kerala

Malabar Giant Squirrel, Kerala

They might be giants

In 2013, I saw a large squirrel hiding in-between the branches of a plum tree in Kodaikanal. Bashing its bushy tail against the leaves, the creature stared at me with its beady eyes. Its reddish-black coat  shone in the sun. I had never seen anything like it before. The only squirrel I knew then was the three-striped palm sub-species.

When it leaped onto another tree, a taxi driver – standing nearby – pointed at it and said, “There it goes”. He looked at me and asked, “Ever seen a Giant Flying Squirrel before?”  I shook my head sideways and mumbled. Words escaped me. I was shaken. I felt like I was on the precipice of something strange and important. It was the only time I ever wanted to write a novel.

But the squirrel had other plans for me.

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Flame-Throated Bulbul, Valparai

Return to innocence: Bulbuls of South India

When I was a kid, people kept asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never had the fortitude to tell them that I just wanted to be an adult. Because I was excited about growing up. I thought that adults had it all figured out. The bread and butter, and the bells and whistles, of leading a healthy, wealthy, and happy life.

Into my 20s, I noticed that grown-ups had no clue about it. Except they had a set of archaic instructions to follow. It made their aspirations seem machinated and mundane. In the race for normality, they collected participation certificates in recognition of compliance to speed limits.

I wish they had set higher standards. Left us with information that mattered. For instance, if I had known there were about nine types of bulbuls in South India (22 across the country), I might not have taken this long to spot six of them.

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Plum-Headed Parakeet (Male), Thattekad

Between the head and the heart: Plum-Headed Parakeets

Few are upfront and honest about their opinions. We live in such sensitive times. Political correctness is the opium of the masses. Unless you punch me in the face, it is likely that I will not be completely honest with you. Only emotions such as pain, fear, and anger drive me to communicate with you – without a filter. When I am outside my comfort zone.

Through birding, I realized that excitement is another such emotion. It seems to bring out my inner child. My inner daddy cool. The creepy Dadaist uncle too.

For instance, whenever I see the Plum-Headed Parakeet, the earth’s volume is turned down for a few seconds. Everything moves in slow-motion. The sunlight, even if physically absent, feels spiritually intense. And I am overcome with this urge to swallow its plum-colored head.

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Grey Francolin, Pulicat

A single shade of grey: Francolins

Grey Francolins are regular sights for birders during morning hours in the drier parts of the Indian subcontinent. They look like domestic hens dressed in sensible brown suits.

As well-camouflaged as they are, Francolins are paranoid to the point of comic relief. We have made genial clowns out of each other. During my morning walks in scrub forests, I have startled them into skidding down muddy knolls. In return – they have knocked me off my sandals. It has been a match made in a Charlie Chaplin blooper reel.

A year ago, they were also a part of a magical experience I had.
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Brown-Capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Thattekad

A portrait of the photographer as a Pygmy Woodpecker

I couldn’t photograph Brown-Capped Pygmy Woodpeckers when I first saw them in Thekkady. They were quicker than hiccups. Every time I tried, they would disappear behind branches. Soon, I grew impatient. In a matter of minutes, I moved on to the next spot.

In less than a year, I saw a flock of them in Thattekad. Again, they kept fleeing my camera’s frame. But this time, I decided to hang around. And as time went by, they warmed up to my presence. Some were kind enough to strike remarkably curious poses.

I don’t believe that good things happen to those who wait. If you really want something, you must go out there and see if it exists – the way you think it does. And if it is prone to sudden flight, like Brown-Capped Pygmy Woodpeckers are – you ought to hold onto it.

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Jungle Owlet, Thekkady

Just the three of us: Jungle Owlets

I have had Casablanca moments with Jungle Owlets. I have wondered why out of all the trees in the world they had to perch upon the ones closest to me. There are two sub-species of Jungle Owlets in the Indian subcontinent – Malabaricum and Glaucidium Radiatum. And I am lucky enough to have spotted them at the Periyar National Park .

One fine morning, I was walking along the edge of a forest. For some reason, I got the feeling that I was being watched. There was a bustling in the thick canopies of shrubs. The wind howled, singing its way through bamboo shoots. I was a hostage to a feeling of heaviness in my chest. My left shoulder started to hurt.

Either I was experiencing the early stages of a heart attack. Or I was in the company of a creature so wild that I became confused about whether I was frightened or excited about it.

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White-Bellied Blue Robin, Kodainakal

Rare necessities: Endangered birds of India

Whenever I spot rare birds, I am giddy with joy. My confidence begins to build. I realize how much they mean to me. And I start to emotionally invest in them. But if they decide to leave before I can take a photograph, whiffs of anguish flood my nostrils. As they disappear into oblivion – I pull a face and swat imaginary flies. I feel dejected.

It’s like being punched in the eardrum while swimming. I am disoriented.

In a few hours, the melancholic vibe is replaced by a twinge of guilt. I realize, rather sheepishly, that I have spotted three endangered species of birds in southern India. Besides the hundreds of endemic and migratory birds, I have also seen a few – notoriously secretive about their lives.

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Gavi, Kerala

Travel bugs leave behind hickeys too

You can find love in places that you can’t in people. A broken estuary or a canopy of trees will seldom disappear hastily from your life. When they gradually do, they are replaced in ways you may not even miss them.

Wet grassy knolls, filled with butterflies and bee-eaters, might turn into muddy breasts – with falcons circling the roundest cobblestones. A waterfall, angrily frothing from its mouth, might one day decide to dry up and leave the poetry to the stars bathed in crepuscular light.

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Racket-Tailed Drongo, Kerala

A love unspoken: Racket-Tailed Drongos

I was once privy to a fascinating dialogue between a pair of Racket-Tailed Drongos in the semi-evergreen forests of Vagamon. I had no idea what they were chirping about. But it looked like a heated debate. One seemed to intimidate the other. There was some dancing. It was theatrical.

The conversation lasted for about three minutes. They made up and flew away together. It was as though they suddenly realized they were late to a gathering of pixies. And that life was too short and difficult, and the universe – too unimaginably magnificent, to be wasted on disagreements.

Arguments between people stretch a lot longer than that. Many of them end on a sour note too. It’s like dealing with auto-corrections while typing on the phone. It doesn’t matter what one wants to say, the other will misinterpret it.

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Malabar Grey Hornbill, Kerala

Justice League of Malabar Grey Hornbills

We have superpowers. We can make good things disappear from our lives. Ambitious goals turn into pipe-dreams. Exciting jobs become boring routines. Serendipitous affairs crumble into sexual favors. Warm relationships are deputed to cold storage units. It’s not as though we pursue unhappiness. Ruining a good thing is our self-defense mechanism; an inherent villainy.

But the world can show us that it has extraordinary powers too. It balls up a fist, punches us on the bridge of the nose, and announces, “Well, here’s what I can do”. We wipe the blood off and look up to see something beautiful. Some proof that everything will turn out to be okay.

A Malabar Grey Hornbill may then fly past us, holding hostage in her throat – a song to shake the love out of our hair, and to scatter it on a bed of leaves.  Instinctively, we will throw our hands up, palms cupping the sun, semi-confused and aroused.

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