My Visual Classroom – Wildlife Docos

There are so many good documentaries out there. Some so good, it captures our heart and remains in our memory for a very long time. Things I see and remember from these documentaries often come up during discussions with family and friends, or when I need a particular fact about a particular animal to share my enthusiasm for wildlife.

Personally, I love watching documentaries; they act as my visual classroom. My mind gets the chance to travel to amazing destinations to see even more amazing creatures and places. I watched my first documentary when I was about 14 years old. I can never forget it. It was the ‘Echo of the Elephants’ narrated by Sir David Attenborough. This is also the documentary which started my obsession for watching anything and everything which has been done by this incredible man.

Over the years, I have most likely watched hundreds and hundreds of documentaries apart from avidly reading up on animals which has been instrumental in planting that seed of wonder and love for the natural world. I wanted to share a small part of my learning journey with you by putting together this list of a few documentaries which had made a deep impression on me in one way or the other. Please share in the comments if you have a favourite documentary which is not on this list.

(1) ECHO OF THE ELEPHANTS (1992 – 1993)

This BBC documentary follows the life of a gentle matriarch, Echo, and her family in Amboseli National Park in Kenya watched over by research zoologist Cynthia Moss (founder of Amboseli Elephant Research Project). The four segments follow the triumphs and tribulations of Echo and her herd’s life over 18 intense months. Lots of tissues were sacrificed when Ely (Echo’s baby) was born with both his front legs bent. He could not stand up or walk. Yet, he fought on while his mum kept a close watch, even withholding her visit to the water hole for a much needed drink under the brutal heat. When Ely could finally straighten his legs and walk, it felt like I just won this battle.

(2) IN THE WILD (1976 – 1981)

When you think about Australian wildlife, very few people will fail to mention the words “dangerous” or “Steve Irwin”. One fine day a few years ago, I chanced upon this documentary by Harry Butler (Australian naturalist and environmental consultant). I love the ominous starting music and the casual delivery style of Harry Butler while he introduces us to the fascinating Australian wildlife. It always felt like he was leading me on this mega easy going wildlife tour. This documentary became so special to me that I even have a tattoo stating a quote from one of the episodes. It took me 4 years to get permission from my mum to get this tattoo!

(3) LAST CHANCE TO SEE (2009)

This BBC Two wildlife documentary features the journey of Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry revisiting the animals on the edge of extinction from an earlier radio series (also called Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine) twenty years on. Please look out for the scene when a male Kakapo (large flightless parrot from New Zealand) attempts to mate on Mark Carwardine’s head with Stephen Fry laughing his head off in the background. Priceless! This series has six episodes.

(4) WILD ARABIA (2013)

If you are after a visual treat, this is it. I was watching it with my eyes wide open and jaws hanging with lots of ‘WOW’ thrown about. It was also the fascination of learning about the wildlife in Arabia which never crossed my path before. When I think about wildlife, my mind may think Africa, Australia, South America and so on, but Arabia? Another great thing about this documentary was that it also gave a great insight into the people and landscapes of Arabia. It recently aired in Australia on Nat Geo Wild. It is a three part series.

(5) LIFE IN THE UNDERGROWTH (2005)

I am scared of spiders and a lot of other insects. When I encountered one, I behaved like my life was coming to an end. All I can say is close encounters often involved some screaming. This documentary changed that tremendously for me. It beautifully narrates the importance and role of invertebrates in our world. I could never look at an ant or a spider the same way after I watched this documentary. Invertebrates are so misunderstood and overlooked. I love how the five episodes in this series work to bring us into their world and perhaps understand them a little better.

I do have many more on my list which I hope to share with you in the near future. Until then, I hope you will explore some of these documentaries on my list.

Photo/Video Credits:
Header - Mara 1 / Foter.com / CC BY
Echo of the Elephants - Animal Battles Channel
In the Wild - UbeefHooked Channel
Last Chance to See - BBC Channel
Wild Arabia - BBC Earth 
Life in the Undergrowth - BBC Earth

Early Morning Royal Walk

This morning when I woke up, I decided to do something which I had not done in years…to go on a solo weekday nature walk! So I headed off to the Royal National Park (aka my second home), which is about a 15 minute drive from where I live. Today I wanted a complete nature immersion, so no cameras, no mobile devices and no pictures (of my own anyway).

First stop, Audley for breakfast. Audley is located within the Royal National Park and houses a nice cafe facing the Hacking River, the visitor centre and numerous picnic spots attracting high numbers of visitors all year round. It was a lovely feeling to enter the Audley car park today and see only two other cars. This meant peace and quiet and fewer attempts from people trying to feed the wildlife in the park. A great start indeed!

I quickly placed my order and sat down to enjoy the amazing morning light and watch the Australian Wood Ducks and the Dusky Moorhens peacefully grazing away on the grass…UNTIL my toasts arrived. As I was busy looking down and buttering the toasts, I must have missed Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ movie being remade around me. I had a shock when I looked up to see 8 Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, 3 Noisy Miners and 1 Australian Magpie surrounding my table. Some were sitting on the wire running above me, some on the ground, and a few perched on the chairs around my table. It was a stressful moment trying to decide whether to eat or not to eat my toast. Every time I brought the toast closer to my mouth, the birds on the ground inched closer towards me. It was unreal and funny at the same time. I had to chuckle as I remembered scenes from the ‘Birds’ movie. Ten minutes later, they finally realised that they were not getting anything from me and dispersed quietly as they came leaving me to enjoy my toasts.

After breakfast, I proceeded to walk the Wattle Forest path just around the corner from the cafe. This is a fairly short and simple walk along a narrow road but very beautiful. The Hacking River snakes along the path on the left while native vegetation and huge rock formations skirts the right. It is such a paradise for birds and lizards. I truly had a wildlife field day with sightings in such a short time. I saw Crimson Rosellas, Bowerbirds, Superb Fairy-wrens, Great Cormorants, Eastern Whipbird, Rainbow Lorikeets, Noisy Miners, Garden Skinks and a beautiful large male Eastern Water Dragon. There were also numerous dragonflies flying around me and kept me company while I enjoyed my walk.

On my way back to the car park, I had another ‘encounter’ with birds. At the half-way mark along the path, I started hearing loud shrieks from our white feathered birds and saw at least 12 to 15 Cockatoos abruptly landing on a small tree in front of me.  A few of them flew so close, it almost felt like they were about to land on my head! The poor tree was almost bent from the weight of so many Cockatoos. They sat there with their wings stretched, crests raised and shrieking louder than ever completely drowning the atmosphere. You could see they meant business.  But what business? Then I saw the individual causing all this drama in the midst of the overly worked up Cockatoos, an Australian Raven! I am really not sure what the drama was about, but everything calmed down as soon as the Raven left the scene.

After this exciting moment, I continued my walk while absorbing the beauty and sounds of birds singing around me. As I looked up around me, rays of sunshine broke through the canopy gaps giving the atmosphere an amazing feel as warmth washed all over me. I was a little sad to leave this place but what a brilliant end to my early morning nature walk!

Since I did not take any photographs, I found pictures of some birds I saw today so I could share this with you.

Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans)
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) – Due to feeding by residents around my neighbourhood, these guys have taken an affinity to dumpster diving.
Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus)
Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) – I saw two males and one female hanging out together today.
Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus)
Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) – I often see them around my neighbourhood too.
Eastern Whipbird (Psophodes olicaceus)
Eastern Whipbird (Psophodes olicaceus)
Photo Credits
Crimson Rosella: David Cook Wildlife Photography /Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo: David Cook Wildlife Photography /Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Superb Fairy-wren: Merrillie / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Rainbow Lorikeet: birdsaspoetry / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Eastern Whipbird: David Cook Wildlife Photography /Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Being Close to Nature – A Spring for the Spoons

A Guest Blog by: Sayam U. Chowdhury 

The thin lines of melted water found their way to the sea by carving the thick white blanket of the Arctic ice, resembling an enormous atlas of a thousand crystal-like veins. The comb-shaped high hills at the horizon still had splits of snow at each depression between the rigid slopes, separating the dark-green and dull-brown mountain into blocks of newly emerged life.

Landscape2

The half frozen meandering rivers were gradually coming back to life in the presence of numerous ducks, mergansers, eiders and loons after the silent winter. These ancient inhabitants have faithfully returned to the tundra summer after summer to make love and reproduce. This lifetime view from the fully open window of the helicopter flying from Anadyr to Meinypil’gyno had unfolded a world of true wilderness that I have always craved to witness. It was not just a ride, it was much more – a quest to fulfill my dreams to contribute to saving a species, the one that I have been stalking for years back home thousands of miles away. After a 12-hours flight from Moscow to Anadyr and a 3-hours helicopter ride, I finally arrived at Meinypil’gyno in early June 2012. Meinypil’gyno is one of the remotest villages in the world, a small settlement on a long shingle of 50km spit in Chukotka peninsular at about 66° N 172° W, in Far East Russia.

As the helicopter landed in the heart of Meinypil’gyno, the snow that covered the village drifted up around the small houses. The whole village turned up, they say it’s a matter of great joy when a helicopter visits from the outside world, which can only fly in during the few and rare shiny days of spring and summer. Our Russian friends warmly greeted us with salted salmon and native drinks. Soon after, we sorted ourselves into small temperature-controlled cottages on the eastern side of the village, adjoining a firmly frozen river.

It was spring in the tundra, concealed under the snow for months – the dwarf Crowberry shrubs finally found a way to thrive over the harsh winter and suddenly there was sign of life everywhere. Fog-free days unveiled the mist over the mountain and the miasma over the ocean, enabling us to look for the browsing Brown Bear on the mountain slope and the spouting Grey Whale at the estuary. We got to see both while sitting on the gravel spit or with a cup of tea idling at the wooden balcony, taking advantage of the 24- hours daylight. The migration was at its peak, thousands of migratory waterbirds were flying over the tundra touching the ocean; we carefully checked for the odd American ones heading to Alaska.

A few of our team members had already seen the first Spoon-billed Sandpiper, feeding vigorously along the newly exposed mud of the Third river after travelling around 5,000 miles from Bangladesh or Myanmar via China or South Korea. Not seeing the bird at the first place, did not gripe me much as I was already overwhelmed with everything happening around us – the tough life of the Chukchess, the sincere wilderness, the magical land by the sea and the mountain; and our dedicated team fighting to save a species from extinction. As the spring slipped by, the sky and sea turned bright blue, the tundra turned into a carpet of flawless colors and the mountain at the distance turned into an aloft giant green monument.

The team at work
The team at work

By then, most of the Spoon-billed Sandpipers had arrived; we were keenly waiting for them to begin marking their territories, and establish pairs. Our days started at dawn with a brief breakfast and then walking along the tundra to find the singing and displaying Spoon-billed Sandpipers. We walked around 10 to 12 kms a day in the bitter cold and howling wind to locate their territories, we did take breaks in between, sometimes to catch our breath or to flee from a passerby bear and sometimes to have lunch with Russian chocolates sitting beside the blue-watered lake or on the pink dome of the mountain-dwelling wildflower called the Moss Campion.

After a few full days of constant search over the flat and bent tundra, I was finally able to see a pair of Spoon-billed Sandpiper just a few feet away! They looked different, the pale brownish-grey body now replaced with brilliant rusty reddish colorations, as if they reformed their outfits into a bright bridal appearance to attract each other just like us! After being close to these brilliant birds in Bangladesh, Myanmar and now in Russia, it felt like I have finally completed a great journey in my life and found the unicorn that I have always yearned for.

Spoon-billed Sandpiper in breeding ground
Spoon-billed Sandpiper in breeding ground

This expedition to the Russian Chukotka was one of the most challenging missions to collect a few of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper eggs as very few chicks are currently surviving to adulthood, taking a small number of eggs from the wild will not have a great impact on the adult breeding population. These collected eggs will be hatched and reared in a special Spoon-billed Sandpiper conservation breeding facility, located in the UK.

The captive population, of around 30 or more birds collected in two seasons, will allow us to better understand the ecology of the species and how to conserve it in the wild. These birds will also be used to supplement the wild population if numbers fall too low to be sustainable. Equally they could be used to reintroduce the species if it goes extinct in the wild. Hopefully this will never be necessary!

For this sacred ambition we worked day and night, knowing the menace of being eaten by a bear or getting lost in the taciturn tundra – we repeatedly looked for the Spoon-billed Sandpipers and their eggs with profound passion. While searching for them, I saw the Sandhill Crane dancing over the golden hill, the Artic Hare feeding gracefully on ripe crowberries under the crimson sky, the Artic Fox cunningly intruding in the Vega Gull’s nesting colony utilizing the faint evening light and the Brown Bear preying on Salmon along the snow-melting stream. We did manage to collect several eggs and carried them back to Moscow in an incubator and then straight to the UK, where they are now spending their winter and summer days.

And thus our expedition to save a species ended with an enteral beginning. I then returned to Bangladesh with different dreams, hopes for a new era and a worn blue stone from the tundra. The imprints of the unfathomable wilderness will endure in me endlessly. Some say being close to unbroken-nature makes us stronger, enlightens us with the truth and others say it’s a pathway for self-discovery. I reckon, it’s a legacy towards freedom and we need to keep on fighting to save it for ourselves.

Meet my guest blogger, Sayam U. Chowdhury 🙂
Assistant Coordinator – Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force, Birdlife International & Principal Investigator – Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project
Sayam
Sayam is one of the best friends a Spoon-billed Sandpiper could ever have. Through the years, his dedication as a person and a conservation biologist to make a difference and save this amazing species is truly admirable. I got acquainted with Sayam through LinkedIn and later contacted him via Facebook. This is when I started my discovery of his work, his writing and beautiful nature photographs that simply capture the essence of the natural world. I feel very fortunate that he has kindly shared this special piece of writing with us. My sincere thanks!

Watch this video to learn more about the Bangladesh Spoon-billed Sandpiper Conservation Project or LIKE them on Facebook

Photo Credits: Sayam U. Chowdhury