‘Beyond the Bugun liocichla: What the discovery of a bird means to me’

4 months ago 21
Posted in: Blog

Ashwini Ramesh shares notes from her interactions and learning from physicist-cum-ecologist Ramana Athreya, credited with the discovery of a rare and critically endangered bird.

“..and this is Planet Earth” echoed David Attenborough. I sat transfixed as I watched the beautiful male bird-of-paradise perform its mating dance ritual. In my eighteen years of education, I had never been exposed to ecology – not like this.

In India, Ecology was conflated with Environmental Sciences. Specifically, ‘ecology’ was the last four chapters of the Biology textbook that was assigned for self-study. In a quest to learn about the intricacies of nature albeit virtually, I resolved to attend every screenings of Planet Earth in the first semester of my undergraduate program. Or should I say, I attempted to attend every screening, contingent to any time I got off writing my lab record for my Physics 101 Laboratory Course.

The faculty lead for the class, Dr. Ramana Athreya, was known for his rigorous training and meticulous approach. This meant we spent hours poring over calculations of error propagation in an axial magnetic field of a circular coil. So, I was surprised to learn that Dr. Athreya, specializing in astrophysics, was winning accolades…for discovering a new bird species in the Eastern Himalayas. The bird species, Bugun liocichla, I would later learn is one of the rarest of its kind and currently enlisted as a critically endangered species by IUCN.

 

Bugun liocichla © James Eaton

Athreya was an “accidental ecologist” but he is a deliberate naturalist. More accurately, he was an ecologist by day and an astrophysicist by night. Regardless of subject, he emphasized on an innovative but thorough and exhaustive approach to science; quick to lighten a dull moment with his wit and infectious laughter. In addition to running a lab dominated by physics graduate students, Athreya had established field sites at the place where the bird was discovered – now designated as the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. Here, the ecology team was asking a variety of questions in basic ecology aimed towards biodiversity conservation.

 

Dr Ramana Athreya

Determined to be part of this squad in the summer of my first year, I meticulously planned to “casually” drop by Athreya’s office six months ahead of the field season to ask him how I could apply to be an undergraduate field assistant that year. I was nervous and excited about the meeting. I reviewed my rudimentary knowledge on ecology prior to the meeting, as Athreya had gained quite a reputation for his tough but fair vivas during the Physics laboratory exams. To my pleasant surprise, he was welcoming and appreciative of my enthusiasm. At the end of the meeting he handed me a field book and we confirmed that I would be doing a field survey on the diversity of moths at Eaglenest Sanctuary.

“Moths?!” my family asked me with reluctance and stifled enthusiasm. Why was I travelling 3500 kilometers from my hometown, Bengaluru, to spend time studying boring, beige wannabe-butterflies? My fieldwork would prove that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

 

The Moon Moth

Each night, my teammate Vishnu and I, under the guidance of Dr. Mansi Mungee (a PhD student then) would set-up moth screens lit with UV lamps to study moth biodiversity across an elevated gradient. On peak nights, nearly 1000-2000 individuals would flock to the screen that we would photograph and collect selectively. Next day morning would be spent measuring its morphological traits and mounting specimens. Little did I know when I stood in awe of the diversity on moths as they huddled on the UV screen, that my curiosity would eventually lead me to pursue a career in unpacking fascinating questions in ecology.

 

The Atlas Moth

One morning I stood on the tallest hill at Eaglenest Sanctuary and refused to come back to camp till dusk. Bayung, our wonderful field assistant, approached me with great concern to ask if everything was alright.

Bayung, mujhe junglee haathi dekhna hai” I said stubbornly. (“Bayung, I want to see the wild elephants”)

Junglee Haathi?!” cried Bayung. (“You want to see wild elephants?!”)

Wild elephants were known to occasionally be seen in nearby forest areas and raise panic among humans. So deliberately seeking out to spot wild elephants wasn’t particularly well, conventional. I told him that Gore had informed me earlier that morning that he had heard wild elephants rustling among the forest trees, and I for one wouldn’t leave without seeing it.

Tum saare scientist log sab pagal ho! Tu haathi dekhna chahta hai, our wahaan foreign log ikees  hazar dete hai Bugun chidiya dekhne ke liye,” fretted Bayung. (All you scientists are mental! You say you want to see a wild elephant, and then there are foreigners who spend Rs.21000 just to come and see the bird..the Bugun liocichla).

The discovery

I laughed and asked him to expand on the latter story. Athreya first spotted the Bugun liocichla in 1995 during one of his birding trips in Arunachal Pradesh. He noted the unusual features of the bird – its song and the multi-coloration. It was unlike anything he had seen before. The official recognition and documentation would happen in 2005, when Athreya returned in search of this tropical beauty. The Bugun liocichla is characterized by its unique call, a fluty note with distinctive terminal inflections. These birds have a black forehead and trademark olive-green toned body with flaming-red tip at the tail end. These features along with several others distinguished it from its other close relatives in the area including L. omeiensis and L. phoenicea.

Athreya, formally described the species as Liocichla bugunorum, where Liocichla is the genus name and bugunorum after the Bugun tribe in whose community forests the species was discovered. No bird specimen was deposited as is the protocol when describing new species, given its scarcity. Then, it was also the first bird species to be described in India in more than 50 years!

As the word about discovery and rarity of the Bugun liocichla spread, ornithologists across the world flocked to see it. One such checklist ornithologist+ from across the world spent 7 days at Eaglenest trying to get a glimpse of this aerial beauty. Since the activity of the Bugun liocichla peaked at dawn and dusk; the ornithologist ventured out only twice each day in quest of the bird until he spotted it on Day 7 when he bid adieu. Bayung couldn’t fathom why the ornithologist would spend Rs. 3000 per day for this purpose and hence claimed us scientists to be eccentric. We sat on the hill waiting (unsuccessfully) for wild elephants, trying to reflect upon but unable to fully appreciate the significance of this bird sighting.

As an eighteen-year-old, I was enamored by the discovery of the Bugun liocichla and the spotlight it received. Only as I’ve grown older, have I realized the enormous and lasting impact of this discovery. Athreya and many others who have since continued to work in the region have made tremendous efforts to create revenue for the local communities via bird tourism and related jobs. In recognition of the Bugun tribes’ efforts in conservation, the Government of India has declared the forest area adjacent to the Eaglenest Sanctuary as a Community Reserve, receiving the same legal protection as National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in India.

On the research front, it has presented an avenue to address fundamental questions in ecology, while continuing to highlight conservation efforts in the region. The efforts have enabled the study of an array of wildlife in this biodiversity hotspot including spiders, ants, reptiles, and many more. The year following my fieldwork, I spent hours analyzing moth allometry and learning about moth aerodynamics; a project that was conceived during a fun discussion about bird flights and how that related to moths!

In many a way, the discovery of the Bugun liocichla, shaped paths of many young ecologists like me to contribute to furthering these efforts, in our own ways. I was no longer just watching Planet Earth – I was living it.

Moth screens (20 x12 inches) illuminated by white lights and UV light bulbs were used to attract moths. Photographs of the grids with selective sampling was performed between 7 – 10 PM each night and across eight elevations over the season.

 

L to R: Bayung; Right: undergraduate field researchers from IISER-Pune with field assistants Gore and Vijay (top right)

 

References: [1] Athreya, R. (2006). A new species of Liocichla (Aves: Timaliidae) from Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Indian Birds2(4), 82-94.

Ornithologists, or avid birders often subscribe to a bird-checklist with a mission of spotting as many birds as possible during their lifetime.

About the author: Ashwini Ramesh (Ecologist) The author is a PhD student at Indiana University Bloomington, studying infectious disease ecology. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing post-cards, and listening to Coltraneera jazz. She occasionally tries to be a better millennial by lurking on her social media Twitter handle @ashwini_ramesh_.

21 Responses

  1. Mansi Mungee says:

    Look what I found on the internet…

  2. s g Prasad says:

    Hi Ashwini,
    Really fantasticwork in this fast paced material world. Keep it up.
    You are destined to make a difference tovthis world.

  3. Deepta Seshadri says:

    Ashwini is that one friend, who always inspires with her passion and enthusiasm in whatever she does! I’ve seen her grow from a curious young student into a mature scientist and thoughtful human being. I’m so proud and happy for you, Ashwini! Loved your effortless writing that really took me into the forests of Arunachal!

  4. Rama says:

    Very interesting and impressive writing.Such keen observation analysation! hats off.Continue your search and research. All the best

  5. Sandhya Pratap says:

    “Our little birdie Ashwini chirping in her own blog!”Your journey has portrayed your multifaceted personality.At an young age you envisioned to blend ecology and science .Your passion to do things differently is amazing .You explored unconventional subjects like ecology and natural science. Ashwini dear , your write up is mind blowing and enthralled me.
    The extensive research about the beautiful Bugun Liochicia is informative and awe inspiring . Proud of you my child. As always may you excel and win many more accolades .God bless you Dr.Aswini Ramesh.

  6. Geetha Koushik says:

    Very interesting style of writing. Got an ignoramus on this topic like me interested in the scientific details of the research.

    Look forward to more such articles.

  7. Pushpa says:

    Hi Ashwini, very proud of you and happy that we have a budding scientist in our family.God bless you dear.wishing you the very best in life.keep growing and exploring.

  8. Navyashree says:

    Dear Ashwini,
    This is an amazing article and research by all of you. You have made our family super proud with all your hardwork and focus towards what you always wanted to be. Lots of love and best wishes to you. Keep shining my sister 🙂

  9. Shashidhar S N says:

    Dear Ashwini,
    A very envigorating & enlightening article on an interesting subject written with great passion & with a touch of humour. So much to know. Keep it coming! Congrats & all the Best. God Bless.
    Lots of Love, Shashidhar.

  10. Prof. Dr. Geetha says:

    Excellent work ashwini really nice to note your interest in this area. Very few from the present generation go for this
    God bless you dear to contribute enormously in this field

  11. Venkatakrishna K says:

    A well written informative and interesting article. Ecology is all about fine balance of nature and interconnections among species. Moths which are ecological diet for many birds was a fitting starting point to the world of Ecology. Research on patterns of ecological Interactions which lead to disease transmissions is the best way to mitigate infectious diseases. We wish budding Ecologist a bright future.

  12. Tracy says:

    How inspiring! As a layperson on the opposite side of the world from your experience, I feel so confident of your knowledge. And as a writer, I am impressed by your fluid prose and bubbly personality. Thank you so much for sharing. Can’t wait to see what is next for you.

  13. Aparna Ramesh says:

    Having known this little birdie from when she was born, I’ll say she was born to be a scientist 🙂 Her passion for ecology, nature, and enthusiasm to learn and curiosity of the world around her never ceases to surprise! Ashwini knew from a very young age that this was the exact type of adventure she wanted to embark on. And believe it or not, she was just 19 when she traveled to Arunachal Pradesh to study under Prof. Ramana. She continues to excel in the field with numerous awards and accolades to her credit. So proud of you my amazing sister, and may you continue to shine Dr. Ashwini Ramesh!

  14. Hey Ashwini! Your write-up about your ecological field experiences is great as well as enlightening. It’s great to know that people are pursing such fields which is well, not so conventional and also, is a perfect blend of field and lab work. Dr. Athreya’s interdisciplinary approach to science is fascinating. I hope you inspire more people to get involved in natural sciences. 🙂

  15. Satish Karanth says:

    That is really awesome Ash.You are made for such passionate work.Keep it up.
    BTW Kavya is on US for vacation. You may contact her 8575446267.

  16. Radhika says:

    Aswini. That was an enthralling journey we took along with you. You flitted effortlessly through your article and your enthusiasm a d excitement is infectious. Well written dear

  17. Vijay Samaga says:

    Often wondered what it really means when I used to hear “A little bird told me”…but could not imagine a whole new world of beautiful planet earth! I can’t echo enough of the fascination that ecology that Ashwini has … and very intelligently weaved a grappling nest of birdie tweets.
    Her curiosity and passion has also sparred her skills in writing this wonderful article and this combination is as rare as the beautiful BUGUN LIOCHICIA!!!!

    Happy “ tweeting “ and keep flying!!! Very well done .

  18. Harini says:

    The tone of the article is so enthusiastic that we the public would want to take a bigger peek into the ignored ecology and somewhere begin to realise the part we need to play in keeping it alive, so many more such discoveries can be made in the generations to come. Looking forward to the Ashwini point of view in this genre

  19. Ramachandra Sagare says:

    Hi, Your interest in Ecology ,will bring out to light many many Endangred species .You have received good foundation on the subject from eminant scientists.
    Good & Interesting Article .Expecting more .

  20. aanand says:

    Nicely written Article

  21. S A Rajagopal. says:

    Hello Ashwini ,
    I am proud to know about your achievement in the field of ecology also so proud about you as a young achiever of the family in a different field other than conventional education.

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