Sunday, February 26, 2017

Existential thoughts on birding in rubbish dumps

After two brilliant days, birding on our last day in Kaziranga (21 Feb) was hampered by the torrential rain that had started the previous afternoon. We left late in the morning after the rain had paused. We headed over to Diring Tea Estate, the main haunt for Blue-naped Pitta and a few more 'hill' species. We were hoping for good activity after the rain, but in fact it was pretty slow and birds didn't play ball - quite many species were 'heard-only'. Check our eBird checklist here. We heard one pitta right at the start of the trail, but couldn't locate it. No other birds were vocal in the degraded forest. Same for Oriental Scops Owl - three singing birds but we couldn't find any of them. We did add some species but nothing out of the ordinary. And it was nice to bird on foot after sitting in a jeep for so long.

Diring Tea Estate

Nest stop was Kaziranga Beel, a small wetland outside the reserve. Due to the heavy rain access to the wetland itself was flooded, and we didn't see too much there either. At least I could get down to ground level to photograph the small goose flock, in bad light. Good hirundine activity is evident by the photobombing birds.

Ruddy Shelducks and Bar-headed Geese (and Barn Swallow)

Bar-headed Geese are very pretty, aren't they? (and Sand Martin)

We had a couple of Bengal Bushlarks that were new to the trip:

A pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills entertained us by the main road:

In the afternoon we returned to the eastern range of Kaziranga NP. It was somewhat slower than previous days, and we really did not add too much. Two-barred Warbler and Black-throated Thrush were new trip birds. This White-fronted Goose was a good local record:

Indian Pond Heron on a mobile rock

On Feb 22 I started the long journey back home. Before flying out of Guwahati I had time to check the rubbish dump that holds the world's largest concentration of the Globally Endangered Greater Adjutant, the Asian Marabou counterpart. We had scoped them on the rubbish dump from a huge distance after landing in Guwahati a few days earlier, but I was hoping for better views. So I asked my driver to make a quick detour towards the rubbish dump. I thought I'd get views from outside the dump, but suddenly I found myself in the epicentre of disgust and misery. We were surrounded by hundreds of people rummaging through the rubbish, including young children. 


And I was there to watch and photograph birds. Globally Endangered birds. I have birded in many rubbish dumps and sewage ponds before, but this was something else. My brain was swinging between operation as a wildlife photographer, and feelings of a distressed western tourist just wanting to get away from these horrible scenes. In India one cannot escape from extreme poverty, but this type of extreme poverty is normally witnessed out of a passing train window. I was not expecting a close encounter with those miserable people. In the back of my brain I knew they exist, but my western brain normally avoids thinking about them. In this case, I was walking between those miserable people, carrying optics that cost much more than these people will ever earn, trying not to get my clothes dirty before boarding a flight. I felt so disgusting, and even much more now while I sit in front of my desk in the UK. 

I felt a sense of 'duty' to document the adjutants when I was there, that's why I went there, no? So I fired off some shots in bad light conditions, and asked the driver to get me the hell out of there.

This is the general scenery where the adjutants hang around:

I found it horrible to see people, cows and birds 'working' together on the same pile of rubbish:

Here are my photo objects. Not many birds can be described as ugly. In this particular setting, to my eyes these Greater Adjutants are genuinely ugly.


With Black-eared Kites - many on the rubbish too

After this distressing and surreal experience, I wanted to cleanse my brain a bit, so returned to Deepor Beel for an hour of quieter birding. Again it was good with large numbers of waterfowl, but nothing too exciting there. 

Lesser Whistling-Ducks

Bronze-winged Jacana

The last new trip bird - my only Brown-headed Gull of the trip:

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