Saturday, May 7, 2016

Following the Birds: From Nepal to Hawk Mountain

I sing a song Of the Blue Mountains that stand with pride
Of the cool breeze that passes by
And the magnificent raptors that fly by.
I sing the song of turkey vulture
That loves dancing up and down, back and fro,
Tickling my inner desire to dance and fly high
And inspecting at times if anyone is dead or alive. 
I do tell the tales of people and children
Who get captivated by the beauty of nature
Who come for pacifying their lonely hearts
Who come to rekindle long lost memories
And who make love with their beloved,
Enveloped in warm hugs and sweet kisses.
I also tell the tales of the rocks that rest, birds that nest
As they share about their life once when they were young.
“School in the clouds,” as said, lots to learn and lots of hymns.
My beloved Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, here I come!
Alarm buzzes at 6 a.m., boots tightened, equipped with my binoculars, field guide, notebook/pen, and my lunch, we head towards the mountain: Hawk Mountain. It has become my daily routine since March as a Hawk Mountain conservation science trainee at this small paradise in Kempton, Pennsylvania. Coming here was overwhelming already. I come from Nepal, a small and a beautiful country in Southeast Asia, where the USA is regarded as the distant land of dreams. Only some lucky ones will ever make it here.
I made it in a unique way: following birds!! Yup, it may sound strange, but my passion to know more about birds (raptors specifically) led me into this land and this amazingly awesome place called Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
Making it here was a long and adventure-filled journey. On March 22, I was scheduled to fly from Brussels to Newark. Shockingly, the horrible, suicidal bombing in the airport interrupted my travel. I was waiting to board when it happened and got stuck there for next four days. On the fifth day, I arrived in the States without my luggage, which was still sealed inside the Brussels airport.
On the first day at the sanctuary, Erin and Dr. Laurie (Director of Education and Senior Monitoring biologists, respectively) gave a short orientation about the sanctuary, various raptors that we would observe, and what would be our responsibilities as trainees. I was enthralled walking along the beautiful trail besides mountain laurel, rhododendron, and trees such as maples and oaks—I was expecting a bustling city like NYC! This is much better.I was exhausted when I finally reached the Newark airport, but equally excited. I was moved by the love and care all the organizers and my new friends bestowed upon me at my arrival. Dr. Keith Bildstein, Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at the sanctuary and leading scientist on raptor migration studies, welcomed me with warm clothes (knowing I had nothing with me); my new housemates from Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa and Ohio greeted me with chocolates! What else I could wish for! A cool thing about this traineeship is that it provides a wonderful medium to exchange education and culture, and even multicultural foods!

Finally, we reached the lookout. The place where historically hundreds of birds were shot each spring and fall has become world’s first refuge for birds of prey and an international center for raptor conservation. Hawk lovers rather than gunners gaze skyward, aiming binoculars.First, we reached the South Lookout, a rocky promontory at 1,300 feet above sea level. The lookout on the Kittatinny Ridge provides a beautiful window to nature seekers. It rises in New York, marches across New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, all the way to Maryland border. The native Americans gave the ridge its name; Kittatinny means endless mountains. It is the southeast edge of the Appalachian chain. We also learned about the various landmarks we will use to locate the birds on their migration. Then, we followed a trail towards North Lookout. Paulina, my Mexican roomie, helped me in identifying the birds we come across, including blue jays, brown-headed cowbirds, and chickadees.
                                                                          We follow her directions, and far above we see a dark-colored, large bird. Dr. Laurie says, “Do you see the white head and tail?” Oh my gosh, an adult bald eagle circling around the sky! I rejoice at this new treat to my eyes.We settled ourselves on the favored boulder facing southwest, since birds will be approaching from that direction heading north-northeast toward eastern Canada. We start scanning into the deep blue sky when suddenly Rachelle informs, “There’s a bird above the wind turbines, flying towards New Ring Gold, two glass views above the horizon.”

We learned how to record the data, which was equally exciting and more important. We have been counting the spring raptor migration since April 1 and will continue until May 15. Besides counting we also interact with visitors, conduct some programs so that we can inform them about what Hawk Mountain is doing and why, and how are we counting raptors, etc.
Every day we head to the lookouts hoping it will be better than yesterday. As the day gets warmer and air starts moving, it stirs the excitement to be able to encounter those mystical raptors flying by. Birds never schedule an appointment; they come and go as they will. Some days are disappointing for hawk-watching, but it’s never disappointing.
Hawk Mountain provides lots of other activities: hiking along the various trails, relaxing and enjoying the landscape view, including the Little Schuylkill River flowing beside an old train track along the base of the mountains and river. The sparse houses down in the valleys are no less than beautifully decorated dollhouses. Patches of Christmas trees farms, shadows formed by the clouds in the mountains, eastern tiger swallowtails flying around the North Lookout, blue jays and chickadees chirping, and a pileated woodpecker knocking wood is reverberated all over the forest—it is beyond mesmerizing.Hawk Mountain is a paradise for nature lovers and adventure seekers, too. Many times visitors ask in awe, “Is this a painting or real?” Clumps of mountain laurel, rhododendron, mountain ash, hemlocks, sparsely distributed birches, oaks, black gums, maples, mountain holly, and shoots of American chestnut are beautiful. The panoramic view of the beautiful ridge valley along with the diverse vegetation carpeting the view with the advent of spring is spectacular.
According to my experience, a few days after rain have been the best for seeing larger numbers of birds migrating as well as for enjoying the view. The soft breeze that still penetrates to the heart, raindrops shimmering from the leaves and the rocks, the skyscapes formed by scattered patterns of clouds are usually ideal for observing hawks. Among all the birds I have seen and counted so far, including buteos, accipiters, falcons, and eagles, my personal favorite is the red-shouldered hawk. One mid-April day I saw a hawk flying right above us, circling, the sun behind it and shining through the wings. It glowed, cinnamon-rusty shoulder patches on the dark wings, the translucent white crescent in the edge of the wings, the narrow white barring in the tail blushed. I had never previously seen one of these hawks, but given my observation, I exclaimed with certainty, “red-shouldered hawk!” I was never so sure about any other bird. That was a sense of victory and accomplishment and hence, my favorite moment. Most of the birds I see here (other than ospreys) are not species I’ve seen in Nepal!
Turkey vultures are the major attractions of the sanctuary. Even on a no-bird day, they ease our eyes, soaring and gliding around the North Lookout. I feel happy for the visitors who come from far and wide to see some hawks and still get swayed by the way turkey vultures teeter in the open sky—very close to us many times. When the thermals are perfect, we encounter large kettles swirling and enjoying the hot pockets of air.
Every boulder, every passing cloud, and birds that fly across rejuvenate the withered soul and quench the thirsty eyes of every individual patient enough to wait for them. Every day is a new lesson, either from nature or from the wide range of visitors who share their time with us.

 I feel privileged to encounter this beauty of nature, to contribute to conservation in every possible way, and to learn among the wonderful people who are striving to make it happen, proving Hawk Mountain to be the epitome of a “School in the Clouds.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A tale of a fish and a bird

Bob(in middle) enjoying with friends

Once upon a time in a great blue sea, there lived a tiny cutie little fish named Bob. He ran across the corals, shells and every ridges within the sea and played wid his other frens here and there. He was such a sweet lil boy J smiling, playing and sleeping was all he loved. He also loved traversing into the sea with his friends but feared to go further away.  Helped the elderly ones, loved the younger ones ;) and very shy every time he came across beautiful girls.
His laughter would make the whole city bright (obviously the water kingdom) and hence called the soul of the sea J

Agnes gazing at the horizon
Similarly, very far from the sea kingdom, there lived an adventures and smart birdie, Agnes that soared high in the sky and dwelled in the mountains. She was such a badass. While other birdies were busy in their chores close to their home, she always liked to break the rules and explore the world. Many times, she put herself in troubles from predators and other times she caused lots of problem ;) Truly a trouble maker she was. However, she was a very modest and kind hearted too. She helped the needy ones and spread happiness wherever she could.

They both were getting the best of both worlds; but still at times they felt it is not enough. There is something missing in whatever they have. They had bigger dreams and aspirations in life which was beyond their conscience too.
Little did they know that their life was about to take a turn and their world was about to go upside down. That very day, lil fishy was going for an outing with his friends and a teacher. It was a warm, bright day and his was quite excited but lil anxious coz they were going little away from his hometown into a beautiful stream via lagoon. He had never came this far but he was enjoying it. He met lots of different fishes, crabs, turtles, nymphs, and even different varieties of plants. They reached their destination and were sharing lots of stories. Jelly, the teacher asked, 'Btw, does anyone know where does this water come into our sea or ocean?'
 Bob replied smartly,' Rainfall!!'

'Haha, well that's not completely wrong but large part of our waters are from mountains!!'
He was startled to hear about mountains so hurriedly questioned,' Ma'am, where are the mountains? They sound soo cool. Are they nice? '
The teacher grinned,' Oh boy! They are very large structures covered with snow and very cold. Their snow melts and form rivers which take many days or months or even years to reach to us. They are quite far from our reach. But, the stream we came is a part and it may lead to the mountains but we never know when?'

Bob was quite impressed by the mountains and felt a deeper call inside his heart. He wanted to see the mountains. After the lunch, everyone was playing around while his eyes gazed at the upstream. He thought of having a peek nearby but as his friends were busy, he decided to go on his own. While he was approaching nearby, he felt something above him like a hook. He tried to get rid but he realized that he got trapped. He was drawn rapidly out of the water and it was a giant stork with 4-5 small fish in his mouth.

'Come, you little fishy! Be my food tonight!' exclaimed the Stork in a cunning voice and flew back to his nest.

Bob was a very smart and adorable boy. He could even melt the hearts of his enemy with his soft voice and cherubic expressions. Stork rested into his nest and fed some fish to his lil children who were yelling out of hunger. 'One of them is dead, we need more food darling? Is there any way out?'- spoke the lady Stork in a very sad tone.

'Don't worry, these fish would suffice for tonight, I will try to find more tomorrow.' Stork sighed.
 All other fish were crying out of fear but bob thought of something else hearing their conversation. He gently asked,' Stork, have you ever seen the mountains? I have heard they are very beautiful and they form rivers and rivers form seas. That's where you can get lots of fishes.'

Stork surprisingly turned towards Bob, 'How come you know? Here, the humans are catching lots of fish from the sea so there is not much food for us and our children. Many are dying out of starvation.'
Bob gasped, 'My teacher was saying all about these. May be you should try going there tomorrow?'
Stork couple discussing
Stork wasn't sure but thinking about it for the whole night he came up with an idea. He had kept Bob in a small bowl of water. The boy was frightened and was missing his family, friends. He was never this lonely but something was instilling him the hope and courage.

The next early morning, Stork came and asked, 'Do you know the route to the mountains?'

'My teacher told to follow the stream and u will reach someday.'

'I am taking you with me so that if anything wrong happens, you will have to suffer.'

Bob smiled with mixed feelings. He could never believe he is going to the mountains.
Stork kept him into his salivary mouth and flew. 'You taste good ;) I don't know till when I will be able to resist,' said the stork and laughed.

Bob was happy seeing the completely different world; lands, trees, grasses, animals. He could also see people, children working, laughing, playing. Have you tried swimming? - asked Bob to Stork.
'Nope, I am sure that a fish is pretty excited to fly. You are lucky lil boy. '
They flew quite a much that day. Still, there was not a single sight of a mountain. Tired and frustrated stork sat down nearby a river leaving Bob to swim for a while and look for something to eat. I hope my children will be alive till I get back, he thought.
'Well, I hope' - murmured Bob, feeling sad for the stork.

Days passed yet there was not a single sight of a mountain. But the bird could sense that he is flown quite far and high. He felt little uneasy with the air as the oxygen level started dropping yet with the hope that he can get food for his children he soar high above.

While on the other side, Agnes was happy that her feathers were getting bigger. She always wanted to fly above the mountains and see the other side of the world. She always got curious about where does the river flowing towards? But, she wasn't capable enough to fly as her wings weren't strong enough plus her society wasn't allowing her to explore the world.

The birds were busy in their chores while Harry, the woodpecker came hastily and yelled, 'FIRE!!!! FIRE IN THE JUNGLE!!!' Everyone was worried and started panicking seeing a thick cloud of smoke out of the forest.

 'Some men were seen in the forest last night, they seem to have lit the fire. We gotta be cautious guys!', said Agnes. 'We can't panic coz it will only harm us. So, let's take a deep breath first and form 2 groups; one group would go in search of water and help in stopping the fire while the other group would make sure our families and friends aren't in trouble. What say? Are you guyz ready??'

She turned towards her father and smiled ;) and everybody shouted, 'We are!!!'  She formed the group and then rushed towards the scene.

The exhausted Stork and Bob had almost lost their hope to get to the mountains. They were thinking of returning back, while Bob said,' Stork, I am sorry for bringing you here this far and yet no signs of food for your children. On returning back, you can kill me and feed them.'

Stork became quite emotional with those words of Bob and hugged him dearly. But, all of sudden they saw a large flock of birds flying above them. Anxiously, Stork asked one of them what the matter was and realized it was a forest fire. Mike, the kingfisher was leading the troop to collect the water from the nearest large stream and helping to stop the fire.

Bob grinned and whispered to the Stork, 'He knows the place with lots of fish. Let's follow them.' 
The situation was getting worst in the forest. Animals were running here and there, many had lost their families and friends. Monkeys, deers, porcupines were weeping, crying, looking for their loved ones. The fire was still in rage, such a horrible plight it was. Agnes, with her troops signaled the animals where the safe spot is and helped them to reach. Likewise, the search mission was being carried out whoever inform about their lost members or friends. At the mean time, a parakeet came bursting into tears and informed that her nanny was still in the burning tree stuck in a branch and she just threw her grand-daughter out of the nest so that she would be alive at least. Agnes felt sorry for the parakeet and hurriedly flew towards the tree. It was all covered in flames and she was almost catching fire. Agnes, despite knowing that she could risk her own life jumped into the nest and helped her hard to come out of the nest. Everyone was worried for the birds. Luckily she saved her and they rejoiced but it was not a time to celebrate. The fire was engulfing the whole forest endangering the lives of many other animals.

So, they needed some plans to make it stop. Meanwhile, on the other side, as soon as the birds reach near the water, Stork and Bob screamed in happiness seeing the beautiful stream with lots of fish. Bob too dived into the freezing fresh water which was an awesome experience for him. Stork was also getting into the business focusing on fishes to eat first, hehe. But, rests of the birds were in grief. They were trying to dip into water and sprinkle in the fire region. Seeing them in so much pain to save their families, Bob and Stork felt bad as they remembered their families too and what it means to be away from them. Bob thought of an idea, he then called all the fish in the stream and help the birds to extinguish the fire. Archer was an excellent fish who could rocket water in a really long distance above water. Stork also called all the birds to catch the fish net that was spread in the stream which cud be used to hold some water and sprinkle water in the fire areas along with their body water. It would be better idea than just dipping into the stream and sprinkling water into fire. Everyone was happy with the idea.

Similarly, Agnes asked monkeys to call elephants at a place. Elephants can take large amount of water and shower in the fire which can be the best solution to extinguish the fire. While deers, porcupines throw soil into the fire, monkeys used twigs and branches with leaves to beat the fire. All the techniques were used and it was working well. The name calls were still continuing to keep records of the animals and birds. But, then Myna wasn't there in the list. Myna is Agnes's best friend and she is about to give birth. Upon hearing the missing of Myna, Agnes felt so feeble and felt really bad to forget about her best friend. She flew into her nest but there was no single trace of her neither of her eggs. Agnes still tried to look for her, called her in every nook and corner. But just at the edge of the forest, she saw a bird lying on the ground besides the stream. She immediately knew it was her friend and rushed towards her. She was shattered to see Myna lying still. She started bursting in tears which fell upon the river. Then all of sudden she heard a voice,' Wait, she is not dead yet, let me sprinkle water.'  It was Bob ;) Agnes, through her teary eyes saw this tiny amazing fish that was completely new to the place. But without further ado, they both sprinkled water in Myna's face and Bob also patted her face.  After a while, Myna did come into consciousness. Agnes was so happy that she hugged Bob and jumped off the ground hehehe.

Myna looked for her eggs. Bob had seen Myna's tree catching fire so he had asked monkeys to help her with the eggs. But as she was already unconscious, they brought her at the bank of the stream. Even the fire had extinguished by the time and everyone rejoiced along with their families and friends, while Bob recalled all those memories with his family and felt all alone in the new place. He took a dip into the stream as he didn’t want to show his tears. But, all of sudden, he felt something sharp pulling him out of the water. And as expected this time, it was a darter. He grinned and said, ‘U look delicious!’ Bob was terrified like anything and couldn’t even call others for help. They all were celebrating, dancing and laughing. Bob had no hope this time; he just closed his eyes and once again remembered mountains! But, at the meantime he felt he was thrown into the air and caught by Agnes. She gave a sweet smile at him and put him back in the stream again. ‘None can hurt him, does that make sense?-she commanded loudly. ‘He helped us in many ways despite being an outsider and now it’s our responsibility to make sure he is fine at out locality. He is our friend.’

Bob smiled back to her. He felt so good after really long time. Agnes approached towards him and said, Thank you!’ Bob!! U can call me Bob ;) She blushed,’ Thank you Bob, Would you love to join the party?’ He nodded and smiled as wide as possible. They both felt something strange deep inside their heart. So, a grand party was organized to celebrate life and friendship. Everyone cheered the bravery of Agnes and Bob. After a while of celebration, Agnes and Bob felt driven towards each other by an unknown force. Agnes started the conversation, ‘Hi, Bob! I have never seen you before, where are you from? And why are you here?’.

Bob was a bit overwhelmed by the questions but then answered like a polite gentleman,’ Well, I belong to ocean, it’s very far away. I just wanted to see the mountains but that seems like an impossible thing to achieve. I should return back tomorrow with the Stork, my friend.’ He sighed.
Agnes consoled, ‘Don’t worry Bob, you have made quite a long journey already. Father says that we give up when we are very near to our goal. We should try till the end.’ and patted him. He felt a sudden surge of emotions bubbling up within him after her gentle touch. He also splashed water towards her and they started giggling and playing around. He also told her about ocean, and his family, friends. They talked about many things.  After spending some quality times with each other, they greeted good night to each other.

Stork was quite happy that day and also been noticing the intimacy between Bob and Agnes. He spoke,’ You love him, don’t you?’ ‘Well, I know you do’.
Bob was gazing at her and smiling. She will turn around, just see’ again stork spoke. Surprisingly, she did turn around and smiled at him.
How come you know that? Bob was startled at Stork. ‘My boy, I am expert in the field called LOVE ;) I could sense it from miles. You both were so into each other, twinkling eyes, wide smiles, butterflies in the stomach, it’s all the symptoms!!’
Bob murmured to himself, ‘Is this love? I do like to see her only, talk to her every time, know more about her.’ He smiled but the happiness suddenly changed into sadness. He told to Stork, But it’s impossible. How can a fish love a bird? We are so different!’

Storked replied with a smile ,’ There is no control over love, Bob. It doesn’t see anything, it just feels. Do you deny the feelings you have for Agnes? Or just fear the outcome?’
Bob couldn’t speak a word. They both remained silent and gazed at the moon.
The next morning Bob told Stork, ‘Well, I know nothing about love but if all these feelings I have for her is love then yes, I love her and I will find mountains. ‘
On the other side, Agnes was feeling restless the whole night. She felt something strange for him and wanted to help him in his quest to the mountains.
He has saved my best friend’s life. It’s my sheer responsibility to assist him as well. She jumped out of her bed and ran towards Bob.

Meanwhile, Stork was about to set back home with lots of food but deep down he was sad to leave bob in the middle of the journey. He hugged him tight and was about to bid farewell when Agnes hurriedly came and also told him to not to worry about bob; She will take care of him. They both kept watching towards the Stork till he disappeared from the sight. And then Agnes mentioned ,’ Let’s go to see the mountains!’

‘What, are u serious?’ asked Bob in surprise.
Well, I am a mountain bird and I have been brought up in mountains. Don’t you trust me?’- she frowned her face.
‘Agnes, lets go!!!’
Agnes held him tight and flew towards north. The wind was getting colder and colder, while Bob was enjoying the serene beauty of the woods, beautiful white streams and her company. He was happy that she is leading him to the mountains.  She surely was a beautiful, bold and strong bird. She was soaring high above the clouds along the thermals and her eyes straight towards the aim.
‘Bob, can u close your eyes, please.’ She requested. Then, she slowly landed on a surface. Well,                                                             Welcome to the mountains.

Bob eyes were left wide open with the scene; he could see gigantic skyscrapers fully covered with milky white snow. They were so beautiful. First he was shocked then he jumped like a lil kid in sheer happiness and embraced Agnes tightly.  His dream had finally come true.
Thank you Agnes, it is so special moment for me and I am so grateful to have you with me here. I love you.
Agnes couldn’t say a word.
After spending some time in the mountains, they flew back to lowlands. On the way back, Agnes spoke gently, ‘Bob, please don’t me otherwise. I think we are good friends only. Let’s not complicate things.’
Bob felt so broken hearted after hearing her. He collected all this strength and replied,’ It’s Ok, Agnes. A fish can never dream to fly and we may fall in love but where will we live? I understand that. Anyways, I am leaving towards home tomorrow.’

They were both in tears but neither spoke a word. Agnes wasn’t being able to understand what her feelings towards him are while Bob was disappointed with himself. Anyways, he consoled himself with the sight of mountains and all the stories he has to share back home.

The next day, Agnes along with all her friends came to bid him farewell. Agnes hugged him one last time and smiled,’ Bob, see you soon my friend, bye.’
This time Bob set towards his journey all alone along the streams. He was happy to go back but sad to leave Agnes. It’s been more than 6 months, Bob and Agnes were in there own world. Everyone was happy to have Bob back. It was full of happiness again. He had many stories and adventures to share. But there wasn’t a single day when he wouldn’t think about Agnes.

 Similarly, Agnes was also missing him badly. She always used to talk about Bob with her friends and even families, all his stories, adventures and fun he had in the ocean. She even wished to see him again.
Agnes and her father discussing

Her father had somewhat noticed what she is going through, so decided to talk with her. Agnes told everything about Bob and what he said to her. She also talked about her confusion and her feelings. It was quite clear that she was also in love with him and becoz she was raised by her father, she was little naïve in such issues.

Her father then took her to the top of mountain and said,’ Do you want to know what’s beyond the mountains?’
She exclaimed, ‘Yes, of course!’
‘So, here is your journey ahead. Fly to the ocean.’
She couldn’t believe her father’s words but she was overjoyed.
‘You have been an amazing daughter I had ever imagined. You have always made me proud and I always feared coz I knew you were meant to break the rules and create your own destiny. I am sure Bob would be expecting you. Soar high, my daughter.’

She realized that she loved Bob dearly and as people say true love leads you to your dream, he surely has lead her into the world of explorations. She was so excited to fly to the ocean and meet Bob. She traversed all across the plains, ridges, valley, rivers that converged into an ocean. She didn’t have his address but she was sure they are destined to meet again and believed if you want something from your heart, then the whole world conspires to make it come true.

As said, she met the Stork J they were so happy to meet. She told him everything and how she decided to meet Bob and say what she feels for him. Stork then led her towards a lagoon, where the rivers meet the ocean. 'Bob always comes here and looks upstream, towards the mountain and you, Agnes.'

Agnes couldn't resist crying and her tears fell upon the water, where Bob was resting remembering his love. All of sudden he felt something that reminded him of her; the tears. He knew the taste of it once when he met her first time besides Myna. 'Agnes??', he asked himself surprisingly. He flipped towards the sky and he couldn't believe what he saw. Agnes was above along with Stork. He jumped off the water in the utter happiness. Seeing him, Agnes held him and spoke, ' If I have not said, I am sorry, I do and if I have not said, I love you, I do. I love you so much, my Bob. I am so sorry to take this long to realize. Regarding where we will live; I can teach you how to fly and you can teach me how to swim and we will travel together' 

They hugged each other and celebrated their reunion. Birds danced around and fishes jumped off the water. They stayed together thereafter exploring ocean and mountains J
Stork smiled while he narrated the story to his chicks. 

Foto source: Google