A little aquatic bird without name has piqued the A. MUSTAFFA BABJEE, so he has turned two years of and recording into a documentary for nature lovers.

WHAT partly inspired me to devote two years of study on a little aquatic bird was that it had no Malay name.

My journey took me to villages close to habitats where wild aquatic birds could be found and I learnt from the villagers the local name of this bird — Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis).

The majority of the villagers said it is the chick, or young one of the “Belibis” or Whistling Teal (Dendrocynia javanica).

The rest said they have not seen or noticed the Little Grebe. One of the reasons that they thought the Grebe is the progeny of the Belibis is because these two totally unrelated species share the same habitat and the Little Grebe (25cm) is almost half the size of the Belibis (41cm).

The other reason is probably due to my theory that the Grebe is a recent introduction to peninsular Malaysia, migrating from Bengal east and southwards in the early 20th century. Abandoned tin mines exposed to the forces of nature became suitable habitats to attract the Little Grebe and a number of other species.

The Grebes, as a group, are very unique as they have no close relatives that share their characteristics. The ancestors of the Grebes diverged from the main stream of bird evolution at least more than 55 million years ago.

At a distance, the Little Grebe appears like a little duck but on closer examination, it has a pointed bill, is almost tailless and does not have webbed feet like ducks.

Each toe has an independent leaf-like paddle.

The Little Grebe is mostly seen singly or in pairs in former mining pools, especially in the Klang Valley, Paya Indah Wetlands and Batang Berjuntai in Selangor, Malim Nawar and Kinta Valley in Perak and also in shallow artificial lakes like Timah Tasoh in Perlis. It has not been seen east of the central range of the peninsula or in Sabah and Sarawak.

This little aquatic bird is an excellent swimmer and diver. In fact, it dives some 600 to 1,000 times a day in search of food or plant materials for nest-building. It feeds mainly on aquatic insects and larvae, fish and frogs.

The relationships of mature pairs are exemplary as they share all the chores of house-keeping and parental care of the young till they fledge. Sex equality was there 55 million years ago.

I have proposed a Malay name for this bird — “Taktik” — which is an abbreviation of bukan itik (not a duck).

And because their life-cycle is so interesting, my colleague Dr Yusoff Noor, my son Shamyl and yours truly have made a 30-minute documentary of this bird entitled “The Little Diver”, which we hope will be shown on TV one day.

Two years of observation and recording compressed into 30 minutes should be exciting for nature lovers.

Back to the wildlife IN the 1990s, Dr A. Mustaffa Babjee contributed articles on fauna and flora with photo illustrations to the Environment column of the New Straits Times Group. His hiatus from writing is not because he had abandoned his pursuit and passion for nature conservation. On the contrary, he is even more active studying and recording our depleting wildlife on digital video to produce a series of documentaries on the country’s rich biodiversity. Having scaled down his corporate activities, he has more time now to devote to his serious hobby of nature watching.

“At the moment, I am recording the free living wildlife in their natural habitats or man-made ones that have become habitats by primary succession, viz former mining pools, abandoned fish ponds.

“At the rate natural habitats are being destroyed, I fear it would become more and more difficult to encounter wildlife that may appear relatively common today.

“In today’s world, the audio-visual media has the greatest impact on the masses, especially through the TV and the Internet. My documentary will be natural with minimum special effects and unnatural sounds,” says Mustaffa.

With his friend Dr Yusoff Noor, another nature lover, they roam the rural and wild places in Malaysia — wetlands, rivers, hills and islands — to watch and record the fascinating lives of wild birds, insects, plants and animals.

“If you don’t have the patience and the passion, it would be quite impossible to document the life-cycle of a bird or any wildlife. To get one minute of acceptable video footage could mean eight hours of waiting or even five to eight different visits to the location,” says Mustaffa.

“For example, we have been watching the behaviour of Grebes for two years now and we still do not know all their secrets. Often, the subjects disappear from the location due to human intrusion.” On the future of our environment, Mustaffa says: “We have no political leaders who are passionate about conservation.

We also lack public officials who care for the environment.

Most of them equate conservation to anti-development.

“They won’t and some cannot comprehend the economic values and benefits that conservation can contribute to the entire nation beyond the five years of political tenure.

“The sad thing is that by the time this county realised and recognised the economic and social values of conservation, there will be little left to conserve and a big bill for the future generation to foot for a livable environment.”