Victor Mason, clad in an open floral shirt, hands me a list of the names of 53 birds that I might spot on our ramble through Ubud’s patchwork of paddies this morning.
“Yes, you can tick them off, if you like! Twitchers, we call them, the ones who like to tick.” Victor speaks in the sort of British accent you usually only see on TV.
Five other birdwatching enthusiasts are heading out with us, along with Victor’s eagle-eyed sidekick Sumadi. The loquacious pair have been running these walks since 1993.
“Shall we?” Victor asks. Someone mentions Victor’s lack of shoes. I had been worried that my flipflops might not be sufficiently hardy for today’s hike, but Victor, a resident of Bali for some 40 years, is still not wearing any at all.
“Oh! I never wear shoes. Except when one must – hospitals, for instance, or airports, that sort of thing. Is that alright?”
Binoculars swinging round our necks, we stroll down Ubud’s main street over that old rusting Campuhan bridge, stopping every few metres to exclaim over a bird, butterfly, or indeed plant. I’m reminded of how I learned during snorkelling that you don’t really need to move very far at all to see a lot. Be perceptive and you’ll see a lot – especially when you’re with Victor or Sumadi, who can’t help but regale you with fascinating facts, stories and colourful opinion.
Victor mentions that the bird we’re really after today is the magnificent Javan kingfisher – and once we’ve seen that, he jokes, we may as well head home.
At last, we are off the main road. Rounding a bend, paddy stretches before us. Sumadi gives a little cry.
“What do you have, Sumadi?” calls Victor.
It is, of course, a Javan kingfisher (um, that would be number 20 on my list), its blue feathers shimmering in the mid-morning light, sitting preternaturally still on a bamboo pole in the far distance. We need our binoculars to see it. None of us have any idea how Sumadi might have managed to spot it.
“Ah one suspects she’s been out with her glue pot again!” Victor mutters. “Fantastic!”
It is, even to my untrained eye, a gorgeous bird, but there’s plenty more to come.
In fairly quick succession we see a white-bellied swiflet (number 17), a scaly breasted munia (45), and an olive-backed sunbird (41).
“Co-op-er-a-tion, please!” Sumadi rallies us back into a tight group if we’ve spread too thin and she’s spotted something worthy – it could be a nest, or some eggs.
“Look, if she can’t see it, there’s no point any of us trying to have a look,” Victor confides at one point.
The paddy paths we are following, for the most part, are little thoroughfares for villagers, tourists and even cyclists.
“I say chaps! Lovely hats you’re wearing!” Victor calls out to the half-dozen Indonesian cyclists who scoot past on their own little adventure.
What’s amazing to me is that in such a completely agricultural and reasonably bustling area so many beautiful birds, butterflies and wild plants can still be seen. You just need to know what you’re looking for – or you just need to look.
We stroll down what Victor calls “Butterfly Pass” and indeed, it’s alive with flitting yellows, oranges, browns and blues. Sumadi adroitly captures the insects, noting that she is not crushing their abdomens so they will be quite alright once she lets them fly off.
Plenty of dragonflies also dart around, but Sumadi says she’s still in the process of learning about them.
“I don’t know their species yet. Nature’s got a lot to teach and one year is nothing. Every day, I learn just a little bit,” she says.
We pass wild yellow orchids growing on the edge of one paddy – Sumadi says she’s tried to grow them at home, but with no luck. Victor points out a paddy that is old-style Bali rice, a green slightly paler than the vibrant ones we’ve otherwise seen. Then we reach an open vista stretching down into a deep gully and back up again on the other side.
“There’s Bali, in a nutshell!” Victor explains that right where we stand is wetlands, where rice is cultivated, a little further below is plantation – coconuts, bananas – and further down still, maybe 30 metres below us, stretches old growth forest, harbouring amazing birds, monkeys and other wildlife.
We stop for a drink of young coconut before traipsing down into the “jungle” – Victor says he’s being slightly facetious when he calls it that — but it is a different sort of flora. A vertiginous drop is shielded only by enough foliage to make you think you could keep walking straight over it.
Four hours after our initial departure we are ejected back onto Ubud’s main road, metres away from where we started. As Victor might say: “It was marvellous!”
See http://www.balibirdwalk.com/ for further information about Victor and Sumadi’s walks.