Shake, rattle and unfurl: Grey Wagtails

I first saw Grey Wagtails during a taxi ride in Kodaikanal. One was perched on a wooden gate, looking like a June morning. It wore the hues of an early sun, flanked by greying clouds.

The driver told me, in Tamil, that they were called Valikaati. Loosely translated, it meant “pathfinder”. My mind started to drift . Rudely interrupted only by the sound of a passing truck. I imagined the bird to be a compass with wings for people who were lost in the wilderness.

An alarm clock for the weary to wake up and find their way back to safety.

Grey Wagtail. Kodaikanal

Soon, another flew towards a rocky surface ahead of the taxi. Spinning around, and shaking its tail feathers, the birdie merrily hopped about. Every few seconds, it turned around to look towards our direction. I wanted to believe that it was calling out to us. While there was no other route to take, it still felt special to me.

To pretend to follow a songbird to wherever it had thought was for safe for me.

As we drove on, I saw a few more Grey Wagtails by the side of the road. I stopped several times to see them prancing around, with courage in their hearts and songs in their throats. Maybe, they figured that I was in trouble; that I was going too fast for them to help.

During one of the breaks we took along the way, I asked the driver if he had heard any stories about Valikaatis ushering people to safety. Perhaps, some exciting tale to add more flavor to the day. Much to my surprise, he quickly told me that he didn’t know what a Valikaati was.

The next couple of minutes were indicative that I have the attention span of a gnat. Because it turned out that Grey Wagtails didn’t go by that name. I had misheard him before. These birds were known as Vaalatti (Karum Saambal Vaalatti) – which, in Tamil, literally means “tail shaker”.

With shifty eyes, I put my head down. It seemed so obvious in hindsight. They wagged their tails. Of course, they were called Vaalattis. It made perfect sense. I was embarrassed. But the elation of spotting a new bird was still fresh in my mind.

It has been a few years since this incident. I haven’t photographed them much despite seeing them in my city’s outskirts, all over Kodaikanal and in several parts of Kerala. I never had a reason for it until it later occurred to me that I might be feeling guilty about them.

Because Grey Wagtails do the shake to frighten away trespassers, flush out insects and seduce prospective mates.

Well, I am neither an eligible bird nor a tasty worm. Just a guy who may have annoyed them the first chance he got..

The long-legged soul
of summer’s final yawn,
a clumsy sign that
the rain might come,
soon perhaps, and
flood, with kindness
found in cups of
sugarcane extract,
those stranded without
access to Google Maps.

(Photographs: Kodaikanal)

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47 comments

  1. Amazing!
    “silver wheat skin”, “sunless dawn”, “long-legged soul”… Beautiful. My head is still swirling unable to handle the imagery. These are just too good. 🙂

    My brain is too overloaded to even try to understand what the rest of the lines mean.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Ahahahaha!!! Oh that’s funny, one of the good things about discrimination in a foreign country, don’t know the answer, I just say “no English”. Works every time, all the time 😀

        There are positives to EVERYTHING 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That first line: “The long-legged soul of summer’s final yawn” feels especially relvevant now as I embark upon my summer – an awareness of the ending. Wagtails are amongst some of the most appealing birds – in the Himalayas I was blessed with a yellow wagtail and not-so-blessed as I insisted repeatedly on misidentifying a little forktail as a white wagtail. (The reasons for this were complicated; suffice it to say I wanted to put one-up on birders in Singapore going crazy over a solitary white wagtail that appeared at the peak of migration.) But recently I actually saw a white wagtail, though much further from India or Singapore than I had expected – I’ll post on that soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Firstly, I wish you a fond and fortunate summer, lass.

      Lovely to read about your tryst with white wagtails. I saw one a few months ago in kerala, I mistook her for a Pied wagtail. We live, love and learn, don’t we!

      Take care and come back with stories!

      Like

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