kerala

Goodbye is the new hello: Jewel bugs

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.

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Birds are not musicians; they are songs

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.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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