Bird Conservation: Education and Awareness

February 26, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Birds constitute an important aspect of our natural world. They are an important part of the global ecosystem and biodiversity, food source and inspiration for several aspects of human art, sculpture, culture, ethnicity, literature and society. Different bird species inhabit all the continents of the globe representing both the ‘Old World’ as well as the ‘New World’ including the northern polar region, Siberia and Greenland to the Antarctica. They are present in all the cities and towns and rural areas dotted across the planets from the remote islands to the barren deserts; and from the high mountains to the fertile plain lands and dry, arid plateau regions. They have successfully invaded every ecosystem on earth and adapted to them accordingly for their survival and multiplication from the geologic past.

They have invaded the boreal forests and the cactus infested deserts; they have migrated huge distances unimaginable to reach remote islands and distant continents to make their new homes and have established strong feral populations in the urban areas in different corners of the planet. From the lush green tropical forests to the bare vegetation deserts and from the lofty mountains to the open sea; they have occupied every possible and available space with success and great efficiency. Many species have settled close to human habitations and prospered by sharing resources and trash of their human neighbors to carve out a successful niche for them. In exchange, birds have provided humans with sources of food and nutrition from the very early days of hominid evolution to the modern high tech industrial, poultry production systems.

However, this nice balance of sharing and co-inhabiting the same space has been greatly shifted to a negative ends from the dynamics of the human perspective. Several species of birds have been placed increasingly under Near Threatened, Threatened, Endangered and Critically Endangered status by the IUCN from every continent due to significant changes to their population structure. Severe anthropogenic pressures across the world due to indiscriminate poaching (illegal hunting, capture, trade and transportation of endemic, exotic and vulnerable species), loss of habitats (loss of key foraging, hunting, breeding and nesting sites; habitat degradation and habitat fragmentation; destruction of virgin forests) forest fires, environmental pollution (global warming and climate change, nuclear radiation, discharge of untreated industrial effluents into the natural environment, emission of toxic gases from automobiles and industries, indiscriminate and over application of agro-chemicals polluting underground and surface water resources), spread of several deadly pathogenic diseases, over exploitation of natural resources both aquatic (marine and fresh water sources) and terrestrial (rapid infrastructural, industrial and agricultural expansions and developments, aggressive mining activities and rapid and unplanned urbanization drives) without any long term planning and non-judicious management of natural resources for short term financial gains; and deep and unrestricted encroachments inside fragile and susceptible ecosystems and environments for purely commercial ventures are some of the factors that are negatively impacting global avian population.


It is important to think about why is this happening across the world and what we could do to help the conservation of our precious avian members? One of the most important factors that can play an important role in the successful conservation of the avian species across the planet is the education and awareness of the people, particularly the young children who are our future citizens. It is absolute necessary to bring the causes of decline in the global avian populations to our dinner table and make it a household discussion so that people can realize, understand and appreciate the values of avian conservation. The first step in achieving that end as mentioned above is raising the education and awareness level of the global human community by catching them young.

The school systems constitute one of the basic frameworks of early education and that should be the primary focus of the bird conservation education and awareness programs. It should be important to reach the young kids through interactive programs organized and integrated within their school curriculum to expose them slowly to the importance of the diversity of bird life, their life cycles, and how they survive in different ecosystems and in stressing why they should be conserved for the future generations. Movies and videos, small hand on workshops, art works and interactive lecture session geared towards young children needs to be designed. It will be also important to keep in mind the socio-cultural perspective of the target kids when the programs are being designed. What works for the urban students may not be suitable for the students coming from the rural communities and what appears more appropriate from the perspective of a developed nation, may not be practical for students from developing and under developed nations. Hence such programs need to be custom designed based on the specific student populations to reach them more efficiently.

The secondary and tertiary levels of education could include even more engaging and involving projects such as participation in field projects like bird survey, nature photography, and preparation of reports (such as field data report, eco report or environment report), high school or university level research projects on bird life, bird ecosystem and conservation, data generation on several endangered, critically endangered or threatened local species, study on different exotic and endemic species, study on different anthropogenic pressure and activities and how they are shaping and changing local bird life and behaviors, studying and photographing interesting bird behavior and making presentations back to the class. Involving the peers for spreading education and awareness on bird conservation could be an effective strategy in reaching more young people efficiently. Older students could be trained to communicate about their experiences in bird conservation to the younger students for better appreciation of their peer achievements and to learn significantly from their experiences rather than external source of education and awareness.

Class based sharing of stories and presentations made using the black board or smart board options or use of colorful posters or hand made story boards prepared by students could not only engage students but also other members of the society. The interactive student sessions could be extended to the parents, teachers, instructors and lecturers and also to the senior citizen groups for highlighting the causal factors behind the declining aspect of global avian population and their possible recovery through consistent, long term, sustainable and coordinated efforts of the government and non-government organizations; different local, regional and international conservation organizations and local community members. Slowly such education and awareness drives could not only reach the younger generation but broadly to all members of the society. The supportive role of the media could not be ignored at all and they should be made important stakeholders in the process of education and awareness of the public through their investigative reports, periodicals and serials on bird conservation efforts around the globe, talk shows, documentaries and mocumentaries on bird related topics, newspaper reports, columns, editorials, features, letter to editors, magazine articles and different interactive question-answer session could greatly help in engaging public towards avian conservation.

It is important to realize that we have to understand and cater to the anthropogenic issues first to solve the problem of crisis in the avian life. Several biodiversity hotspots are located in the poor developing and under developed nations of the world. The poor economy, unstable political situations and ethnic tensions have pushed several local communities towards the forest and making them dependent on these ecologically fragile resource bases heavily. Unless the social and economic situations of such remote rural settlers, village communities and forest fringe residents are improved, and they are relocated where possible, the ground situation in both avian and other wildlife conservation has little chances for success. The bird conservation education and awareness programs must highlight the plight of such people to all to understand the dynamics of human-animal conflicts better to resolve the problem. Unless the anthropogenic issue is critically addressed the fruits of the conservation efforts will not be able to take its roots successfully.


Article submitted by Saikat Kumar Basu

Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu, Ratnabali Sengupta, Srimoyi Mazumder, Jayati Naskar, Manorma Sharma, Monikankana Dasgupta, Olga Osdachuk, Peiman Zandi, Xiuhua Wu & Cenny Yau.

The Fading of House Sparrow from Kolkata, India

February 24, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

The urbanization pattern of the megacity of Kolkata (88º 30′ E -22º 33′ N; 6.4 meters above mean sea level), capital of the State of West Bengal in India, has been rapidly changing over the past few decades. The real estate business has been catching grounds in the metro city and the population goes on increasing without proper planning and initiatives from the perspective of modern urban development. Consequently, the megacity has been expanding with modern high rises, malls and multiplexes along with the existence of different slums in less-developed parts of the megacity. This megacity extends up to different sub-urban areas to accommodate her huge population without proper civic amenities available to the mass. The proper megacity has grown into 13th most populous metropolitan areas of the globe having a staggering population of 44,86,679 with population density of 24.252 people/km2 (according to 2011 Census). Population of Greater Kolkata with all its suburbs as per 2011 Census is 1,41,12,536 persons. It is the 7th largest city of India in area and a sex-ratio of 956 females per 1000 males with a literacy rate of 81.31% (Basic Statistics of Kolkata, Kolkata Municipal Corporation, retrieved January 31, 2015).
 

Map showing the location of the city of Kolkata in eastern India
 

The complexity of the intense anthropogenic pressures has rapid negative impact on urban wildlife and avian population. One of the worst hit unfortunate species is the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus Linnaeus, 1758). The tiny bird varies in length between 13-15 cm and 20-40 gm in weight. It belongs to the Family-Passeridae and the Order-Passeriformes. The species is sexually dimorphic with males are distinct with their darker brownish back plumage compared to the duller females. The males also have a black streak mark just below their beak absent in the females. The species is known to be quite social and vocal with large social breeding groups nesting closely to one another. The females have been more difficult to spot recently in comparison to the males; possibly indicating some skewed sex ratio that need to be confirmed through extensive survey.
 

 
Sexual dimorphism in house sparrows, with dull patterned female sparrow on the top left and brightly colored on the top right. An excellent example of natural camouflage demonstrated by a lone male house sparrow in Kolkata (bottom image). The bird could not be easily distinguished from the background and hence highlighted within the circle for easy spotting. Photo credit: Srimoyi Mazumder
 

In local dialect (Bengali) it is known as ‘Chorai’ or ‘Chorui’. This noisy bird is very familiar with humans and is often seen in close association with human settlements. It has been well known to be a successful urban species that usually nests around snug corners of houses, edges and corners of the roofs and any opportunistic availability of spaces and sites within and around human settlements such as a higher unreachable corner of a balcony, old unused shelves inside unused rooms, ventilators and inside of brick tiles.

During 1990s some ornithologists first noticed the declining rate of sparrows. In 2012, with the cooperation of ‘Nature Forever Society`, a citizen’s science activity was initiated in India to collect various data about sparrow. The data showed that sparrow number dwindled alarmingly in central and north-eastern India. The report identified some factors behind this declining number of sparrows.

 

A male sparrow foraging.  Photo credit: Srimoyi Mazumder
 

Nowadays old houses in and around Kolkata are disappearing quickly leaving spaces for modern housing apartments, multistoried buildings, skyscrapers, high rises and malls in quest for urban development. The real estate boom in this megacity has been transforming several old localities into high value concrete jungles. The design and construction of these modern buildings do not attract or appeal to the friendly house sparrows as potential nesting sites. Moreover, in these buildings normally the windows are made by glass/fiber or glass/steel where the sparrows have very little chance to enter the room. Modern scientific amenities, e.g. air conditioner in these buildings also make lives of sparrows at stake due to change of air temperature between inside and outside of room. The economic boom has been transforming the city dynamics and landscaping feature drastically. Old bungalows, one or two storied houses and apartments with lawns, gardens in the midst of short stretches of untouched city woods are disappearing speedily. This ultimately leads the unfortunate sparrows in losing their potential safe nesting and breeding sites. Felling of several old trees for the construction of highly modernized, scenic and well lighted boulevards and avenues further reduces potential nesting sites for these smaller birds.
 

 

Old single storied traditional residence (A), big roadside trees (B) and shrubs, city wetlands (C) and parks (D) are disappearing fast and making space for modern multi-storied offices and housing apartments (E-G) reducing foraging, nesting and breeding sites for house sparrows. Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu, Ratnabali Sengupta, Sutapa Basu & Pallav Mulhopadhyay.

The increased migration of people from the rural areas into the megacity from adjoining districts and states for economic opportunities has added additional anthropogenic pressures on Kolkata. In absence of opportunity to grow to keep up with the pace of such unprecedented human migration into the megacity in terms of urban projects and developments slums, shanties and illegal constructions have taken place mostly in an unplanned way in every available free space within city boundaries. This unrestricted and unbalanced growth of population due to in migration has further reduced the availability of open and undisturbed green stretches within the megacity. It results in lessening breeding opportunities for several erstwhile city wildlife and avian populations including the helpless and hapless house sparrows. Naturally their numbers started falling over the past decades. Moreover, lack of safe nesting sites exposes these tiny birds and their chicks to several predators including cats, crows, raptors, snakes and humans.
 

 
Existing traditional and old school residences are still attractive nesting sites of house sparrows (A). The real estate boom in the city has been rapidly transforming and expanding the city of Kolkata negatively impacting the resident avifauna like house sparrow (B). Photo credit: Srimoyi Mazumder.

Extensive use of chemical pesticides in agricultural fields lying in greater Kolkata also expedites the rate of declining number of sparrows. These pesticides mostly kill the soft skinned insects which are favorite foods of sparrows. A mother sparrow normally feeds its chicks with these soft skinned insects. Hence, killing of soft skinned insects by pesticides creates food crisis for chicks. The sparrows are often seen to take dead insects killed by chemical pesticide poisoning as their foods. It becomes fatal for them. These tiny birds are very fond of grains. Today these grains are not free from chemical pesticides. Resultantly the sparrows become affected by these deadly pesticides. Apart from this, the grains in past are seen to be scattered over an open vast stretch of land under direct sunlight for drying. Sparrows meet up their hunger freely from there. But, nowadays, rapid processing of food grains in modern closed mechanized farming leave very little chances for sparrows to collect foods from scattered grains.
 

 
Resting on perch.  Photo credit: Rahul Ray

Extensive unwise and indiscriminate installation of mobile phone towers within the megacity and its adjoining areas is normally believed to be one of the major factors of decreasing sparrow population. Mobile towers emit 900-1800 mega hertz electromagnetic waves. This wave is detrimental for the nervous system of these tiny birds and gradually they lose their flying ability which in turn affects their food collection. It reveals through observation that the sparrows hardly stay for 7-10 days in nests if it built very near to mobile towers. Normally the incubation period of sparrows is 10-14 days, but it has been observed that in the vicinity of mobile towers even after a 30 day incubation period no chicks emerge from the eggs. However, some environmentalists and prominent ornithologists have argued that till date no such concrete and decisive conclusion regarding installation of mobile towers and declining rate of sparrows has been reached by any peer reviewed scientific literature. But they do admit that electromagnetic waves of such unmonitored towers are not congenial.
 

 
Resident male house sparrows (Passer domesticus ) roosting (A), foraging (B) and defending (C) its territory. Although house sparrows are on serious decline in the city, but other opportunistic avian members have aggressively occupied the niche and are represented by three most abundant, urbanized, highly adaptive and tolerant species in the city of Kolkata; such as the house crow [Corvus splendens Vieillot] (D), rock dove or rock pigeon [Columba livia Gmelin] (E) and common myna [Acridotheres tristis Linnaeus] (F). The densely populated city with enhanced air pollution and scarcely available green spaces; provides little opportunity for sensitive species such as house sparrow to breed and thrive successfully (G-I). Photo credits: Srimoyi Mazumder & Ratnabali Sengupta.

In India’s capital New Delhi, sparrow has been declared as ‘State Bird` in 1992. The house sparrow is also the ‘State Bird’ for the State of Bihar in eastern India. As per ‘Royal Society for Protection of Birds` of Britain, sparrows are enlisted in ‘Red Data Book` which is a comprehensive list of endangered and near-extinct species prepared by ‘International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources` (IUCN). Although IUCN has placed house sparrow under the Least Concerned (LC) status for now; but an alarming decline is being noticed in Kolkata and surrounding areas. What is more worrying is the fact that several unconfirmed reports are also indicating a sharp decline of house sparrows in other parts of India too. It is now time for a serious nationwide comprehensive survey to evaluate the true status of the species so that appropriate measures could be adopted for the successful conservation of this declining species. The United Nation (UN) observes, 20th March every year as the ‘World Sparrow Day’ signifying the global importance of this species.
 

 
The resurgence of sensitive avian species back to a busy and congested metro like Kolkata could happen by sincere attempts of greening and landscaping the city to the best of our ability through the creation of roof gardens (A-F), backyard gardens (G-H), city parks (I-N), boulevards (O), avenue (P), kitchen gardens (Q-R) and water bodies (S-T) to function as city oasis. With the resurgence of green patches back onto the city landscape we will be able to welcome sensitive avian species like the house sparrow to once again occupy their lost niche within the city ecosystem by providing them with opportunities for nesting, foraging and breeding. Photo credits: Saikat Kumar Basu

Article contributed by: Saikat Kumar Basu and Rahul Ray

Snake Skin as Protection Against Predators

February 17, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

Birds use all sorts of materials to build and pad their nests with, and are very good in general at adapting whatever is at hand to suit their needs. Some birds even use the shed skins of snakes in their nest building, raising the question as to whether the snake skin is merely a handy and comfortable material to line a nest with, or whether it is actually intended to scare predators off. A study carried out by Arkansas State University ornithologists concluded that some bird species clearly use the snake skin to deter predators by incorporating it into their nests in some way, or by prominently displaying a snake skin near the nest, or both.

The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) and Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) are among the bird species that include pieces of snake skin in their nests, while Great Crested Flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) are known to display a snake skin outside their nesting cavity, as well as using an entire coiled snake skin in the nest. These will remain there throughout the incubation and fledgling stage of breeding. The study noted that the main predators of the eggs of Great Crested Flycatchers are rat snakes and flying squirrels – the latter being fond of bird’s eggs and the former preying on both birds and their eggs, as well as on flying squirrels. It was also noted that flying squirrels and Great Crested Flycatchers have a very similar geographical spread, and as all three species favor cavities as habitats, it is likely they will encounter one another. As the flying squirrel does its best to avoid the rat snake, it has been suggested that the shed skin of the snake acts as a deterrent to the squirrel.

A test carried out by the researchers confirmed that to be so. Using 60 nest boxes in which quail eggs were placed, researchers added snake skins into 40 of the boxes, with 20 boxes having no snake skin in them. All of the 40 boxes with snake skins were left untouched, while up to 20 percent of the nests without snake skins were raided by flying squirrels – evidence that some birds use snake skins specifically to ward off predators, and it appears to work.

Avian Parks and Gardens are Important Conservation and Education Tools: A Case Study from Iran

February 17, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

The global anthropogenic pressure has been quite detrimental to avian populations and with global warming, climate change and environmental pollution several endangered species of birds are on the verge of extinction. In this context, the role of several conservation approaches, like establishment of avian parks or gardens, have significant roles in both entertaining and educating the public about avian life, conservation and avian biodiversity could not be overlooked. Furthermore, several such private gardens have also made important contributions towards conservation of endangered and threatened avian species too. Nowadays, bird’s gardens are recognized as important habitats beneficial for those of endangered species and play a major role in the preservation of wildlife. It is worthwhile to mention that the awareness on varied aspects of bird life and their ecological behaviors, orientation with scientific designing and proper gardening approaches and perusing the principle of ecological landscape criteria are important in designing such exquisite gardens. Until recently, there have been more efforts towards designing and establishing avian gardens in different parts of Iran. Till date, nine such facilities are distributed across 8 provinces, including Tehran (Lavizan, Baghershahr‒Atr-e-sib), Isfahan, Guilan (Rasht‒Mahan Bird’s garden and Astara), Shiraz, Alborz (Karaj), and Hormozgan (Kish Island) Bird Garden. They have all been established with the hope for promoting tourism, for beautification of the tourist centers in Iran and to promote education and environmental conservation.


Fig1

There are several important factors that should be taken into account during the design and development of avian garden or parks, such as: appropriate designing of different sections to facilitate developing the best bird watching landscape, establishment of appropriate bird habitats by growing trees, shrubs and bushes or artificial aquatic habitats, cages and enclosures for catering to the need of different species, drawing a facility plan for the park or garden, analyzing and controlling soil status within the site, ensuring water security, establishing an avian veterinary unit for treating sick and injured birds and special attention to conservation and propagation of different species, regular monitoring and surveillance and maintaining strict sanitary regulations to prevent the outbreak of diseases and infections among the avian members.


(Source: Google Images)

Mahan Bird’s Garden

Mahan Bird Center (as called Mahan Bird’s Garden) is situated in the Rasht city of Guilan Province of Northern Iran (37°20’48.8″N, 49°38’27.1″ E). The construction of the site began 1993and it started welcoming visitors since 2009. The center name ‘Mahan’ has been adopted from the given name of the son of the owner. The center is located in the northeast corner of the city midway between the Rasht and Khomam. The approximate cost of establishment has been estimated ~US $ 100,000 (Khomam News June 25, 2013).  There was no external funding available for the establishment of the center and the major cost of construction and establishment was covered by the management. The owner, Mr. Behzad Mahroo started to think about creating such center mainly due to his personal interest on avian life since he was only 7 years old.  His main objectives behind the establishment of this center links to his intense passion and love for birds for their unique diversity, interesting behavioral patterns and for his emotional attachments towards the conservation of several defenseless species from relentless anthropogenic pressures. With a humble beginning of mere 10 birds, the center soon reached an avian population ~2000 representing an impressive 100 species assigned to over 52 cages and enclosures. The range of species maintained in this center represents ~30% for the local Iranian and ~70% for the exotic bird species. Majority of the avian species included in the center are exotic species collected across the planet. According to the manager, they do not have any immediate plan to have a specialized section of the aviary dedicated to local Iranian or central Asian species. This is mostly due to lack of adequate space and available funding for establishing this specialized section. However, the management prefers to devote the related genera of birds to identical locations due to ecological similarities and/or similarity in their food habits and foraging patterns.


(Source: Google Images)

Among the existing bird species, the following can be mentioned: Peacock or peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), Alexandrine parakeet (Psittacula eupatria), Fischer’s lovebird (Agapornis fischeri), Silver pheasant (Lophura nycthemera), Sun conure (Aratinga solstitialis), Silky fowl (Gallus gallus var. domesticus), Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata), Black swan (Cygnus atratus) and Tawny owl (Strix aluco). There are also some woodland mammal species that are kept at the center in a very limited numbers (e.g. Iranian Brown bears found in southern hillside of Alborz Mountains). These mammals are sent to the center by the Iranian Environmental Organization-Rasht for treatment and recovery to good health after being unfortunately threatened, chased or poisoned or being injured in hunting attempts by the local poachers.  At first the center was supposed to occupy an area of 5000 sq m;but during recent years it has reached up to 30,000 sq mspace to accommodate the large avian populations maintained here. The monthly cost of running this center is around US $ 6,000 along with 11 staff members that includes one veterinarian, some experts working in different specialized sections and regular maintenance staff.

The veterinary facilities here are to avail them in time of need for the treatment of sick and injured birds. Despite all the efforts done by the manager, there have been some unfortunate bird deaths in the past due to local disease. However, there has been no report of any bird flu outbreak in the center till date. Majority of the operation fund (~95%) for the center is provided by the management via the owner’s direct investment; however, the remaining is procured through entry fees (25,000 Rial ~73 US cents/visitor). The center operates throughout the week (including formal holidays) between 9 AM-6 PM daily. The center is accompanied with some limited amenities like visitor sitting accommodations and refreshment areas. There is a small cafeteria just next to the water habitat for the swans. The center is not only designed to provide entertainment and education for the public; but also to propagate and rear several endangered bird species and to treat and return injured local species back to nature. In that the centre serves as an important conservation cum rehabilitation center for some designated avian species. There are some proposals for establishing organized breeding centers within the garden in the future.

The average annual number of visitors coming to the center depends largely on the climatic and seasonal factors; but, commonly the center welcomes more visitors during the first half of the year. The center is deeply concerned about the terrible and disastrous conditions of several endangered, threatened and migratory bird species within the local lagoons and wetlands of the Guilan province due to recent incidences of unrestricted poaching, indiscriminate pollution and lack of proper monitoring and surveillance. Unfortunately, despite all the efforts made and/or constraints undertaken to date by the Iranian Environmental Organization the incidences of poaching could not be curbed successfully, significantly impacting the local avian population. The management humbly requests the international communities, non-governmental organizations and bird enthusiasts to kindly support their initiatives against all the odds to contribute in the developmental programs of Mahan Birds’ garden. The center could be reached via Viber (+989112378535) or direct call (+989111313370). The center also has an active Face Book page at: https://www.facebook.com/Rasht.Mahan.Birds.Garden

Photo credits: Peiman Zandi

Article contributed by: Peiman Zandi and Saikat Kumar Basu

References

Khomam News (2013) The effective role of Bird’s garden in attracting Available at: http://khomam-news.ir/

Further readings

Iranian Biodiversity & Wildlife Bureau (2014) An Updated Checklist of the Birds of Iran. Biodiversity & Wildlife Bureau‒Natural Environment Division- Department of Environment

Yazdandad H (2011) A study on species diversity and population fluctuation of birds in Aquatic ecosystem of Khorasan Razavi province, iran. J Animal Environ 3(1):45-58.

Mansoori, J., 2008. [In Persian: A guide to the birds of Iran]. 2 ed., Ketab Farzane Pub. Tehran. 513 pp.

Benson  John  (2003) Environment  ethics.  Translated  by Abdolhossein  Vahabzadeh,  Jahad  Daneshgahi publications, Mashhad, 1st edition.

Alizadeh  Shabani,  A,  McArthur,  L  and Abdollahian,  M.  (2009) Comparing different environmental  variables  in  predictive  models  of bird distribution. Russian J of Ecol. 40(7): 537-542.

Views Through the Blind

February 16, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

The melody of wheezy whistle-like calls pulled my eyes upward in search of the Black-bellied Whistling ducks that broke through my daydream.The sound of my shoes crunching along the pebble strewn path, the throaty grunts and croaks of the nesting Great Egrets and Neotropic Cormorants, and the intermittent humming of the bees that flit from one honeysuckle vine to the next had lulled me into a pleasant state of serenity.

Embodying both the spirit of discovery and tranquility, Shangri-La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center nurtures the concept of a harmonious relationship with nature and man. Located in the historic Southeastern Texas town of Orange, nestled on the banks of the Sabine River, Shangri-La offers nature enthusiast an unhampered glimpse at the workings of mother nature. The transition from winter to spring brings about an opportunity for young and old alike to witness the nesting, mating, and hatching of the winged residents that have turned a manmade lake into a heronry. At about 15 acres and in the heart of the botanical garden, Ruby Lake plays host to more than 5,000 birds annually and as many as 17 species seasonally. Along with the Egrets and Cormorants mentioned earlier, Anhingas, Roseate Spoonbills, and a variety of ducks call Ruby Lake home. Built from cypress logs that lay at the bottom of the river for decades, the Bird Blind provides birdwatchers of all ages and mobility a chance to observe nature unimpeded. Reaching the blind and this sanctuary is much easier than one might imagine. Just a short stroll down a gravel path dappled with sunlight and flowers that branches off the main path running through the gardens will get you there. The path is expertly maintained and with a wheelchair ramp into the blind, no one is denied access to this natural spectacle.

You are offered your first glimpse of the secluded lake and it’s inhabitants off to the right as the winding path leads up to the bank where there lay a handful of turtles basking on a fallen cypress log. In this small alcove, there are a sprinkling of Great Egret nests amongst the cypress trees, but the truly impressive views come from within the Bird Blind, which is just a little further up the path. Located just next to a stand of cypress trees flocked in white with hundreds of Great Egrets and their nests, the blind presents the observer with views of new hatchlings still bobbing and bumbling, trying their best to gain control of their head, wings, and legs. Open Tuesday-Saturday 9am-5pm, there is more than enough time to grab a seat on one of the sinker cypress benches, refresh yourself from the water fountain provided, and watch the comings and goings one of the most majestic creatures to grace the waterways of the south. For more information on Shangri-La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center visit starkculturalvenues.org or call 409.670.9113.

Article contributed by: Jessica Pickett

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