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.
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