I first saw Brown-Capped Pygmy Woodpeckers inside a reserve forest in Kumily. But, love was not in the air. Maybe, they were in a hyperactive mood. Or just camera shy. Because every time I tried to photograph them, they would fly away to some other spot. No matter how closely I tracked one, it simply refused to stand still. Disappointed, I left them in a hurry.
Later, I spotted them in Megamalai. Once again, they escaped my camera’s frame by fluttering about, like a kamikaze fleet getting ready for a fight. And I walked away with my head hung low.
The third time was the charm. Two years ago, I stumbled upon them during a rocky climb in Thattekad. They were hunting for crunchy insects inside the bark of a tree. While they continued to be quicker than hiccups, I wanted to try something different. So, I decided to give them an hour or so to warm up to me.
Excitedly, I woke up at 4:30 AM. It was my first visit to the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. I was there because of the Malabar Trogon – a brightly-colored creature that looks like the afterbirth of a psychedelic experience. With a spring in my step, I walked out of the cottage – as jolly as I could be. I was going to meet a local birder at the tea shop outside the sanctuary.
By 6:00 AM, though, the excitement was gone. Sipping on a cup of watery tea, I thought about what a shitty morning it had turned out to be. First, I was stung by a wasp that was hiding in my left shoe. Then, it dawned on me that the skies were way too overcast. To make things worse, four other people, who had hired the same birder, were going to accompany me. So, I dragged my feet past the front gate. There were banners all over that showcased the brightest, the bluest and the most bewitching of endemic birds. Each one looked like it fell out of a dream.
At a distance, a mynah sang an eerie tune. I tightened my grip on the camera and took a deep breath. Spoiler alert – Everything is going to be okay.
It was around 5:00 PM. I was tonguing the evening air on a parrot-green grass hill at Mooppanpara in Kerala. Despite the cloudy weather, I wanted to stick around. It had been a long and tiring day. And the scenery was mesmeric. The sun resembled a dusty grapefruit trying to un-blush. It sunk, beneath the jagged shoulders of mountains. I felt calm, as though a blade of grass had found itself in-between my teeth.
But the weather wasn’t having any of it. Howling winds turned into hesitant whispers. The blueness of the sky gave way to a frowning shade of gray, as rain-fed clouds loomed. Unbeknownst to me, the stench of the struggle for survival was around the corner.
White-Throated Kingfishers sound like a jackhammer in the hands of a jazz drummer. Asian Koels can be mistaken for star-crossed Shakespearean strangers cooing goodbye one last time. Black-Winged Kites shriek as though they are auditioning for musical satires. If the world was any crueler, music labels would hire poachers to hunt down Malabar Hornbills, and steal their summer playlists.
The most beautiful bird call I have ever heard belongs to a whistler in an electric blue coat. Found in the Western Ghats, it is the Beethoven of alarm clocks.
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.
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.
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.
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. (more…)
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.
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.