A Pale Blue Dot*

These days, two major themes dominate the news: violence and climate change. There is endless news about wars, bomb explosions, vehicles mowing down pedestrians, or armed men shooting or randomly stabbing people to death. Every day, too, you can hear news about how huge parts of forests are being cleared, the thinning ice sheets, the rising temperature, or the extinction of a species. Regardless whether you watch the local or international news, you are sure to find at least one story connected to either of these two.

Times like these, I cannot help feeling fearful for the future — if humankind even still has one considering the rate of how people destroy each other and nature in the name of politics, power, and so-called progress. If only people realized that all those are insignificant in the grander scheme of things.

In 1994, Carl Sagan, an American cosmologist and author wrote the book, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space,”* and in it, he gave a different perspective of Earth, a perspective I wish all people would appreciate.

pale blue dot

That tiny speck suspended in a sunbeam is our home.  Photo taken by Voyager 1 in 1990. (NASA)

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner.

How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.

Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Where Wild Birds Fly

Scholars, state university, activism, premiere education – these are the words that are normally associated with the name of the University of the Philippines (Diliman).  It is a premiere educational institution situated in the heart of Quezon City, an urban jungle that is also well-known for its numerous shopping malls, countless hip restaurants, cafes, bars, and some public parks.  Very few would ever associate both of these places with the Woodpecker, the Black-naped Oriole, or the Lowland White Eye – wild birds that call UP Diliman and Quezon City their homes.

Before April this year, I had never heard the names of these birds nor had I even thought of associating Quezon City with them.  My knowledge of birds was extremely limited, and my awareness of the various birds living and visiting the city was almost close to zero.  Maya (Eurasian Tree Sparrow) and kalapati (dove / pigeon) were the only species of birds I thought present in the city, and the others, whose existence I didn’t have any idea about, could only be found in the rural areas.  How surprised I was when I learned that many wild birds actually take flight in the city’s skyline and build their nests in the quietness of the trees.  Some are even frequent visitors coming from other countries to get away from the coldness of their original habitats.

birdwatching1

I was made aware of all these when I joined a guided birdwatching tour provided by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines last April.  I saw a poster of the group’s on Facebook inviting everyone to the said event.  It was set at 6:00 am on a Saturday.  And although it was too early for a weekend, and I was not even a bird lover, I decided to join by myself and enrich my knowledge about birds and Quezon City.  It was summer anyway, too, and a nature-related activity was far better than a trip to a mall.

Birdwatching is an activity that observes birds in their natural habitats.  So, a trip to the zoo or an aviary to look at birds and watch their habits cannot be considered as birdwatching.  It can be a mere pastime for others or a mission for some. Whichever is the case, a birdwatcher needs to have the following qualities:

birdwatching_brt

a Blue Rock Thrush as seen from a spotting scope

Patience – You have to wait for birds to appear.  Sometimes you can see them immediately, resting on a branch or swooping some insects on the ground.  Sometimes, you can only see them flying.  And sometimes you don’t even see them at all.  But when you do finally see them, it can be pretty exciting.

Carefulness and Being Respectful –  As much as possible, avoid contact.  Never shake branches just to make them fly and get a close picture of them.  Don’t mess with their nests or eggs.

Quietness – Noise can agitate or scare off the birds, and as someone who would actually want to see them as close as possible without upsetting them, being silent is the key.  This way, you’ll also get to listen to the way these birds communicate.

birdwatching_pnj

Can you spot where the (sleeping) Philippine Night Jar is?

I did get to see a number of birds like the beautiful and striking Collared Kingfisher (Kasaykasay), the Pied Fantail (Maria Capra), Yellow Vented Bulbul (Kulkul), Black-naped Oriole (Kulyawan), a flock of Egrets (Tagak), Lowland White-eye (Matang-Dulong), just to mention some.  Many of them I was not able to take photos of because they were either flying in the air or hiding in trees.  I only got to see them via a pair of binoculars or through a spotting scope; the others, I was only able to hear.

Although I was primarily there to observe birds, the activity was also a good way for me to get myself familiarized with some of native trees such as the ones below:

birdwatching_kapok

Kapok, a tree that produces cotton-like fibers inside pods

 

birdwatching_kapokfibre

Kapok fiber

birdwatching_salingbobok

a native tree called Salingbobok, whose flowers are a bit similar to a Cherry Blossom’s

I never knew there were a lot of species of birds in that single area alone.  Having a healthy quantity of trees in the university definitely helped in attracting the birds to inhabit that area.  This is then another excellent reason why green spaces should be increased in our cities.  Increasing green spaces in our suffocating urban jungle would certainly provide homes for the birds and fresher air that many urban-dwellers are deprived of.

I’m glad I joined that birdwatching event because the following morning, I became more conscious of my surroundings; I tried to see whether the ones I saw at UP were also present in my neighborhood.  I also listened to the bird calls more.  Suddenly, the birds didn’t sound all alike anymore.  A statement in front of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines brochure could not be any truer:

All you need is to know what’s out there to see. 

 

For more information about birdwatching, bird festivals, and conservation programs, visit Birdwatch.ph  or its Facebook page, Birdwatch Philippines.