All Things Bright and Beautiful

29 Apr

In October 2008, at the age of 44, I had a heart attack (1) at our home in the Makunda Christian Leprosy and General Hospital (www.makunda.in ), where my wife Ann and me have been working for the past 28 years. Following this, I was asked to go for daily morning walks to keep myself physically fit. As I walked through our campus, I became interested in the different wildlife (both flora and fauna) in our 350-acre forested campus. Although I had lived and worked there since 1993, I was looking with new eyes – filled with curiosity and wonder at what I was seeing. I had bought a Canon EOS 88 film camera shortly after joining the hospital and a few years earlier, I had invested in my first digital camera, a Nikon D70 with a Nikkor 28-105mm lens – all my photos were of people, developments in the hospital, places I visited and interesting medical cases that I saw. Soon after starting my morning walks, I purchased a Nikkor 70-300mm lens – I was able to get high quality macro photos with my 28-105mm lens but I needed a better ‘tele’ lens to photograph the birds.

In 2010, I was walking past our primary school one day when I noticed a pair of woodpeckers excavating a nest on a large bamboo pole used to hold up the school’s volleyball net. They looked and sounded different from a more commoner species (Dendrocopos macei) and I took photos and posted them on my newly opened account on Flickr (2). They were identified as Dendrocopos atratus, one of the rarest woodpeckers in India (later, some experts disagreed with this ID). I became excited and started photographing and posting all the birds I saw and was excited when one of them was uncommon. I also started venturing out to nearby tea-estates and forest villages to photograph them. The 70-300 lens was a basic one without vibration reduction (VR), so I bought a new one, Nikkor 70-300mm VR. I needed a good computer to process the images and bought an iMac 27”. I also bought a Sony sound recorder and a Garmin GPS. I became active on Facebook naturalist sites – ones on butterflies, moths, birds, insects – to post my images for ID and comment on other photographer’s images. After a few more years, I bought a new camera, a Nikon D300s and a Sigma 150-500mm OS lens. With the new gear, I was able to do a lot of documentation throughout the year. In 2012, I opened an account on iNaturalist and started linking my Flickr images to this wonderful site (3). Experts from around the world commented on the observations and confirmed IDs. These, ‘research grade’ observations could then be used by scientists for their research. This is the wonderful world of citizen-science where images and sounds of wildlife observations with time and GPS details can be peer-reviewed, confirmed and used for scientific advances.

In succeeding years, my gear has been upgraded further as old equipment became heavily over-used and broke down. I now have a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII for telephoto, a Micro-Nikkor 105mm f2.8 VR for macro as well as a Nikkor 24-120mm VR for general use. The old iMac broke down and had to be replaced, hard drives became full and more needed to be added. All this was considerable expense for a doctor couple in a remote rural mission hospital, but Ann approved all the expenses, for their role in my cardiac rehabilitation!

At present, I take photos of anything interesting I see in RAW, convert to JPEG with basic editing (mostly cropping) in Adobe Lightroom and upload images to Flickr. These are stored with a CC license – I noted that many serious people (those looking for images for their theses, articles, websites etc.) often search for the CC mark so that they did not have to write and seek permission from the photographer (4). Today, I have about 17,000 public images on Flickr with over 2 million views of these images! I also have nearly 9,000 observations on iNaturalist which is currently the highest number by one observer for India. Many bird photographers in the Oriental region contribute their images to the “Oriental Bird Image Database” – the best images are accepted and stored online – I have over 700 of my images on this Database (5). I have also contributed to the Internet Bird Collection (6), Avibase (7), ArKive (before it closed), Xeno-Canto (8) and a few other sites. Bulk uploads of my data have been transferred to the India Biodiversity Portal (9) and eBird. My photos have been included in books like the “Woodpeckers of the World”, “Mongooses of the World”, “Parrots of the World”, “Encyclopaedia of Animal Behavior” and many others.

I had soon photographed most of the common birds of our area and started looking at other living creatures. I was introduced to Siddharth Kulkarni, a scientist with an interest in spiders, he was also the country representative on the World Spider Catalog and I invited him to Makunda. He made a few visits and taught us to observe and document the spider biodiversity of the campus.

In 2015, I started the “Makunda Nature Club” – a group of staff and students of Makunda with an interest in documenting biodiversity, creating awareness, conservation work and research. I had published a short note on the “Mating of the Greater Coucal” online in 2011 to the Bird Ecology Study Group (10). In March 2015, on a biodiversity documentation trek in nearby forests, I noted a new bird I had not seen earlier. It was a van Hasselt’s Sunbird – Leptocoma brasiliana sperata – the first time this species had been photographed in India. I wrote an article describing this observation and the distribution of this species (with Praveen Jayadevan – a bird expert) as the first publication of the Makunda Nature Club (11). This was followed by the publication of the observation of a rare spider, Platythomisus octomaculatus, the first time it had been seen in India and the second time it had been observed since its first sighting in Sumatra 120 years earlier (12) and two Coreid bugs (Schroederia feana and Prionolomia gigas) – these observations were made, ID confirmed and published with expert assistance from Siddharth Kulkarni (the Coreid bugs were confirmed by Prof. Hemant Ghate) (13). The spider was found by one of our school-girls – a Class 8 girl from a remote rural school finding a very rare spider – for the first time in India! (14). In 2017, I photographed a rare Ghost Moth (Hepialidae) at my home in Makunda. I searched the internet and found that the global authority on these was Dr. John Grehan from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in the USA. I wrote to him and after an exchange of emails, we co-wrote an article on the Ghost Moths of northeast India (15). The “Makunda Nature Club” got its excellent logo from Sukumaran Sundaresan – a design specialist who took a short sabbatical away from his corporate work to spend some time with us (16). The club also has also got its own group on the India Biodiversity Portal (17).

One day, I went to a nearby Jaintia village for the wedding of one of our staff and while waiting for the proceedings to start, met one of our old school-boys (from the Makunda Christian Higher Secondary School which we started on our campus in 2004), Rejoice Gassah. He told me that he had heard that I was going into local forests and that he was also interested. I questioned him, took him along with me on a few treks and found that he was excellent at describing birds and their calls – he had a natural talent. I requested our hospital management to appoint him as a full-time staff to help me. He was a keen-learner and I soon passed on most of what I knew to him. He accompanied me on all my field-trips and we discussed what we observed. The hospital also purchased equipment for him to use – a Sony bridge camera, an iMac 21”, a Sony sound recorder, a Garmin GPS and a Camera Trap as well as field guides. In 2017-18, he applied for and was sent to do the Green Hub Fellowship in wildlife videography – that was excellent training and we thank Ms. Rita Banerji and her team for the great program that they run (18). It is great to work with someone who has a passion for the work, has natural ability, good attitude and is willing to put a lot of effort into achieving excellence. As a full-time surgeon at the hospital, my biodiversity documentation work is limited to Sunday mornings or whenever I have free time after work. He was full time, young and healthy and we could now do field work whenever required and I could do the analysis of the data and write manuscripts for publication. He has been sent to several places (National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore and ATTREE to name two) to gain more knowledge and skills.

Publications on the Golden-crested Myna – Ampeliceps coronatus (19), Tawny-breasted Wren-babbler – Spelaeornis longicaudatus (20), Asian Stubtail – Urosphena squameiceps (21) and Siberian Blue Robin – Larvivora cyane (22) have come out of my work with Rejoice Gassah. He has become an expert at observations as well as documentation and has a keen eye for anything unusual. It has been a privilege to be able to mentor someone like him and I’m sure that he has a great future in biodiversity documentation and conservation in the years to come. Writing these articles also exposed me to the world of wildlife research, writing to curators of museums across the world, tracking observations from journal articles in the past and social media in the present to provide a concise description of that particular species and its distribution. Editors like Praveen Jayadevan from IndianBIRDS have helped me to learn to do this well. At present, more research is under way – on mammals, dragonflies, butterflies, birds etc. We have also had visits to our hospital by Prof. Ganesan from ATTREE (23) and hope to start work on research on the floral biodiversity of this area – one of the last bits of semi-evergreen low-altitude dipterocarp forests that remain with significant amounts of wildlife – both flora and fauna – outside protected areas.

I must also acknowledge the help and encouragement provided by Dr. Anwaruddin Chowdhury – a wildlife expert and Secretary to the Government of Assam with a huge amount of academic research and publications to his credit (24). We invited him to open the “Biodiversity Resesarch Trail” in our campus. He also invited me to contribute two short chapters – on the Golden Jackal (25) and Otters (26) in his book on the Mammals of Northeast India. We have also been visited by many wildlife and biodiversity documentation experts – Shashank Dalvi, Ramit Singhal, Jainy Kuriakose, Sankararaman, Shantanu Joshi, Sarala Khaling, Rohit George and many others. I don’t use a tripod and the equipment is heavy, not good for someone with an ejection fraction of 35% to carry – especially the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR II lens – I thank Club members, Basanto Fulmali and Babryl Chorei who helped carry the equipment on long treks when I was tired. My wife, Ann and daughters, Hannah and Deborah, have also helped with observations, especially with bird behavior and with rescuing some injured/sick birds and animals. As days go by, more staff see the enchanting beauty of God’s creation, learn fascinating facts and become entranced with the world of biodiversity observation and documentation. More people are buying cameras or take photos on their cell-phones and enquire about the identification or habits of the species that they have observed, this type of activity also relaxes people and makes the overall experience of working in a remote rural situation more enjoyable. I’m sure that this work will continue and bring satisfaction and happiness to many.

Sometimes, God uses shock treatment to help us to look at our worlds through different eyes and that is what happened to me after my heart-attack – whenever something happens to nudge us out of our well-trodden paths, we should always ask why did this happen, is there something that I need to change and is there another road that I need to explore. It is also a confirmation of the fact that God has given us such wonderful brains that someone like me with no interest or knowledge of wildlife could become an accomplished citizen-scientist in a short time – starting at midlife. More of us, whatever may be our background, should consider looking at the biodiverse world around us, maybe that world is beckoning to us too – we need to take that first step and enter into the world of God’s creations, where everything is bright and beautiful.

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small

All things wise and wonderful

The Lord God made them all

– Song by Cecil Frances Alexander (27)

 

References:

  1. https://the-sparrowsnest.net/2011/11/01/an-encounter-with-a-myocardial-infarction/
  2. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ivijayanand/
  3. https://www.inaturalist.org/people/8853
  4. https://creativecommons.org/
  5. http://orientalbirdimages.org/photographers.php?action=birder&Birder_ID=1033
  6. https://www.hbw.com/ibc/u/3865
  7. https://avibase.bsc-eoc.org/flickr_stats.jsp?action=splist&member=50307457@N08
  8. https://www.xeno-canto.org/contributor/XNOSZCRTKL
  9. https://indiabiodiversity.org/observation/list?sort=created_on&offset=0&max=10&view=list&user=4409&lang=en&userGroupList=
  10. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281798537_Mating_of_the_Greater_Coucal
  11. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281374943_Sighting_of_Purple-throated-_or_Van_Hasselt’s_Sunbird_Leptocoma_sperata_brasiliana_in_Karimganj_District_Assam_with_notes_on_its_status_in_India
  12. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313108517_Report_of_Platythomisus_octomaculatus_C_L_Koch_1845_and_Platythomisus_sudeepi_Biswas_1977_from_India_Araneae_Thomisidae
  13. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320831948_Illustrated_redescription_of_two_large_coreid_bugs_from_Assam_including_Schroederia_feana_Distant_1902_as_the_first_record_for_India_Hemiptera_Heteroptera_Coreidae_Coreinae_Mictini
  14. http://diversityindianews.blogspot.com/2017/02/rare-spider-spotted-in-remote-hospital.html
  15. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315660193_Forest_ghost_moth_fauna_of_northeastern_India_Lepidoptera_Hepialidae_Endoclita_Palpifer_and_Hepialiscus
  16. http://canvas.pantone.com/gallery/32036105/Makunda-Nature-Club
  17. https://indiabiodiversity.org/group/makunda_nature_club/show
  18. https://www.greenhubindia.net/fellowship
  19. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330320761_Sighting_of_the_Golden-crested_Myna_Ampeliceps_coronatus_in_Karimganj_District_Assam_with_notes_on_its_distribution
  20. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332866269_Tawny-breasted_Wren-Babbler_Spelaeornis_longicaudatus_in_the_Jaintia_Hills_and_an_update_on_its_status_in_Meghalaya
  21. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332866279_Asian_Stubtail_Urosphena_squameiceps_in_the_Karimganj_District_of_Assam_and_its_status_in_the_Indian_Subcontinent
  22. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338137338_Siberian_Blue_Robin_Larvivora_cyane_from_the_Barak_Valley_of_Assam_with_a_status_update_for_India
  23. https://www.atree.org/
  24. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anwaruddin_Choudhury
  25. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334729284_Golden_Jackal_-_Canis_aureus_Linnaeus_1758_-_Occurrrence_in_North_East_India
  26. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334729418_Otters_-_Occurrence_in_North_East_India
  27. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Things_Bright_and_Beautiful

Please watch this 7 minute video:

This is a short video made about the Makunda Nature Club by Rejoice Gassah in 2018

2 Responses to “All Things Bright and Beautiful”

  1. Arkilang Synrem April 29, 2020 at 8:27 pm #

    Well done Sir

  2. TIMOTHY April 30, 2020 at 10:19 am #

    Fantastic write up! Really wonderful…. Formal courses based on these nature can be enrolled sir.

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