Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Fourth Quarterly Report: How to Sum Up a Watson?

Here is my fourth quarterly report from the Watson Fellowship. If you're into math, you might notice that means it is also my final quarterly report. How to sum up a Watson year? It's impossible, but here goes. Below, find the briefest description of my final three months, followed my take-aways from the year as a whole. To catch up, feel free to (re)visit my firstsecond and third quarterly reports here.
A sign in the Edmonton Airport, on my way to study changing pathogen ecology in the Canadian Arctic.

Fourth Quarterly Report

Date: September 1, 2018
Countries you were in: Indonesia, Malaysia, Scotland, England, Canada
Countries for next quarter: United States, Madagascar (!)
Current location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

Dear Watson Foundation,

Quviasupit? Are you happy? This was the question my friend and fellow scientist Mialisa Nuna asked me the other day as we walked down a dirt road in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. We were on our way to buy candy char, a smoked and sweetened treat of pink-fleshed fish.

“How do you say, ‘yes’?” I asked her. The sun was stooping toward the northern rim of the sky. But up here, 200 miles above the Arctic circle, it wouldn’t dip below the horizon all night.

Iiiii,” Mialisa replied, a slow, falling-off assent formed in the throat.

Iiiii,” I imitated poorly. She smiled and nodded. Good enough. I was happy.

My home at the High Arctic Research Center in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut during a midnight rain.

How else could I answer, after a year of exploring collaborative survival with microbes? Since I last wrote, I have dived among bombed coral reefs on Pom Pom Island, painted a nest-box for endangered hornbills in Malaysian Borneo, presented research on sand fleas and climate change at the Planetary Health Alliance Meeting in Edinburgh, glued backpacks onto hedgehogs on North Ronaldsay, interviewed the founder of the One Health MSc program at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and flown in a helicopter to follow snow geese across the Canadian Arctic. Already I sense memories slipping away: place names, faces, the order of things. The product, it turns out, is not an album of discrete pieces but a multidimensional picture of my world that continues to be sculpted.

Postcards collected from Malaysia, Indonesia, Scotland and Walla Walla. Written in Canada. Mailed to England, Malaysia, Seattle, Walla Walla, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Guam.

As I explored wildlife disease, I thought often of Aldo Leopold’s lament that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Leopold meant that a trained ecologist senses with painful clarity the damage humans inflict on ecosystems. But as I shifted my focus from macroscopic hosts to the microbes themselves, I came upon a somewhat hopeful truth: humans are not actually wounding the world. Rather, we are shifting power to the microbes. 

Consider, for a moment, the various pressures we exert on our planet, and notice how each one benefits microorganisms. Plastic pollution and oil spills: bacteria eat that. Stressed human bodies: an ideal home for pathogens. Endangered species in small populations: a more homogenous pool of immune systems with which to cope. Rapid environmental change: no problem when you evolve one million times faster than a human. Warming climate: faster replication. Overuse of antibiotics: an ideal situation for evolving resistance. I came to realize that we are not ruining our planet beyond capacity for life––we are simply heading for a microbial future. Microbes run our bodies and our planet; they are creative and intelligent; and if we wage a war against them, we are going to lose. Nobody wants to wage a losing war, so I set out this year to explore an alternative: not annihilation, but collaborative survival with microbes.

An ode to the Black Death of Edinburgh, Scotland---a microbial past.

A stuffed-microbe of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium behind 50 million deaths in medieval Europe.

I want to share four of the tools for collaborative survival to which I was introduced. First, to live well with microbes, we may need to place ourselves back into functioning ecosystems. This idea came to me during a tour of Dr. Renato Andreotti e Silva’s lab in the dusty cerrado of Brazil. Here, forest is rapidly being converted to pasture. Cattle ticks have become resistant to pesticides in the past decade, and the bacterial diseases they spread are costing the cattle industry billions of dollars. Dr. Andreotti researches alternatives to pesticides, principally vaccines, but we also discussed a fungus that attacks ticks, the restoration of habitat islands for tick-eating birds like cattle egrets, and a native forest canopy that would decrease livability for ticks. It dawned on me that organisms have been relying on food webs for their healthcare since life first evolved three-and-a-half billion years ago. After all, a pathogen of a pathogen is a friend. Modern healthcare, on the other hand, is a recent invention based on medicines that lose their usefulness after a few decades. It seems to me that inserting ourselves (and our cows) back into functioning, complex ecosystems will become an important component of healthcare in our future.

An Amblyomma tick through a microscope in Dr. Andreotti's lab in Campo Grande, Brazil.

Cattle art on the wall of Dr. Andreotti's home, depicting the local Nelore cattle.

In order to see creative solutions like the ones I discussed with Dr. Andreotti, we need to stop thinking of microbes as invisible agents of badness and start respecting them as interesting, capable organisms. That brings us to our second tool: noticing microbes with curiosity. One of my favorite writers, Anna Tsing, writes that a smelly brown mushroom called matsutake “can catapult us into the curiosity that seems to me the first requirement of collaborative survival in precarious times.” I find that microbes serve the same purpose. In Bali, I met a man named Nyoman Sugiarta who quit his job as a tourism hotel operator ten years ago for the life of a volunteer coral conservationist. When I asked what had caused this drastic change, Nyoman cited the day he learned that coral is not an inert rock, as his parents’ generation had assumed, but a living thing. It is a microbial monster composed of gelatinous, tentacular animals harboring verdant, single-celled algae within their translucent skin, under attack by an invasion of whip-tailed Vibrio bacteria. This epic entanglement is invisible to the incurious eye, but to Nyoman, it became the cause of a lifetime. “Once I knew all that,” Nyoman told me, “I couldn’t let the corals die. There’s so much left to learn!” My conversation with Nyoman was but one example of how powerful a force curiosity can be, allowing us to discover previously unimagined opportunities for collaborative survival with unrecognizable forms of life.

Diving to clean algae off a coral nursery near Pom Pom Island, Malaysia.

"Explore beyond what is visible or known." I found this perfect journal in the Edmonton Airport as I headed home on the very last day of my Watson year. I think that swirly design must be a single-celled organism---don't you?

Curiosity on its own, however, is not enough. I met many people who were unable to pursue their curiosity because they were hindered by poverty. The third tool is nothing new, but it’s critical: if we are going to live well with microbes, we must do something serious to reduce economic inequality. One of the most bruising stories comes from Josia Binamandraisoa, a woman I met in the outskirts of a Malagasy rainforest, and 67 of her neighbors who told me of their experiences with a skin parasite called the sand flea. Everyone with whom I spoke had been affected by the itchy pain of these fleas burrowing into their feet, and sand-flea season is expanding due to climate change. The nauseating reality is that this disease is preventable by simple measures—floors and shoes—yet these items remain unaffordable luxuries to workers in much of Madagascar, where the average daily income is only 70 cents. Instead, parents resort to spreading kerosene and insecticide over their children’s feet to prevent sand fleas from biting. This cheaper remedy is not an agent of collaborative survival, but a toxic weapon that damages both microbial and human life. The solution is obvious, but until a full-time job earns enough money to purchase shoes and a floor—the living wage it deserves—we will not have the resources to live well among microbes.

A sand flea embedded in a farmer's toe near Ranomafana, Madagascar.

At times, the suffering and intractability of poverty and neglected diseases got me down, especially because solutions to poverty often appear at odds with attempts to conserve our first tool, functioning ecosystems. Then, I came across the fourth tool: Planetary Health, an embryonic movement that seeks win-win solutions for ecosystems and human health. I was introduced to this concept by Etty Rahamawati and the rest of the amazing staff at the Alam Sehat Lestari hospital on Indonesian Borneo. In this region, illegal logging to pay for healthcare is a major source of deforestation contributing to the decline of endangered orangutans. To address this primate’s impending extinction, Alam Sehat Lestari was founded to provide high-quality healthcare for non-cash payments, including native seedlings. The hospital also buys-back chainsaws and offers microloans to help loggers shift to alternative livelihoods. Since its inception ten years ago, 25,000 hectares of secondary forest have grown back, and microbial diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea have decreased substantially. This is Planetary Health, the recognition that human and environmental health are deeply entangled, and any solution aimed at improving one will find greater success if it integrates both.

To support community health, Alam Sehat Lestari provides goats and training to widows in the community of Sukadana, Indonesia. Here, Ibu Hafsah and Ibu Setiawati check for pregnancy.

Ibu Hafsah's goat house against a backdrop of rice paddy and tropical rainforest.

At the Returning Fellows’ Conference in California, I presented these ideas to my 36 fellow Watsons and watched their presentations in turn. Each of us took a different approach to the year: focusing on one corner of a continent or circling the equator; navigating megacities or settling in rural communities; offering a listening ear to people in pain or celebrating self through glitter; probing a trauma from the personal past or launching into the unknown of strange lifeforms. As I felt inspired by each project, I also critiqued my own, and I realized that although gender and race are woven into the fabric of collaborative survival with microbes, I did not go to the same lengths as some of the other fellows to draw out these threads. As I return to my project sites in Madagascar and Borneo this year, I will challenge myself to be more educated, compassionate and willing to feel discomfort as I listen to another person’s truth. What I am helping and hurting with my presence? What problems and solutions have I overlooked because of my own privileges?

My sketch-notes of three talks from the Watson Returning Fellows Conference. 

My fellow Watson Fellows.

A month ago, the village next to Centre ValBio in Madagascar was ransacked by armed bandits called dahalo. Between eight and 20 bandits robbed five homes and multiple stores in Ambatolahy, stealing $1,100 and murdering Jean François Xavier Razafindraibe, a biodiversity guide with Centre ValBio. Western tourism and research have resulted in employment and, just last year, electricity for the village––a step toward living well with microbes––but they have also put Ambatolahy on the map for bandits. I am reminded that when I enter another’s home, even well-meaning actions can have unintended consequences. I don’t think the solution to banditry and violence is to remove myself from international research, but I do feel a renewed sense of caution when engaging with affairs that are only partly my own. When I return to the lemurs and viruses of Madagascar in October, I will do so with the light step and attentive ear of a guest.

Here I am making brownies for a dinner party outside the house of my friend and guide, Menja Raboavola, near Ranomafana, Madagascar.

At the beginning of my Watson journey a year ago, I sat in a patch of Brazilian sun, struggling to translate my day’s interviews with cattle ranchers, when my host Lygia Freitas sat down beside me. “Aqui é aroeira pica-pau,” she told me, squeezing my shoulders with her arm. Aroeira is a hard-timbered tree, the kind a persistent woodpecker might spend hours hammering only to dent. The phrase means, “Here is an aroeria woodpecker,” here is someone who doesn’t give up. At the Watson conference, I met people who struggled to cope, who dismantled and reassembled their itineraries, who overcame crises, who revised their dreams, who care deeply. I am humbled, inspired and challenged by all of you, my new family of aroeira woodpeckers.

A crimson-crested woodpecker explores Quinta do Sol in Brazil, my first home on the Watson.

To everyone: obrigada, misaotra, suksma, terima kasih, nakuukmik, quana, thank you.


Thursday, August 9, 2018

Watercolor the Earth

"A Watson Fellow is someone who knows Plan B is better than Plan A."

This definition of a Watson Fellow was one of many offered to me this year. I had envisioned spending my final quarter in the far northern reaches of the Russian Arctic, visiting the lands of the caribou-herding Nenets people, touching the melting permafrost and asking questions about reemergence of anthrax. That plan caved in when Russia fell onto the US State Department's do-not-travel list, meaning I was no longer allowed to visit.

Plan B brought me to the historic castle-town of Edinburgh, Scotland. Of course I visited Tom Riddle's gravestone and the bookstore that inspired Flourish and Blotts (shout out to Evy Haroldson and Hermione fans everywhere). But my real reason for being here was the Planetary Health Alliance Second Annual Meeting.

A casual castle on the Edinburgh streets.

Tom Riddle's gravestone. J. K. Rowling wrote much of the Harry Potter books here in Edinburgh. She must have found inspiration for naming her characters on foggy strolls through the headstones of Greyfriar's Kirk.

So glad to be here as Plan B!

The Planetary Health Alliance is a consortium of nearly 100 universities, NGOs, research groups and government entities. Founded in 2015, it's funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and housed at Harvard University. All that might sound inaccessible, but the concept of Planetary Health is common sense: we cannot separate the health of our land from that of our bodies.

Here's an infographic from the the Lancet that does an incredible job summarizing Planetary Health. Click here for a larger image.

I don't know about you, but when I get to the bottom of an infographic like that, I'm feeling amped and ready to commit my life to this cause!

Unlike most biology conferences I've attended, the Planetary Health Alliance conference was held as a plenary, meaning that everyone attended every talk. The auditorium was old, but it wasn't any old auditorium -- picture an expansive dome, vaulted ceilings covered with murals, and seats that Charles Darwin himself occupied when he studied medicine right here at the University of Edinburgh.

The University of Edinburgh auditorium where Charles Darwin began (and flunked out of) medical school.

As part of the #scicomm and #sciart movements, I sketch-noted all the talks with ink and watercolor. Here they are for you to enjoy. I can never capture the entirety of a talk in these notes, so if you're curious to know more about anything, please comment. I hope you get a taste of the week's energy, motion, and commitment to staying with the trouble.


P.S. Click on a photo to make it bigger!

Welcome, Keynote Address, Panel

Welcome, Keynote Address, Panel

Welcome, Keynote Address, Panel

Session I: Food, Nutrition and Environmental Change

Session I: Food, Nutrition and Environmental Change

Session II: Mental Health and Noncommunicable Disease Impacts of Environmental Change

Session II: Mental Health and Noncommunicable Disease Impacts of Environmental Change

Session III: Infectious Disease, Animals, Agriculture and Environmental Change

Session III: Infectious Disease, Animals, Agriculture and Environmental Change

Session III: Infectious Disease, Animals, Agriculture and Environmental Change

Session IV: Solution Space — Faith Traditions, Indigenous Voices and the Arts: Rethinking our Place in the World

Session V: Lightning Sessions on New Ideas in Planetary Health

Session V (continued) and Solution Space: Creating and Collaborating
Session VI: Solution Space: Governance and Policy Solutions

Session VI: Solution Space: Governance and Policy Solutions

Day 3 Opening Session

Session VII: Economic and Business Solutions to Planetary Health Problems

Session VIII: Blue Planetary Health

Day 4 Side Session: Inga Foundation with Mike Hands

Day 4 Side Session: Inga Foundation with Mike Hands

Day 4 Side Session: Activism with Courtney Howard and Pitching with Jonathan Jennings

Day 4 Side Session: Radical Listening with Etty Rahmawati and Unmask My City with Jennifer Miller.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Burung Burung: Choose Your Own Tunes to the Birds of Borneo

Welcome to the burung burung, the birds of Malaysia and Indonesia! Handily, the word for "bird" is burung in both Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. To make a noun plural, just say it twice.

Since birding is all about the audio, I wanted to give you guys a few options. Click on a link below for background music while you scroll through the photos:

c) I actually want to read the captions (no link, just read along in silence, that's cool)

This post covers Borneo (both Malaysian and Indonesian), Peninsular Malaysia, and the smaller islands of Pom Pom, Perhentian Kecil and Penang. For Lombok, see Birdwatching on Lombok: Tracing Wallace's Path. If you want more details including a map, date, scientific name and nearby sightings for each photo, check out my iNaturalist page.

Thanks to Lisa and Ari for the tunes, and to the anonymous kindness of iNaturalists for many of the identifications. Enjoy!

Perhentian Kecil

Nation: Indonesia
State: Terengganu
Island: Perhentian Kecil, off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia

Collin and I spent time on this small island to scuba dive with healthy corals and get our first taste of Malaysian food. A few birds made themselves known, too.

And our first bird is... a mystery! Some kind of Old World flycatcher, family Muscicapidae, probably a migrant.

The underbelly view. Can any ID this bird?

Pacific reef heron, our fishing bird.

Asian glossy starling. That evil red eye though!

Pulau Penang

Nation: Malaysia
State: Penang
Island: Pulau Penang, off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia
City: Georgetown

Better known for magnificent street food, Penang didn't disappoint for nature. Collin and I slogged up Penang Hill and, for some reason, took another strenuous walk the next day through Taman Negara Pulau Pinang (Penang Island National Park). Birds earned with buckets of sweat.

Either a Malaysian or a Hodgson's hawk-cuckoo.

Yellow-vented bulbul with beak to the sky. Such a fabulous pose for this most ordinary of birds.

Greater racket-tailed drongo. That twisted black feather hanging below the bird is part of the tail!

White-throated kingfisher. A pair hopped across the slanted palm trunks at dusk.

Olive-winged bulbul. I didn't know I'd seen this species til I was writing the blog post. Sometimes I snap a photo of a drab bird and lose track for months. Always fun to discover Asian lifers from a couch in Los Angeles.

A white-bellied sea eagle carrying a fish!

Click on the photo for a magnified view of the fish in the talons.

Dark-necked tailorbird. This bird gets its name from the way it sews its nest using plant fibers or spiderwebs as thread.

Spotted dove. A typical park bird with a popping collar.

Kuala Lumpur

Nation: Malaysia
State: Selangor
Island: the continent of Asia
City: Kuala Lumpur

One of the birdiest sites of all was, curiously, an urban park known as Perdana Botanical Gardens. Amid a bustling city of millions, this green space was almost deserted, save for the savvy birds who don't mind the din of bus traffic.

Oriental magpie-robin. This bird gave me the perfect pose, in the dappled shade of a mossy branch.

Feral pigeon. "You know me!"

Blue-throated bee-eater. "Yes, I eat bees!"

Blue-tailed bee-eater. I was ecstatic to photograph two different species of bee-eater, one just down the path from the other. It's hard to tell them apart from far away, but once I looked at the pictures, I could tell that one had a bright blue cheek and the other did not. (Check it out -- you can tell, too!)

Common myna, also known as Indian myna. This is the bird I've met everywhere from South Florida to Madagascar, Malaysia to Indonesia, but never in its home of South Asia. This one's have a particular kind of hair day.

Javan myna. Oddly similar to the common myna, but a black Elvis-style hair swirl instead of a naked yellow face mask.

Zebra dove. A head-bobbing park favorite.

Black-bellied malkoha. I'd never heard of this kind of bird before! The name comes from the Sinhala word, mal-koha, meaning "flower cuckoo." Indeed, they are large members of the cuckoo family. And in case you're wondering, Sinhala is the language of the Sinhalese people, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka.

House crow. A charmingly smart bird with a grey cape.

Tanjung Tuan

Nation: Malaysia
State: Melaka
Island: the continent of Asia
City: Port Dickson
Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve

The day after Collin left Malaysia, I met a new wonder-friend, EeLynn Wong. She took me to the Malaysian Nature Society's annual Raptor Watch festival, where I met enthusiastic young environmentalists, learned ten ways to reduce my plastic use, and supported this grassroots effort to prove the value of nature to the local governments and businesses.

White-rumped shama. This bird, native to Southeast Asia, may be familiar to visitors of Hawaii, where it was introduced intentionally in 1931 as part of an effort to "supplement the native fauna." The things we do for fun.

Dozens of Oriental honey-buzzards swirl on thermals during Raptor Watch. They migrate  through this little forested peninsula every year because it's their first landfall after a long flight across the Strait of Malacca from the island of Sumatra. This Strait has been an important geopolitical waterway for thousands of years, but it might have been exhausting buzzards for hundreds of thousands!

An Oriental honey buzzard close up.

Crested goshawk. Note the accipiter shape, curved trailing edge to wing, dark banded tail, and dark wing tips. Thanks to @johnhowes from iNaturalist for the ID.

The Malaysian Nature Society has been fighting to protect this forest reserve from development for decades. In a successful attempt to prove the economic importance of nature, they've grown the annual Raptor Watch festival into an international tourist attraction, filling up hotels for miles around and funneling customers to local businesses.

Large-tailed nightjar. SUCH A WEIRD BIRD. It sleeps on the ground all day, relying on its leaf-like camouflage for protection. This mama was incubating one creamy-white, brown-splotched egg.

Tasik Kenyir

Nation: Malaysia
State: Terengganu
Island: the continent of Asia
Lake: Tasik Kenyir

Tasik Kenyir may look like a pristine lake, but it's actually a sprawling dam reservoir used to produce electricity. A bit late in the game, I begged my way onto a Malaysian Nature Society trip to visit this lake with a dozen young Malaysian families and a few retirees. We splashed through waterfalls, encouraged a river of fish to nibble our toes, and ate sunset dinners aboard our houseboat, all while keeping an eye out for birds of course.

A brown raptor. That's all I got.

A crow. Maybe another house crow, but maybe a large-billed crow?

I spent three days living in a klotok, that blue houseboat, with families from the Malaysian Nature Society.

My sleeping nook on the klotok deck.

Fraser's Hill

Nation: Malaysia
State: Pahang
Island: the continent of Asia
Town: Bukit Fraser (Fraser's Hill)

My wonderful high-school friend, Nithya Menon, hopped over from her solar energy company in Cambodia for a weekend visit while I was living in Kuala Lumpur. She hadn't seen a forest in too long, so we took a combination of trains and cars to the historical site of Bukit Fraser, or Fraser's Hill, a Scottish tin-ore trading post from the 1890s. Today the site retains some colonial roots, but the most striking feature was its high-elevation vegetation. Moss-laden pines juxtaposed tree ferns, and the constant blanket of mist gave a prehistoric feel.

Either a Malaysian or a Hodgson's hawk-cuckoo.

Rufous-browed flycatcher. My non-birding (but wholly spectacular) friend Nithya and I were climbing a road through morning fog when we came upon a semi-circle of intent birders, wearing camo and aiming their telephoto lenses at a mossy branch. Being a sheeple, I pulled out my camera and pointed it at the same spot. That's how I found their elusive target flycatcher!

A cuckoo of some kind?

Chestnut-capped laughingthrush. I love this bird's style and its apt name.

Verditer flycatcher. A queen of the cool Malaysian hill pines and tree ferns.


Nation: Indonesia
State: Kalimantan Barat (West Kalimantan)
Island: Borneo
Town: Sukadana

The town on Indonesian Borneo where I lived for a month, volunteering for the path-breaking Planetary Health hospital, Alam Sehat Lestari. Out of all that time, only one bird photo worth sharing! We did see more birds, I promise, but our focus was more on the watching than on the recording.

White-chested babbler. A little brown job flitting across the floor of the mangrove forest.

Alam Sehat Lestari doctor, Alvi Muldani, takes a look through the mangroves with binoculars.

Bella Jovita, a visiting medical student and my housemate, offers advice on how to take the best photos for Instagram.

Tanjung Puting

Nation: Indonesia
State: Kalimantan Tengah (Central Kalimantan)
Island:  Borneo
Tanjung Puting National Park

Everyone at Alam Sehat Lestari told me, "You absolutely MUST visit Tanjung Puting!" It's a national park in the south-central region of Kalimantan where wild orangutans still thrive. The park is famous for its population of rehabilitated and released orangutans, some of which can be seen easily when they visit viewing platforms for daily feedings. Between 1971 and 1995, around 200 wild-born orangutans, rescued from poachers or pet-owners, were released here. That may not sound like a lot, but for an endangered great ape, it makes a difference. Perhaps more importantly, this reserve allows Indonesian police to enforce existing laws against trade of orangutans. (Previously, with nowhere to put confiscated orangutans, the authorities were very limited in their ability to take action.) Yes, I got lots of orangutan photos, but today is for the birds!

Black hornbill. This hefty fowl is a major distributor of durian, giving it the Malay name of durian burung, or "durian bird."

Oriental pied hornbill. One of the smaller hornbills, and definitely the most common, but I was still thrilled every time I saw it streaking stiff-winged above the river like a modern pterodactyl.

Sooty-headed bulbul. Like the more abundant yellow-vented bulbul, but with a solid black hat.

Swiftlet houses. A booming fad in Borneo, these multiple-story, wood-and-concrete dormitories are used to farm wild swiftlets. Why? Because these birds build nests out of their own saliva, thereby creating an expensive ingredient in Chinese bird's-nest soup. Wild populations, which build their nests in caves, have been over-harvested, paving the way for the swiftlet farming industry. (I later met a conservationist group called Hutan that guards the remaining wild caves day and night to prevent poaching.)

Edible-nest swiftlets. Yes, that's their real name! They're also known as white-nest swiftlets, or burung walit in Bahasa Indonesia.

In a strange nexus of bird, art, and capitalist entrepreneurship, these swiftlet houses became a varied display of trompe-l'oeil architecture. (Sometimes the windows and balconies were painted on; other times they were constructed but fake.)

Pom Pom Island

Nation: Malaysia
State: Sabah
Island: Pom Pom, off the north coast of Borneo

I lived on this small, reef-fringed island for two weeks as a volunteer with the Tropical Research and Conservation Center (TRACC). My main purpose here was to meet corals, but I met a few feathered friends as well.

Malaysian pied fantail. This bird hopped around our camp's trash pile, investigating cardboard and aluminum. It boldly attacked anything black-and-white, from a woman wearing a certain T-shirt to the fat, furry cat that hung around. I wonder if it thought these black-and-white intruders were competing males?

Not a bird, but my favorite friend in the garbage pile! This is a purple hermit crab, Coenobita brevimanus, previously misidentified as a coconut crab. It can weigh up to 0.5 pounds. This one is living in a soup can, probably because all the large snail shells in the area were collected as souvenirs to sell to tourists.

Eurasian tree sparrow. (Yeah, a flat-sand island of only 2.3 kilometers circumference doesn't have a lot to offer in terms of bird life.)


Nation: Malaysia
State: Sabah
Island: Borneo
River: Kinabatangan
Town: Sukau

I was invited to visit Sukau, my final stop in Malaysia, through a connection I made on the Malaysian Nature Society Facebook page. Ravinder Kaur, a PhD student at Universiti Malaya, is already an award-winning hornbill conservationist. Her coworker, Helson Hasaan, graciously hosted me for a week of hornbill research on the Kinabatangan River with his nonprofit, Hutan, which means "forest" in Malay. In one of those strange coincidences, Hutan turned out to be a conservation partner of the Woodland Park Zoo, located a mile from my childhood house. While our foci were the hornbills, I sighted many smaller birds as well.

Helson, a dedicated hornbill conservationist who let me tag along on all his science for a week.

Plain-throated sunbird. Imagine a glossy blue back.

Pacific swallow. Standing on a snag in the river.

White-bellied sea eagle. Pretending, quite convincingly, to be a bald eagle.

Who dat?

Crested serpent eagle. Don't you wish your eye matched your face like this?

Gray-headed fish-eagle. Unlike the other raptors perched high in the canopies of emergent trees, this shy bird took off when our boat approached.

Wallace's hawk eagle. Yes, named after that Wallace (but not discovered by him.)

Either a lesser fish-eagle or a gray-headed fish-eagle, of the genus Haliaeetus. But which? No clue.

Purple heron. A stripey, colorful version of Seattle's familiar great blue herons.

Great egret. The same kind you can find, well, pretty much everywhere.

Dollarbird. These massive-mouthed insect-vacuums emerged at dusk over the river.

A flock of lesser adjutants roosting in a riverside snag. These storks stand over three-and-a-half feet tall!

Rufous-tailed tailorbird. My homestay cultivated a small family-farm of oil palms in the backyard. While industrial palm oil is the bane of Bornean biodiversity, I was excited for the chance to see what birds visited an oil palm plantation. I took this photo out my bedroom window.

I don't know what this is, but he liked the oil palms too.

Black-naped monarch. The light blue chest was more impressive in person.

Green imperial-pigeon. You can't see much color in this photo, but I can certainly relate to wearing green plumage every day.

Greater coucal. I watched this bird shuffle from branch to branch, looking rumpled as ever.

Nest of a black-and-red broadbill. Snags and sticks poking out of the river, like this one, were often draped with these woven creations. Safety in exposure!

The crowning sightings of my time in Borneo were the hornbills, but I'll save those for a post unto themselves. Until then, I leave you with this, the Kinabatangan River at sunset.