Birding in the big smoke

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: Birding in the big smoke
From: Laurie Knight <>
Date: Tue, 10 Nov 2015 08:26:00 +0000
There was a time when going to the big smoke meant visiting a city.  Now it 
means going to south-east Asia during the dry season.  Indonesia has really 
reset the bar when it comes to smoke generation.  This year more than 100,000 
fires have been illegally set to clear the vegetation to make way for 
plantations.  Many of those fires have been lit on peat soils, and don’t go out 
until the wet season arrives.

My wife and I flew to Singapore in mid-October.  We crossed the Australian 
coast for the last time around Darwin.  The atmosphere was clear to around 
about Suliwesi and then the smoke started.  You could look down and see the 
smoke from individual fires coming together to form a continuous miasma that 
covered the earth for over 1000 kilometres.  At times it rose up to the 
cruising level of the plane (11,000 metres).  It was a depressing sight.

While not all days were bad, the smoke was a constant companion while we were 
in Singapore, Malaysia and the adjacent seas.  On one day in the Java Sea, the 
smoke was so thick that you could barely see 100 metres (the ship was sounding 
its foghorn during the day) and I stayed inside to spare my lungs.

I don’t know how migratory birds that navigate using the sun or stars cope, as 
there was no way of seeing the sky.  One morning we found an Oriental Scops Owl 
roosting in between the steps on the upper deck - it had come aboard the ship 
some time during the night between Langkawi and Penang.  It may have been lost.

Overall, I see the situation in Indonesia as a case of ecocide (perhaps future 
generations will see that as the crime of the century).  Huge amounts of 
biodiversity has been destroyed and land degraded.  Tens of millions of people 
have been smoke affected, and the fires have put over a gigatonne of carbon 
into the atmosphere.

I think the people of Darwin are lucky that the prevailing winds don’t bring 
the smoke to them.  What I’m not sure about, is the extent to which the smoke 
is affecting the migration of birds in the area.  Are we getting more birds 
turning up at the vagrant traps (e.g. Christmas & Cocos-Keeling Islands and 
Ashmore Reef) because of the smoke?  Are there many shorebirds travelling 
through the East Asia Flyway that come through SE Asia during September-October?

Anyhow, on the bird front, the consistent city species were sparrows, mynahs, 
swifts/swallows and crows.  I didn’t see one gull, (House Crows sound like 
gulls) had one glimpse of a tern at Lombok and only saw 2 (Lesser Whistling) 
ducks while in SE Asia.  Of the course, the first bird I saw on arrival at 
Fremantle was a Silver gull …

In summary, I wouldn’t travel to the smoke affected parts of SE Asia during the 
burning season.  It may or may not affect the behaviour of the birds, but it 
does affect visibility and the quality of distant photographs.  It is also 
unhealthy to breathe and depressing to be out in.  Hopefully change will take 
place in Indonesia and the situation will not be so bad in future years.

Regards, Laurie.
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