Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An old story - where it all began

Posting all those fruit eaters from around the world made me think of some of my favourite old birding haunts. I thought I should dig out some old slides and post a small series on Borneo, one of my favourite places. I am never satisfied that I can reproduce the quality of slides on screen, which is why I haven't done many post from South East Asia, the place where I learnt to bird. Thinking of posting about the Sundaic rainforests however made me realise that the best place to start might be at the beginning! That is, I should tell the story of where all this began, a story of a bird encounter that changed my life... As a kid, a chunk of my early childhood was spent in Australia and I fell in love with the colourful parrots and spectacular species like the Superb Lyrebird. Life however has a funny way of taking you on a tour of its own and I never became a birder per se as a young man. In fact, I had never heard of "birding" when I was a kid and a "bird-watcher" in Australia was a slang term for a pervert. People mostly thought I was crazy when I would go for walks in the bush to look at birds and I was teased endlessly at school and at home about it...

So, after a tumultuous adolescence I found myself wondering around the planet and learning languages. I thought my career would be in linguistics, mostly because that is what I was good at. But then I found myself teaching in a polytechnique in Singapore and finally having enough salary to dust off a childhood dream – wildlife photography. Now, wildlife photography had always held a lot of appeal but camera equipment and especially telephoto lenses were prohibitively expensive for me for most of my life. In Singapore, I found a secondhand 400mm/F5.6 lens and bought a new camera body – I was set.

So with my new camera I went for a walk in one of the very few remaining patches of primary lowland rainforest in Singapore and saw two beautiful large woodpeckers. With their black, white and red plumage and large size these birds were unmistakable. I managed to snap a few poor quality shots. The next day, I went to a library in my lunch hour and got out a book called Birds of Singapore. On the inside front cover was a drawing of what was obviously the same species of woodpecker that I had photographed - the caption read “White-bellied Woodpecker, probably extinct in Singapore”. So this was a major find and in many ways I was like a kid again with a child’s delusions of grandeur. I made some calls and finally found the right people at the Singapore Naturalists Society who told me that since the publication of that book, a pair had been found but that the female had subsequently disappeared and not been seen in 18 months. Well, I had photos, albeit poor, of both the male and the female (red malar stripe on male) and so arranged to show this person my photos. Basically, that set in motion an uncontrollable chain reaction that would eventually lead to a complete change in career path. After being adopted by a community of birders, I started to realise what I had been missing out on for most of my life. With a childhood passion rekindled, I began making regular trips to observe and photograph birds and then making special trips to see particular species, and eventually I changed my studies from linguistics to environmental science and ended up returning to Canada, the country of my birth, and completing a PhD in environmental science and going on to find employment as an avian biologist. That’s the whirlwind version of the story – for it was a long and winding road – but why not share a very poor quality photo - the photo of that female White-bellied Woodpecker who changed my life (you can also see my photography skills have improved a tad)… I really would like to thank her!


  1. WOW,that is a fascinating story.It is amazing how one seemingly unimportant event can lead one down a career path.I guess this picture really is 'worth a thousand words'.

  2. That is an incredible way to start a life long interest in birds Christian. Wonderful memory.


Nature Blog Network Birdwatching Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Fatbirder's Top 500 Birding Websites