Born free

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By Arnold Alamon

Wrapped in Grey

Friday, December 27, 2013

THERE is a slight embarrassment when I mention that I am into birding. To the uninitiated, it easily elicits chuckles for its supposed connotation related to the male genitalia. But I brush these comments aside since it speaks more about other people’s fixations than mine. Truth is, birdwatching is a sport. The only sport that I can think of, and I apologize for the irony, that one can undertake while smoking.

Over time, it had become a mild obsession. I remember a bright kid who can mouth off the various names of dinosaurs, their genus, diets as well as their sizes. At an age approaching forty, I can understand the need to know and educate those who happen to listen. I drive and I mutter to myself or my unfortunate companion the large-billed crow who just flew over the highway. I hear a bird call and I announce that a Philippine coucal is nearby.

It has come to the point that in a cacophony of bird sounds, I can easily distinguish the hoot of a zebra dove from the R2D2 whistling of the robin magpie. Or the gargle of the pied fantail from the high-pitched screech of the guiabero. Some of these sounds excite me, such as when a plaintive cuckoo calls out a melancholic three-note call or Gould’s bronze cuckoo’s descending notes of sadness. Other calls sound like gibberish like the garbled mutterings of the yellow-vented bulbul or the car-alarm sounding tweet of the sunbird.

Some calls make me laugh such as the tailor-birds,’ because apart from building exquisite woven nests like a tailors,’ they also sound like a whirring sewing machine. You see, bird watching is also as much as bird listening. And for a music aficionado like me, it has become a chance to make of use of the musical ear I have also imbibed over the years.

But the attraction of birding is really visual. I can understand the dismissive attitude of the uninitiated. We usually think that birds are drab diminutive creatures since the closest we get to them are the few species that have become used to human activities. People think that the lowly maya which is actually the eurasian tree sparrow we see in the vicinity of our homes scavenging represent the best of the avian species in these parts. But just a few leagues away from the metropolis, there are still an abundance of colorful wild birds that offer a different kind of visual treat.

We are fortunate to have reached a point in camera technology to allow for the photo documentation of birds with relative ease and versatility. It used to be that ornithologists had to rely on their artistic renditions by hand what they see through their telescopes. But thank god for the digital camera, it is now possible to click away and see what cannot be seen by the naked eye. For four-eyed folks like me, one of which happens to be lazy, it is like a blind man’s essential tool.

My first encounter with the wonders of birding was with a borrowed dslr camera in the farm where I happen to reside. I just ignored birds before because like everyone else I can hear them but they just appeared as fast moving shadows. But in this particularly glorious morning, the mountain shrike, fantails, and magpies were noisy than ever. But above the din of noise, was this metronome call akin to a blacksmith pounding on steel.

I took out the camera with a decent 300mm lens and looked for the source of the sound. Lo and behold it was a small bird, yes, but with a loud call and a great but funny costume. He looked like a cross between a rastafarian and the pope with his green and black stripes, yellow trimmings, and red plumage on his head. It was the coppersmith barbet and it was love at first sight.

Like all first loves, my life has not been the same since. There had been a number of heartbreaks that this obsession has resulted to. Like this afternoon, under lowlight conditions, a coucal appeared by the roadside in Camiguin but the camera settings were not spot on. But there are also moments of glory, such as when a brown warbler was chanced upon taking a dip in a small water pool in a perforated bark of a tree. Or when a bronze cuckoo appears with a worm in his beak. These are welcome rewards after hours of waiting in the sun or rain just to have these few seconds of pure bliss and it almost feels like a religious moment.

I have often wondered why I have nurtured an attraction to these creatures. It is clear to me that in a lot of ways it is a form of escape. As a practicing sociologist, the observation of human beings can be stifling and uninspiring given the rut we as a species have trapped ourselves into. Thankfully, wild birds have escaped this kind of fate. Among all living creatures, they are perhaps the most blessed in terms of freedom and range.

When a brahminy kite soars up high and glides toward the sunset, it is as if my soul also joins her even for a moment on her daily journey of freedom. They are born free and continue to be so, a far cry from our circumstance as arrogant mortals below.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on December 27, 2013.


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