Today is World Water Day. Every day ought to be, but if keeping aside one day helps to cherish this resource, I’m glad we have it. (We need to wash our hands with clean water to beat COVID-19; when we succeed, what will it matter if clean water is gone?)
I'm using my time in isolation to re-read the bird journal that sweet Dave and I began a year after we met in Tucson, Arizona. Our first entry was after a walk in Agua Caliente Park, an oasis in the desert that means “hot water.” The park has a large pond and I’ll never forget the Belted Kingfisher perched on a branch over the pond, staring intently into the water’s depths. (Dave says my spirit bird is a kingfisher.) It was also my first (and only, alas) time seeing a pair of Great Horned Owls. So we started the journal and continued for a time. Back then, we didn’t photograph what we saw; we recorded in writing. Around the time our novels began to be published, we took more pictures and the written record slowed. Lately, it's picked up again.
In non-chronological order, I'm sharing a few pics. All photos were taken by myself or Dave, and, with one exception (Nicobar Pigeon), all are of wild birds. I've included tidbits of each one's relationship to water. With gratitude to the creatures who bring me joy and solace. And to all of you, stay well, and be kind.
1. Lahore, Pakistan. Of course I'll begin in the city of my birth! It's a treat when Eurasian Hoopoes unfurl that magic crest, which they did on many occasions on their visit to my garden after the grass had been mowed, digging into the earth for worms and water. The latter is why hoopoes were once sacred in Egypt. They were believed to detect underground sources of water, indicating where to dig a well. The bird is sacred in many other places; in the book-length poem The Conference of the Birds by the Sufi poet Attar, a hoopoe leads other birds toward faith. In our garden, we'd put out water; hoopoes would bathe in it, though they usually preferred sand baths.
2. Salt Range Mountains, Pakistan. Greater Flamingos migrate each year to Ucchali Lake, a saltwater lake in the Punjab, where they breed. You can see them nesting on mounds of mud, as I watch from a safe distance. The population of these beautiful birds has been declining due to poaching, and because shallow salt water estuaries, lagoons, and lakes are highly fragile ecosystems. Flamingos can neither live nor breed without their rapidly diminishing habitat. Using their remarkable bills--the upper jaw is the mobile one; for more on this, read Stephen J. Gould's fascinating The Flamingo's Smile--they filter out algae, shrimp, and mollusks from the silty water.
3. Treshnish Isles, Scotland. This is one of my favorite stories. On a visit to the Scottish town of Oban, Dave and I saw a poster for a bird-watching trip to the Treshnish Isles. It was summer's end; the hope was that Atlantic Puffins would still be breeding. We took the ferry the next day. Once on the island, I scaled the steep cliffs to find razorbills, guillemots, and shags. Not a single puffin. The captain admitted they’d probably left for the open ocean, where they spend fall and winter diving for fish. As everyone returned to the boat, I stood on a cliff, staring at the ocean. The captain kept blowing the ferry horn; time to go. I could see the boat pull away, but will never regret my refusal to get on. Behind me, I heard Dave say, “There!” A flutter of wings landed at my feet. Within seconds, the sky was spotted with feathery wingbeats and puffins were landing everywhere around me. The captain saw them too. The ferry re-anchored. Everyone disembarked. For a long time, I believed there was a cosmic reason for my refusal to get on the boat; perhaps it was clairvoyance. Most likely, I was just lucky, but I certainly felt blessed. Here is one that landed at my feet:
4. Rabat, Morocco. I know, this isn't a great picture. But it's one of only two I have of the Chellah (or holy necropolis) in Rabat, where I once lived. The other photo doesn't show the river Bou Regreg. Once an ancient Roman site, the Chellah was later used as a royal Islamic burial ground. The ruins are great for walking. The highlight is the still-standing zellige-tiled minaret beloved by the White Storks that migrate between Europe and Africa. A wetland bird, the White Stork enjoys the protection of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, obliging signatories to conserve its habit, which includes protection from power lines, pesticide use, hunting, and other human activities. The Chellah was granted World Heritage Status in 2012, years after we left Rabat for Lahore. Birds have a way of finding the best perch; I've found minarets all over the world to be bird-friendly spots.
5. Todra or Todgha Gorge, Morocco. A picture of a picture! I was too excited to take a photo, plus: it was FREEZING. After returning to the hotel (which had no heat), I got under blankets and confirmed the sighting (at least to myself). A pair of African Desert Warblers, a fairly rare sighting, as the canyon floor is usually dry. But we were there in March. The Todgha River was awakening, its banks turning green, drawing migratory birds like warblers, who love moist habitats and their insects. Right after this sighting, it rained for several days non-stop. The river became a torrent. We were stranded at the hotel. Interesting to think on all the times when I've been forced to stay in place (the most obvious one being growing up in Karachi under a military regime, and all those curfews) but that's a different story! And I'd never compare blessed rain to a cursed general, or a man, however loathed, to a virus.
6. Haleakala, Maui. Action shot! This picture of Chukar chicks was taken on my first visit to beautiful Haleakala volcano in 1994. I returned in 2008, when living in Hawaii. Chukars, native to Asia, are the national bird of Pakistan. So imagine my surprise when I saw these babies running down a crater in an archipelago that is further from a land mass than any other place on earth. Apparently, they were introduced during World War II, for food. The birds live in dry areas, where water is prized. They can use tiny amounts of rainfall that seep into dirt. (In Pakistan, people say the birds will even enter a mineshaft, to taste a hidden spring.) Too many native Hawaiian species have been lost to intruders. Yet the Chukar might play a role in dispersing seeds, including of the endemic and endangered silversword plant. Chukars, like Hoopoes, keep their feathers clean primarily with dry baths. Water is for drinking, not for play.
7. Kilauea Point, Kauai. This is a lava peninsula on the steep, northern tip of Kauai, the wettest of all the (accessible) Hawaiian islands. It is a wildlife refuge with a lighthouse, nesting seabirds, and, on the grassy slopes, Nenes. These are endemic and endangered waterfowl that can only be found in Hawaii, making them the rarest geese in the world. Unlike other geese, the Nene breeds on land. It rarely flies. Its wings are famously weak, which made it easy to hunt. Nor does it swim very far; the feet are not as webbed as those of other geese. If water is near a nest, Nenes will swim, almost recreationally. They like a wet environment, relying on daily doses of mist and dew on the native and non-native plants they eat. Here is a pair, with chicks.
8. Guanacaste, Costa Rica. I found this Turquoise-Browed Motmot the day we were leaving our hotel on the Pacific coast. It was sitting still at the end of the long gravel driveway, flaunting that brow and racket tail (with the longest shaft of any other motmot). We had ample time to photograph it from the car, so this is one of our best bird shots; kindly credit this site if you borrow! Apparently, it's called pajaro bobo (foolish bird) for letting people come close. Ahem! I will say that it's not only easy to spot, but easy to name. (Some birds really make you wonder, like, red-rumped such and such, when the rump has no red, not one bit). Turquoise-Browed Motmots like the arid coast more than the rainforest, and build nesting burrows on sandy river banks. They're also known to build tunnel-shaped nests inside water wells.
9. Monteverde, Costa Rica. The Hummingbird Gallery at the tip of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a wider array of hummers than I've seen anywhere else. Spotted there: Violet Sabrewings, Green Violetears, Coppery-Headed Emeralds, a Green Hermit (also aptly named; so skittish!), and many, many other kinds. Pictured here are three Green Crowned Emeralds that reminded me of desi aunties. (One always had its back to the others, who complained loudly and often.) Unlike Chukars and Hoopoes, hummingbirds love to bathe in water. They like heavy rain, dew, garden sprinklers, water fountains, and, of course, sugar water in your feeder, which is similar to flower nectar. Absolutely everything they drink and eat (aside from flowers, they love bugs) depends on water.
10. Central Park Zoo, NYC. My last photo is the exception. It's of a bird in captivity. The Nicobar Pigeon is special to me as it belongs to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where I set my novel The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali. Like me, the bird is far from 'home.' It now has many homes: Malaysia, Thailand, Palau, more. For me, home is not only Pakistan, but all the places I've lived. Many geographies have shaped me, and continue to, as I reinvent a 'natural habitat.' Nomi, which took 26 years plus to complete, is a product of many displacements. (Scroll my blog for interviews describing how I came to and stuck with it.) For this post, back to the pigeon. It may be the closest relative to the extinct dodo, and its own future is precarious. What's saved it so far is a love of roaming; it will fly on the open ocean from rock to rock, sleeping on remote islands. We know that pigeons fly faster over water than over land. Even so, predators are catching up: logging, poaching, polluting, the pet trade. The IUCN lists it as a near threatened species. Will this bird survive?
Birds are free and resilient and beautiful. They do what people can only achieve through the power of our imagination: with their physical bodies, birds defy borders. Let's use our powers to keep theirs alive.