and time!

Or a kinder, gentler, more polished version of the Total Perspective Vortex, courtesy the American Museum of Natural History! And about time too, since the older flash version I’d posted a while ago seems to have vanished from the internets.

I needed this as I struggle to find sleep this sad night… so thank you @aasif_mandvi for pointing it out!

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

In memoriam: SA Hussain

At year’s end, it comes to this – more sad news for ornithology and conservation in India. 2009, this wicked year, started off by snatching away Ravi Sankaran from us in January, went on to claim Alan Rodgers at the end of March, and has now rounded itself off by taking away another doyen of Indian natural history in the person of Syed Abdulla Hussain. Via Nathistory-India came news a short while ago that SA Hussain passed away on the penultimate night of this lousy year.

(images courtesy of Manoj Singh and Bharat Bhushan via Facebook)

I remember spending a month or so with him in Dachigam National Park, Kashmir one summer some 20 years ago. I was a tyro then, doing field work for my MSc dissertation (from the Wildlife Institute of India) on the bird communities of Lower Dachigam Valley. Luckily for me in my very first field season, SA Hussain arrived in the park just as I was beginning my transects to count birds. He came with a team of graduate students and Bihari trappers from the Bombay Natural History Society on a bird ringing project, and camped for some weeks. It was the first time I had the opportunity to observe and participate in an intensive mist-netting operation. I hadn’t the resources nor expertise to attempt any such thing for my own thesis work – and no one at WII did either! Hussain taught me how to remove small birds from the fine nylon mesh (you do it carefully), and the importance of always carrying a swiss army knife in one’s pockets (and, of course, wearing a birder’s vest with many such pockets!) when doing so. For the little pair of scissors sure come in handy at times when a bird gets badly entangled and you have to cut the net to free the poor beast! Especially things like small woodpeckers that tend to get their long tongues caught in a knot of nylon – not a pretty sight, and not for the squeamish. I particularly remember a lovely Wryneck we had one day (it was’t badly entangled), and how we marveled at its remarkably flexible neck! Skills he taught me then, even though I wasn’t formally his student, still stand me in good stead.

It’s been a while since I last heard from him, even on Facebook where we had become friends again over the past year. I had heard that he was ill some time ago, but wasn’t aware of the extent of his illness. It was good to see pictures of him walking around in the woods during the Great Himalayan Bird Count just last month where he also accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award (see full gallery on posterous for additional images). I didn’t think he was all that old nor that seriously ill, so this news came as a bit of a shock. I hope he didn’t suffer too much in the end.

My condolences to the family, to his students, to BNHS, which was his home for many years, and to the larger naturalist / ornithologist / conservationist community of which he was such a crucial part. He is the third figure I have lost this year from among my early influences in field biology, all in one painful long year.
May the new year bring us all better news, and good riddance to this pathetic one.

Here’s wishing you all a peaceful and fulfilling new year!

Posted via email from a leafwarbler’s gleanings

Did a dog run the Sea Lions off of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco?

This is rather worrisome, coming right on the heels of my post about poor farmers in India allowing migratory geese to coexist with them!

One of our favorite things to do in San Francisco is to wander down to Fisherman’s Wharf for a nice walk breathing in the salt air, get some chowder in a bowl (or crab if feeling rich!), and go hang out on Pier 39 to watch the Sea Lions lounging out on the floating wooden docks most times of the year. You may have read my post about this, or seen these pictures:

Earlier this week, @GarySoup raised an alarm by tweeting that the sea lions have moved on, accompanied by this photo of the empty docks at Pier 39. This was immediately picked up by a couple of writers at Wired magazine, @pgcat and @alexismadrigal, with the latter digging into the story further to post this report, which includes this quote:

“We have no idea where they moved on to or why,” said Shelbi Stoudt, who manages a team that helps stranded animals in the San Francisco Bay from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.

The sea lions’ disappearance is as strange as their initial colonization of the pier about 20 years ago, in late 1989. They just started showing up one day and as their numbers increased, their traditional hang out, Seal Rocks, became less populated. There are all sorts of theories about why the pier became a favorite haul-out spot for the sea lions, but no one knows for sure why the animals’ behavior changed.

Stoudt averred that the officials at the Marine Mammal Center weren’t worried about the animals’ disappearance from their standard location. The sea lions are migratory animals, after all, and it’s natural for them to move around.

No reason to worry then? Apparently there hasn’t been anything else unusual weather(or other)wise in the Bay this winter, despite the El Nino currently brewing in the Pacific. Yet:

The disappearance is unusual, though. The animals’ numbers usually peak in late fall and many stick around during the winter months before heading south for the summer. According to the Marine Mammal Center’s FAQ on the animals, “from late summer to late spring, 150 to 300 sea lions haul out here,” though their numbers can run much higher.

This year saw a massive influx of sea lions. In fact, a Marine Mammal Center survey conducted in the fall found 1,585 mammals hauled out on the spot, an all-time high. Some of them invaded a neighboring area, the Hyde Street Pier, where they may have been scared away by an itinerant fisherman’s dog.

Apparently some of the fishermen aren’t as enamored of the sea lions as us urbanites:

One recently told a local radio station, “They’re cute when they’re in here lying on the docks by Pier 39, but they’re not too cute out in the ocean when they’re stealing your livelihood.”

So it appears that at least one fisherman, and his pit bull/golden retreiver mix dog, managed to scare off the sea lions from Hyde Street Pier (which does not provide the exclusive protected docks that Pier 39 does, and therefore doesn’t normally get large numbers of these animals hanging out there), apparently to the relief of some there, the Marine Mammal Protection Act notwithstanding. While Pier 39 remained protected and far enough from that dog (or any others) hassling the beasts, one is still left with the nagging feeling that they may have decided that they’d had enough of this tenuous relationship with this human habitat. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time that a dog has contributed to local extinction of some species.

“It’s exactly opposite of what we’ve seen over the last 10 years,” said Sheila Chandor, Pier 39’s harbor master. “I think it’s food. Usually this time of year, we have a lot of herring coming through.”

Chandor said that some sea lions tagged by the Marine Mammal Center had been located south of Monterey but cautions that the link to the sea lions’ food supply is just “guesswork.”

A quick check on the Webcam mounted at the Pier 39 Restaurant proves the sea lions are definitely gone from Pier 39’s K Dock. A dozen or so remain on J Dock, according to Chandor.

The population of human sea-lion watchers remained steady.

Stoudt and her team aren’t sending out a search crew. The sea lions are, after all, migratory, she told

So, whatever the reason, the sea lions just up and left – but where to? And will they return? Or is it really “So long, and thanks for all the fish” time? After all, the sea lions may be aliens too, like their cousins the northern elephant seals that seem to come from another planet according to Rudy Ortiz’s recent talk at Fresno State.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

Greylag Geese and a conservation story for the new year

As we count down to the end of the noughties (which in so many ways have been quite dismal for biodiversity on our planet), it is nice to find some rays of hope, some silver linings, so we can look forward to the next year and the coming decade not entirely bereft of optimism. I am glad, therefore, to share with you, this guest post from Sumit K. Sen who offers just such a story of reconciliation ecology in action in one of the poorest regions of India:

Greylag Geese and a conservation story for the new year
The new year is always a time for good cheer and hope. It has been some time since I have found anything to cheer about in terms of conservation success as far as birds are concerned. All I have seen and read are about the struggle of selfless individuals against the forces of destructive development. But for me the best stories are the ones that are spontaneous – those that come from enlightenment and not mere education. To witness such spontaneous acts of conservation has been a life-enriching experience for me – and I have found some true conservationists in places like faraway Mizoram, and closer home at Santragachi and Rajhat.

Last Saturday, Bhaskar Das and I ventured on a 250 km drive from Kolkata to a small unheralded village in Birbhum District of rural West Bengal – to the agricultural settlement of Parulia. Parulia is an impoverished village living on the brink of existence. Its inhabitants, like most people of the district are a mix of tribals and other locals. All meat-eaters, and many partly hunter-gatherers. Little is known about Parulia except that it came into prominence in early 2008 because of the spread of bird flu in the district. There were talks of cull of migratory ducks and tales of local resistance – one villager being quoted as saying: ” The birds come here every winter. We love them.”  That was about all that was known about Parulia as a place for birds or about its conservation success.

The existence of Parulia and its association with birds would have passed into obscurity for us had it not been for Mr. Anup Kr. Dey. Mr. Dey is a bird lover and his passion for birds and birding was fueled by the internet and the presence of websites such as ‘Birds of India’ and forums like ‘Bird Photo India’ and ‘Bengalbird’. In these he found cyber companions to encourage and support his lonely  pursuit of birds of Birbhum District – and I was lucky that he chose to share his pent up passion with me over mail/phone. Being a District Engineer, Mr. Dey knows every nook and corner of his district, and it was his description of Parulia that urged our 4.30 am departure on a cold and foggy morning.

We reached Parulia by 9.30am, guided by Mr. Dey from Suri onwards. An agricultural landscape dotted with small ponds took us to a square irrigation tank 170 meters across. In it were about 400 Greylags – some  feeding,  others resting while the rest of the village went about their business ~ with some even washing utensils while the geese swam past. It was an unbelievable sight to us from eastern India – a sight which is proof that conservation is way beyond some forest guards doing their duty or some highly educated people making their passion and presence felt. This is grassroot conservation from the heart and I wish that there are many more like these.

I could not think of ending 2009 with a better story. Here is hoping that there will be more like this in 2010.


1. Parulia is here: . It is 3kms north-east of Santhia town.
2. Greylag Geese: Greylag Geese are winter visitors to India from eastern Europe and Asia from the Urals eastwards. Asad Rahmani & Zafar-ul-Islam in Ducks, Geese and Swans of India (BNHS 2008) estimate that about 15,000 winter in India. 1% population (150 in this case) in a single area is considered significant for conservation. This is the biggest known single site for this species in West Bengal at present times.

Tonight on NOVA: What Darwin Never Knew

Just getting ready to watch this 2-hr documentary on PBS NOVA tonight. But in looking for this clip on YouTube, I found a British series titled “What Darwin didn’t know” – sounds intriguing, and I may share it here later.

Posted via web from leafwarbler’s posterous

Nature through Madhu’s lens, 2009 (part 1)


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