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It was on one of those days when I was incarcerated inside the hide, in the middle of the estuary, that I thought seriously: what on earth have I got myself into?
I had been doing this for several weeks now in the blistering cold weather. My work was not slated to begin at any fixed hour of the day but was timed in relation to the tides. All my field work days had been chosen carefully, well in advance, after consulting the tide tables which had all the information about the timing and extent of spring and neap tides for the whole year. If high water was scheduled to be at an unearthly hour on a chosen day, say very early in the morning, then I trudged across the village to the harbour, where my boat was tethered. Anyone in the village who saw me walking past must have been slightly amused to see an Asian man carrying oars on his shoulders, wearing thigh high rubber boots called waders, a large rucksack on his back, and… pushing a pram.
The pram, on top of which was placed a fuel tank (painted red), was John’s idea. It was an important component of the gear that was required for my field work on birds. It was meant for the motor boat which took me to the hide located in the middle of the Exe estuary in Devon. How best to transport it to the boat, since it obviously could not be left in the boat, John had found a neat solution to that. There was an old disused pram lying in his garden shed of which the cradle had been removed so that only its chassis and wheels remained. John said, ‘You can use this to wheel the fuel tank to the boat. Makes it a lot easier.’ So here I was, wheeling the pram on the one mile walk which I took from my home in far corner of Lympstone village to the village harbour on the Exe estuary where my fibreglass boat was secured by ropes. The local people were so polite that never did I sense anyone smiling or giggling, though carrying all that gear and wheeling a pram, I must have looked quite a spectacle. Had it been India a crowd of onlookers would have collected behind me, following my every movement, curious as to what I was up to.
It had almost been a year since I had come to England to pursue research in field ornithology under John – a highly respected scientist who had done some pioneering stuff on the behavioural ecology of wading birds, which are also known as ‘shorebirds’ in certain parts of the world. I was affiliated to the ‘Institute of Terrestrial Ecology’, an institute of the British government where environmental scientists of all hues – ornithologists, entomologists, botanists, geneticists, radio-telemetry and remote sensing experts – were engaged in doing research on diverse aspects of the terrestrial environment.
Over a long series of discussions, sitting in pubs, visiting the field, walking and talking for hours, my research problem had been identified and zeroed in. Do overwintering Oystercatchers, feeding on mussels in the inter-tidal zone of the Exe estuary, have the ability to regulate their food intake rates? Can they feed at faster rates when they have to, say after they have been disturbed and ended up losing valuable time? Can they make up for lost foraging time by feeding faster? In normal times do they feed at sub-optimal rates? We felt that knowing the answer to this question had interesting implications in ecology and conservation, and if we extrapolated it to other species of waders, also for policy.
It was John, my boss, who had taught me everything. He had been an excellent mentor. He taught me how to read scientific literature systematically and do statistical analysis of my data on the personal computer, which in the early 1990s was fast emerging as new technology. Not just that, John had also taught me how to do field work, right from rowing a boat, tying sailor’s knots, making observations on the behaviour of birds to tying up boats in the harbour. ‘Remember Arfi (that is how my name was pronounced), the boat has to be tied correctly. The stern rope should not be so long that the boat sways with the waves and hits the neighbouring boats. And the bow rope should not be so short that when the tide recedes the boat hangs from the pier and the hull cracks under its own weight.’ I always remembered that.
To gather data for my work I had to get into the hide at high water. I had to be properly positioned and fully ready before the mussel beds got exposed by the turning tide and the birds arrived. Some of the oycs (a short form for the oystercatcher, which I will use at some places in the text) which I could see from the blind, at quite close range, were individually marked birds. They had been captured by canon netting earlier and rings slipped on their legs. Their exact identity could be ascertained by reading the code on the ring. Say there was a bird with two rings on its right leg, one small and the other large. The smaller ring was green in colour and was above the larger ring which was yellow and had three bands: (from top to bottom) a thick band, a thin band and blank (i.e., no band). It was written down in its abbreviated form as RGA KNB(Y) [right green above thick thin blank (yellow)] and referred to as such in all our discussions and publications. Somewhere in the records there would be information about this individual – what was its body weight, morphometrics, etc., at the time of capture.
So, an individually marked bird could be tracked throughout the tidal cycle, from its time of arrival on the mussel bed till the time when it departed, i.e., after its dinner table got covered with water due to the incoming tide. The same bird, if it was forced to stop feeding by an experimentally created disturbance (usually an assistant walking on the mussel beds at a pre-arranged time) and flew away but, amazingly, returned to the same foraging patch sometime later, could be relocated and followed again without much difficulty.
My task was to zero in on a marked bird, read its code and follow it throughout the roughly 3-hour period of its foraging activity, keeping track of how many items of prey it took, what sizes they were; were there any fights over food and so on. All this had to be done on a five-minute basis, observations being spoken on a tape recorder, later transcribed onto paper and then fed into a worksheet as numeric. While my period of intense observations lasted for almost 3 hours, on spring tide days I ended up spending 6 hours in the hide, waiting for high water so that my boat, which had been anchored at the base of the hide, was afloat again and I could sail back to the village harbour and call it a day.
But it was in those moments when I had nothing to do except wait in the hide that my mind wandered and I began thinking – was this what I had really wanted to do? Student life in England I had visualised to be different, a somewhat rosy picture of sitting and reading in libraries, listening to seminars by great people, etc. And here I was incarcerated in the hide for 6 hours at a stretch. Isolated in a canvas hide mounted on a steel frame in the middle of water. A cup within a cup. On most days the only company which I had was a lone cormorant who used to come and perch himself on the roof of my hide, so close that I could see every feather on his body, as the tide turned and the deep water came back.
But of course, I was doing all this for my interest in birds and to further my career as an ecologist and researcher. It had all started in India long ago. As a boy I had been crazy about nature. I used to love rambling in the countryside, going to zoo and watching animals. The interest in birds came later and I think what triggered it was reading an interview of Dr. Salim Ali, known as the ‘bird man of India’ who through his books had popularised the study of birds in India. ‘Birdwatching is like measles. You have to catch the disease’, he had said in the interview. I had already been infected long ago.
I opted for specialising in biology thinking that it would eventually lead me towards becoming a scientist, although I must confess that I didn’t have a clear idea about what it meant. As I discovered subsequently, biology was not taught in a manner that would generate any interest in life forms, patterns of diversity or the underlying mechanisms. There seemed to be no connect with what was taught to us and our lived reality, especially with respect to the biodiversity around us. But as I began to tire out of the dull and boring indoor lectures and practicals, it was birdwatching that came to my rescue and so I decided to pursue my interest in birds.
But watching birds all the time, i.e., professionally, can sometimes strike as a bit odd to people. Their reactions vary but quite often it is plain and simple curiosity, the subject of small talk with some innocent questions being asked.
When I got my digs and settled down my landlady asked what sort of work I did at the place I worked at? I told her that I was a scientist – an ‘environmental scientist,’ if you please.
‘Oh. Yes. I see what you mean. And do you study pollution in rivers and canals?’ she enquired.
No. I told her, I studied birds. A certain type of bird, to be exact. I wanted to go deep into what it ate, how it selected what to eat and so on.
She seemed to be quite interested to hear this. (I suspect, even slightly amused.) But as some sort of a ‘bird-expert,’ perhaps I could solve her problem.
‘You see,’ she said, ‘I have this bird feeding rack in my garden, which you might have noticed already. I used to put nuts and bird seed in it for the birds to eat and it worked very well in the beginning. But lately some squirrels have been getting to it and eating all the food which I put out for the birds. Maybe as a bird expert, you can suggest a solution to this problem.’
I was of course delighted that this question had been put to someone who was thought of as an ‘expert’ so I racked my brain and started to think. For a moment I almost wished that she had asked me something more straightforward instead. Something about ducks, starlings, robins or maybe bird migration.
I remembered having seen an advertisement of a squirrel proof bird feeding rack in a glossy bird magazine published by RSPB (the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in the library. It had a picture of it – a devise which claps shut under the squirrel’s weight and closes the entrance to the bird seed container. I told her about it and she said it sounded wonderful and there was no reason to doubt that it might work.
Since birds are eye-catching, diurnal, active and familiar creatures, they are a part and parcel of our very existence. People down the ages have taken note of them and represented them in poetry, art and literature. However, when it comes to environmental research with birds then sometimes people tend to have pre-set notions about it. If one is working on a rare or endangered bird it is easy to understand that but working on a common bird like the oystercatcher – why would one want to waste time on that? I guess the point often missed is that sometimes common birds can serve as a good model to address larger questions in ecology. It is like using the white rat in physiology and pharmacology studies, or the E. coli in bacteriological studies or what Drosophila is for genetics.
The Oystercatcher, the model organism so to speak, is a small black and white bird with a long, orange, chisel shaped bill which it uses to break into mussel shells and extract the flesh. It is a common bird in many parts of the world, mostly along the coasts. There were plenty of them over-wintering on the Exe estuary, walking on mussel beds looking around to grab a meal. There are several reasons why the oystercatcher is so amenable for asking interesting questions in behavioural ecology. One is that the bird takes discrete prey which can be precisely quantified and so one can estimate precisely how much energy it is taking. While foraging, it fights over morsels of food, steals it from others and generally speaking is very expressive and vocal, making it a lot easier to know what it is up to. For different types of work other organisms are best suited, but the Oystercatcher is good for several type of questions. It depends on what the question is. It is possible to model a lot of things about the oystercatcher so that they can be replicated on a computer and later by changing just a few variables one can ask questions – ok so if I change this parameter by this much then what will happen? Or if this much percentage of shoreline is lost due to a construction activity or global sea level rise then how will the population respond? What parts of the population will become locally extinct first? Etc.
A small group of oyc workers had collected in Lympstone village, all affiliated to John, some doing small projects on the oyc for their undergrad degrees in various universities and colleges and some registered for their DPhil. We used to collect in the local pub, The Globe Inn, for meeting up and occasional celebrations. In the pub, once the discussion steered around how one would wish to die. Someone said that his preferred mode would be to die in the hide – the waters of the estuary calm, a reddened evening sky and a flock of geese flying past, making their honking calls. So strange.
On the way to the Globe, we often took a path along the banks of the estuary and saw our hide in the middle of water. Sometimes, a flock of Canada geese flew past the estuary – their dark forms, as they flew slowly and leisurely, looked menacing. We were all so young then. Death was a thought, only a thought as none of us believed it would come. Not then. Not now. We were yet young.
The name ‘oystercatcher’ is a bit of a misnomer. It gives the impression that the bird eats only oysters. There is no doubt that the bird is specialised to eat shell fish, all types of it (though sometimes even worms buried in the sand). On the Exe estuary its principal food was mussels, known scientifically as Mytilus edulis. However, each bird had a specialised feeding technique for eating mussels. One was to pull out the mussel by grabbing it by the bill and breaking the byssus threads by which it was attached to the substrate, carry it around for a short distance and drill a hole on the ventral side to extract the flesh. These were the ventral hammerers, abbreviated as VH. Some birds, called Dorsal Hammerers (DH) used a slightly different method which involved drilling a hole on the dorsal side of the mussel shell. This did not involve removing the mussel by breaking the byssus threads. And then there were some birds, called ‘Stabbers’ who extracted the flesh from mussels by inserting their bills in partly closed shells. They fed mostly when the tide was turning and by a swift sniping action of their mandibles cut the adductor muscle which connects the shells and gobbled the flesh. Imaginative as these terms are, they pre-date John’s work on the oyc of the Exe. In fact, it was a person called Heppleston who coined these terms in the 1970s.
Since we used to have discussions on the foraging methods of oystercatchers quite often, we (at least I) had never tried oystercatcher’s food. The idea had been around for some time and one day at the Globe Inn we decided to order mussels for dinner. The waitress, carrying a large tray with cooked mussels, swished it around a bit and said smilingly, ‘Here you go. Mussels from the Exe.’ The mussels, washed and clean with no hint of grit or sand in them, were cooked in butter and herbs and smelt very nice. What was the best way to eat them? Stab them! Use the hammering technique! This was one British food that was meant to be eaten with bare hands.
The boat requires at least a meter deep water beneath it to run and when I arrived at the hide at high water the whole area looked like a vast lake. I had to wait in the boat till the water level dropped and I could get off, wade in knee deep water, anchor my boat and climb into the hide. Sitting inside the hide provided me with a ringside view of the dramatic transformations that take place in the landscape with the ebb and flow of the tides. Gradually, almost like a conjuror’s trick, a whole new ecosystem, which had been submerged under water up until was now beginning to come into view. Solid land with mud, pebbles and small rocks on which were attached thousands of mussels attached to the substrate. Dinner was being served and the oycs were invited.
The turn of the tide on the coast is a noisy thunderous show as rollers crash in, pounding the shore. But in the estuary, especially on those days when the waters were not too choppy, the rise of water with the turn of the tide was very gradual. Very slow. Like a giant slowly turning in his sleep. Like the sweet sensation of pain gradually spreading in legs, tired, after miles and miles of walking. Like the gradual loss of sensation under anaesthesia. As the water swelled one could see the mussels reacting – both the shells, the bivalve so to speak, which had remained tightly shut up till now were opening up. Instead of drowning, the mussels were welcoming the rising water level. The oycs could still be heard piping and calling to each other, fighting over tiny morsels but the general feeling was: It’s all over folks. Let’s go. One by one they started flying.
They all flew to their high tide roost at Dawlish Warren, which was about a mile away in the direction of Exmouth. I remember once taking a walk near the Warren with John explaining the local movements of the oystercatchers. As we walked across large expanses of mudflats with shallow depressions retaining some water of the previous tide John said, ‘These can be so dangerous. You can go on walking for miles on the mudflats forgetting that when the tide will turn it is these small depressions that will get filled up first. If you don’t make it back to the shore in time you will be caught in one of these with nowhere to go. This is what happened to Richard once.’
Richard was a colleague, about the same age as me, in the institute and someone to whom I turned to whenever I got stuck in my work. A couple of years ago when Richard had joined the institute as a member in John’s team, he had come for field work on these mudflats at Exmouth. He had walked a long distance across the mouth of the estuary and stepped into the deep interiors. Then finally when he decided to turn back he realised that he had got trapped behind one of those pools which in the beginning had looked innocent enough but had now assumed alarming proportions, almost like a very large water filled trench.
Luckily, he had the presence of mind to light up one of those flares, to be used in emergency situations, which he was carrying in the safety kit of his rucksack. Someone from the coast guard noticed those and he had to be hauled up by a helicopter.
Thankfully, I didn’t have much work to do on these treacherous sandflats but on some occasions I worked on the Exmouth beach where small numbers of oycs came to feed on mussels and cockles stuck on rocks close to the shore. The beach was usually full of visitors with plenty of people walking around.
‘Sea watching,’ it seemed, was a popular pastime here. People – mostly elderly couples, who by their looks it seemed had experienced the war years – came in their cars which they parked on a road facing the seafront and just sat inside for hours… reading the papers, sipping tea which they carried in a thermos and watching the sea… with a hint of sadness in their eyes. Since Great Britain is an island nation, I used to think, could this be a manifestation of a certain feeling – a yearning for the life which exists beyond the horizons but which cannot be felt directly or experienced; life beyond the tides and surf; beyond the haunting cries of gulls; the seas – where it all began.
For my field work on the coast, I wore wellington boots and carried a telescope mounted on a stand. I also carried on me a wooden box with shoulder straps and a piece of sponge stuck on one side, as a seat.
One murky day while I was on the beach, scanning for oycs, a middle-aged man came excitedly walking towards me and said:
‘Excuse me sir. Do you mind if I ask you, but are you by any chance…er…a pigeon fancier?’
I told him that I was not and asked why he had thought that I could be one.
‘Oh. I beg your pardon,’ he replied. ‘You see, my wife and I were sitting in our car on top of the beach and watching you as you scanned the horizons with your telescope. We thought that maybe you were a pigeon trainer, looking for your pigeons flying over the sea. And that box (he said, pointing to my seating devise) we thought was meant to keep the pigeons after you had found them.’
It was the wooden box (another of John’s inventions) which had given a confusing signal. A bit embarrassed at first, I told him what I was doing; that I worked at the ‘Institute of Terrestrial Ecology’ (if there was such a thing as Institute of Terrestrial Ecology then by the same logic, could there also be an Institute of Extra-Terrestrial Ecology? we laughed) on estuarine birds; that I came from India.
‘And did you come from all that far just to see our birds,’ he enquired.
Interesting question and I thought over it for a moment.
I doubt if I could ever be wealthy enough to come to England to just do birdwatching (and if I did manage to save some money for an ‘ornitho-holiday’ I should use it first for a long stay in the Himalayas or maybe a trip to Papua New Guinea, which according to adverts in the birdwatching magazines was reckoned to be a ‘birding hot-spot’). However, the answer to his question, strangely enough, would have to be, YES. I had indeed come to England to study birds.
I could see that this gentleman was trying hard to understand what I was up to (he may well have been thinking, doing research on estuarine birds. Indeed!). When I hesitatingly said yes, he found a slot where he could put me into. He exclaimed happily, with a gleam in his eye, ‘You’re a twitcher. Aye!’
Abdul Jamil Urfi was a European Commission Marie Curie Fellow, working on the foraging ecology of Oystercatcher on the Exe, on which this story is based. Besides a number of technical publications on birds, Urfi has also published in Natural History magazine, new Scientist, Nature Asia, Journal of Stories in Science, Scroll, etc. He has published three books on birds including Birds of India, A Literary Anthology (Oxford University Press, India). He works as Professor in Environmental Studies at the University of Delhi, India.