Ashwini Ramesh shares notes from her interactions and learning from physicist-cum-naturalist Ramana Athreya, credited with the discovery of a rare and critically endangered bird.
“..and this is Planet Earth” echoed David Attenborough. I sat transfixed as I watched the beautiful male bird-of-paradise perform its mating dance ritual. In my eighteen years of education, I had never been exposed to ecology – not like this.
In India, Ecology was conflated with Environmental Sciences. Specifically, ‘ecology’ was the last four chapters of the Biology textbook that was assigned for self-study. In a quest to learn about the intricacies of nature albeit virtually, I resolved to attend every screenings of Planet Earth in the first semester of my undergraduate program. Or should I say, I attempted to attend every screening, contingent to any time I got off writing my lab record for my Physics 101 Laboratory Course.
The faculty lead for the class, Dr. Ramana Athreya, was known for his rigorous training and meticulous approach. This meant we spent hours poring over calculations of error propagation in an axial magnetic field of a circular coil. So, I was surprised to learn that Dr. Athreya, specializing in astrophysics, was winning accolades…for discovering a new bird species in the Eastern Himalayas. The bird species, Bugun liocichla, I would later learn is one of the rarest of its kind and currently enlisted as a critically endangered species by IUCN.
Bugun liocichla © James Eaton
Athreya was an “accidental ecologist” but he is a deliberate naturalist. More accurately, he was an ecologist by day and an astrophysicist by night. Regardless of subject, he emphasized on an innovative but thorough and exhaustive approach to science; quick to lighten a dull moment with his wit and infectious laughter. In addition to running a lab dominated by physics graduate students, Athreya had established field sites at the place where the bird was discovered – now designated as the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. Here, the ecology team was asking a variety of questions in basic ecology aimed towards biodiversity conservation.
Dr. Ramana Athreya
Determined to be part of this squad in the summer of my first year, I meticulously planned to “casually” drop by Athreya’s office 6 months ahead of the field season to ask him how I could apply to be an undergraduate field assistant that year. I was nervous and excited about the meeting. I reviewed my rudimentary knowledge on ecology prior to the meeting, as Athreya had gained quite a reputation for his tough but fair vivas during the Physics laboratory exams. To my pleasant surprise, he was welcoming and appreciative of my enthusiasm. At the end of the meeting he handed me a field book and we confirmed that I would be doing a field survey on the diversity of moths at Eaglenest Sanctuary.
“Moths?!” my family asked me with reluctance and stifled enthusiasm. Why was I travelling 3500 kilometers from my hometown, Bengaluru, to spend time studying boring, beige wannabe-butterflies? My fieldwork would prove that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Moon Moth
Each night, my teammate Vishnu and I, under the guidance of Dr. Mansi Mungee (a PhD student then) would set-up moth screens lit with UV lamps to study moth biodiversity across an elevational gradient. On peak nights, nearly 1000-2000 individuals would flock to the screen that we would photograph and collect selectively. Next day morning would be spent measuring its morphological traits and mounting specimens. Little did I know when I stood in awe of the diversity on moths as they huddled on the UV screen, that my curiosity would eventually lead me to pursue a career in unpacking fascinating questions in ecology.
The Atlas Moth
One morning I stood on the tallest hill at Eaglenest Sanctuary and refused to come back to camp till dusk. Bayung, our wonderful field assistant, approached me with great concern to ask if everything was alright.
“Bayung, mujhejungleehaathidekhnahai” I said stubbornly. (“Bayung, I want to see the wild elephants”)
“Junglee Haathi?!” cried Bayung. (“You want to see wild elephants?!”)
Wild elephants were known to occasionally be seen in nearby forest areas and raise panic among humans. So deliberately seeking out to spot wild elephants wasn’t particularly well, conventional. I told him that Gore had informed me earlier that morning that he had heard wild elephants rustling among the forest trees, and I for one wouldn’t leave without seeing it.
“Tum saare scientist log sab pagal ho! Tu haathidekhnachahtahai, our wahaan foreign log ikeeshazardetehaiBugunchidiyadekhnekeliye,” fretted Bayung. (All you scientists are mental! You say you want to see a wild elephant, and then there are foreigners who spend Rs.21000 just to come and see the bird..the Bugun liocichla).
I laughed and asked him to expand on the latter story. Athreya first spotted the Bugun liocichla in 1995 during one of his birding trips in Arunachal Pradesh. He noted the unusual features of the bird – its song and the multi-coloration. It was unlike anything he had seen before. The official recognition and documentation would happen in 2005, when Athreya returned in search of this tropical beauty. The Bugun liocichla is characterized by its unique call, a fluty note with distinctive terminal inflections. These birds have a black forehead and trademark olive-green toned body with flaming-red tip at the tail end. These features along with several others distinguished it from its other close relatives in the area including L. omeiensis and L. phoenicea.
Athreya, formally described the species as Liocichla bugunorum, where Liocichla is the genus name and bugunorum after the Bugun tribe in whose community forests the species was discovered. No bird specimen was deposited as is the protocol when describing new species, given its scarcity. Then, it was also the first bird species to be described in India in more than 50 years!
As the word about discovery and rarity of the Bugun liocichla spread, ornithologists across the world flocked to see it. One such checklist ornithologist+ from across the world spent 7 days at Eaglenest trying to get a glimpse of this aerial beauty. Since the activity of the Bugun liocichla peaked at dawn and dusk; the ornithologist ventured out only twice each day in quest of the bird until he spotted it on Day 7 when he bid adieu. Bayung couldn’t fathom why the ornithologist would spend Rs. 3000 per day for this purpose and hence claimed us scientists to be eccentric. We sat on the hill waiting (unsuccessfully) for wild elephants, trying to reflect upon but unable to fully appreciate the significance of this bird sighting.
As an eighteen-year-old, I was enamored by the discovery of the Bugun liocichla and the spotlight it received. Only as I’ve grown older, have I realized the enormous and lasting impact of this discovery. Athreya and many others who have since continued to work in the region have made tremendous efforts to create revenue for the local communities via bird tourism and related jobs. In recognition of the Bugun tribes’ efforts in conservation, the Government of India has declared the forest area adjacent to the Eaglenest Sanctuary as a Community Reserve, receiving the same legal protection as National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in India.
On the research front, it has presented an avenue to address fundamental questions in ecology, while continuing to highlight conservation efforts in the region. The efforts have enabled the study of an array of wildlife in this biodiversity hotspot including spiders, ants, reptiles, and many more. The year following my fieldwork, I spent hours analyzing moth allometry and learning about moth aerodynamics; a project that was conceived during a fun discussion about bird flights and how that related to moths!
In many a way, the discovery of the Bugun liocichla, shaped paths of many young ecologists like me to contribute to furthering these efforts, in our own ways. I was no longer just watching Planet Earth – I was living it.
+ Ornithologists, or avid birders often subscribe to a bird-checklist with a mission of spotting as many birds as possible during their lifetime.
Moth screens (20 x12 inches) illuminated by white lights and UV light bulbs were used to attract moths. Photographs of the grids with selective sampling was performed between 7 – 10 PM each night and across eight elevations over the season.
L to R: Bayung; Right: undergraduate field researchers from IISER-Pune with field assistants Gore and Vijay (top right)
 Athreya, R. (2006). A new species of Liocichla (Aves: Timaliidae) from Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Indian Birds, 2(4), 82-94.
About the author: Ashwini Ramesh (Ecologist) The author is a PhD student at Indiana University Bloomington, studying infectious disease ecology. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing post-cards, and listening to Coltraneera jazz. She occasionally tries to be a better millennial by lurking on her social media Twitter handle @_ashwiniramesh.