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.
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
those stranded without
access to Google Maps.