Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
First published 24th January, 2011
Su stands before me, hand far too close for my comfort to a four-inch St Andrew’s Cross Spider. “Here in Bali, we don’t have dangerous animals — just dangerous traffic,” she quips. And so we begin our four-hour birdwatching ramble through the padi enveloping Bali’s cultural heart of Ubud.
Sumadi (Su to friends) has been leading birdwatching walks around Ubud along with resident Brit Victor Mason for the last 17 years. Victor was unable to join us due to a bout of flu, but Su has eyes enough for two people as she leads up Jalan Raya Ubud from our meeting spot at Murni’s Warung. With me is Theodora, her son Z, Brooks and one more, rounding out the group nicely.
Not ten metres into the walk, Su darts to the left and points up. “There, to the tree, eleven o’clock: white bellied swiftlet!” But before I can even find the tree, never worry about the darned bird, we’re under attack from the right. “Three o’clock!” Some kind of bulbul, from memory. I missed that one, too. We catch bemused looks from passing cyclists as the five of us strike poses with binoculars all cast in different (and invariably wrong) directions; Su of course hasn’t even drawn hers.
But the frustration evaporates when you finally see one. My first was a yellow vented bulbul, and I couldn’t help but exclaim a “Got one!” as if I’d just trapped an elephant which, by the way, I reckon I’d do a better time of spotting. I watched it sitting there, doing nothing actually, but it did nothing for long enough for me to stare at it.
The number of birds is surprising. Once you start looking, they really are everywhere. I ask after the effect of Ubud’s fast-paced development on bird habitat, suspecting it would have reduced the population. But according to Su, the number of birds has increased dramatically since her childhood. “No more people with guns. Every morning in my village people would walk through with guns to shoot, shoot, shoot,” she says.
Leaving downtown Ubud behind, we meander along a footpath. Padi canvasses out left and right. Water careens down the canal beside us. Big skies. Birds asunder.
In very short time we score what for me is the most beautiful bird of the walk, the Javan kingfisher. With an oversized crimson beak, sultry blue chest and a black dinner jacket with light blue finishing, this guy poses against the shimmering green padi. We ALL catch him through the binocs. While Su claims the golden-headed cisticola as her favourite, this bird in a dinner jacket gets my vote.
Walking further from Ubud towards Sari Organic Restaurant, the padi is occasionally interrupted by small houses. This is “green zone” land and legally speaking, nothing should be here, but, as with many things in Bali, many shades of green make a green zone. Su laments the development, wondering how much padi will be left for the next generation.
She elaborates, saying the land doesn’t belong to this generation to sell; it remains a possession of their ancestors. One of the group asks why it does get sold. “If someone dies and life is very hard, perhaps then you can sell some to help you eat and live… ” the sentence sort of falls off and it’s not lost on us that the conversation takes place to the backdrop of a large advertisement for a luxury housing development — the ancestors can’t be too pleased.
We pass Sari Organic and around us farmers till the padi under the beating 11:00 sun. Knee deep in viscous mud, they feel for weeds. It’s back-breaking work, yet only a slight resting of one’s weight on one hand on the mud’s surface gives away the exhaustion. The process unearths many nibbles including crabs, frogs and insects that the White egrets, startling against the green of the padi, feed on. There’s so many about Su stops pointing them out.
Like the farmers no doubt wish they could, many of the birds are taking solace in the shade. Su distracts us with a diversion from fauna to flora. Plucking everything from lemongrass to turmeric and a mouth-shattering, eye-exploding chilli pepper that takes us all by surprise, she morphs the walk from a birdwatching tour to a culinary and bush medicine exploration. The purple leaf is good for bleeding after childbirth, another is handy for filling your mouth with saliva (useful in the desert apparently). We sip nectar from a hibiscus in the grounds of a small temple. My favourite tip? Rubbing a skink (a small lizard) on the skin is good for eczema. Noted.
We reach the apex of the walk and kick back in the shade for a coconut and some cassava chips. A side trail leads down to another pathway and en route we pass tunnel entryways. Bali is famous for its rice irrigation system, known as subak, but I never realised the waterways also coursed under the ground — testament to the effort required to allow year-round rice cultivation.
The walk is now a gentle run back down into town. We’re shaded on both sides by tall palms, but under the beating sun the surrounding ricefields glow. I’m no newbie to glistening padi, but the scenery and its bucolic vibe is just breathtaking. As we walk, Su chatters away describing the colourful mozaic of Balinese life: the caste system, her upbringing, village life. It’s fascinating yet delivered in such good humour that in a way it’s even more memorable than the birds.
Last stop, we pop out of the padi and into the grounds of Puri Dalem, one of Ubud’s myriad temples. A banyan tree is surrounded by glowering stone demons, but it is the overbearing statue of Shiva (the Destroyer) standing above the main stairs that really strikes me. Foot atop a skull, babe in hand, fury belching from mouth, Su says that Shiva can get very angry. She then segues into a story about a puppeteer in Sukawati (a town halfway to the coast) who, invoking black magic, brought a dead child back to life.
It’s a dour note to finish on, but illustrative of the volumes of knowledge Su imparts. From waterhens to witchcraft, she has a tale for every encounter however mundane and this walk is far from mundane. Yes, we saw some beautiful birds and lovely scenery but this was beyond just a walk in the wilds; we all walked away with something more than a few pretty pics and a case of sunburn (treat with baby palm leaves, unravelled and laid on affected area).
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