A human-eye view of birds

 Alaric Francis Santiaguel   |  

To the untrained eye, the research farm at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines may look like nothing more than a verdant sea of rice plants. But, through the eyes of bird enthusiasts and the lens of bird photographers, it is a habitat for many spectacular bird species.

In Feathers in the fields: The birds of IRRI, bird photographers Tirso Paris, Jr. and Segfredo Serrano exhibit a bevy of bird species they have captured via their cameras over the years, representing a portion of their portfolios of what Dr. Paris described as their “addiction.”

“Bird photography is a passion,” Dr. Paris said. “You need to be a little bit crazy to go into it. It takes a lot of money, time, and patience to capture beautiful images of birds. But it is very addictive.”

Bird photography also requires special skills that go beyond being very efficient with a camera, according to Dr. Serrano.

“You need to be a good bird watcher and know the habits and forms of birds so that you can easily identify the species on the run,” he said. “And, you have to have a genuine affection for your subject. If you don’t have a genuine affection for our avian friends as part of our environment and their role in our environment, it will be very difficult to have the required patience to document your subject.”

The rewards of their patience and efforts are stunning photographs that reveal the avian world behind the green curtain of rice that will no doubt surprise many.

“The fascinating feathered creatures featured in this exhibition, some native to the area while others use IRRI as a stopover site on their migration, provide a glimpse of birds that are rarely seen by most people—even those who work in the fields every day,” said Paul Hilario, curator of the Riceworld Museum and Learning Center where the exhibit will be on display from May through September 2013. “These birds are alert to movements and sounds, and are quick to hide or use natural camouflage.”

Many might assume that bird photography is best done in undisturbed areas, but agricultural lands can double as bird sanctuaries. Although farms cannot replace natural wetlands, flooded rice fields act as an artificial wetland and can provide some resources for birds, according to Mr. Richard Smedley, an IRRI scholar who studies birds in the experimental fields (see Don’t scare away the birds!).

Keeping a healthy rice ecosystem is a target for IRRI on its research station. For example, IRRI uses integrated pest management (IPM), which reduced pesticide use by 96% between 1993 and 2008, and encourages richer natural biodiversity.

“Although we don’t have direct evidence on the impact of the reduced pesticide use, it is certainly a contributor to the richer bird life in and around the farm,” said Dr. K.L. Heong, an IPM expert at IRRI.

Most farmers may not be as happy, though, to see thriving bird communities flocking to their fields because they are widely regarded as pests. “They are seen in association with rice and they’re presumed to eat rice, but that assumption may not always be correct,” local bird enthusiast Paul Bourdin explained.

The diet of the lesser coucal, bee-eater, swallows, pacific skylarks, and pied bushchat consists almost entirely of insects, he explained. To help people better understand that not all birds are pests, Feathers in the fields: The birds of IRRI will include descriptions provided by Mr. Bourdin about each species on display at the exhibit, including their scientific, English, and Filipino names; diet; and habits.
Mr. Santiaguel is the associate editor of Rice Today.

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