When I am not bird-watching, I like to watch people. Strangers, in particular. I am captivated by their nonverbal behavior. Gestures such as shoulder shrugs, head nods, and hand movements are significant parts of human interactions. They are our inner whistle-blowers that leak out top-secret information about our personalities. Tell the world who we really are, as opposed to the type of person that we aspire to be.
No matter how restless or torn we may be, our actions are always fluid. They seem like a natural extension of our characters; as though they begin where our script ends. They start when words fail us. Or when we fail them.
Listening to people, though, is not nearly as faascinating. All many do is share the messy details of their lives. And it is the same badly-edited story ad nauseam. Everyone is a victim and a survivor. They faced social alienation. Dealt with parental pressure and economic hardships. Overcame drug abuse, smoking, alcoholism, junk food and bad relationships. Moved past broken promises. Suffered. Survived. Rinse and repeat.
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.
Pond Herons are one of the easiest birds to spot. They can be found all over the city. But I have never written about them. I barely photograph them. Every day I see them, alongside the distressingly-polluted Cooum River. They saunter through shallow waters, like stoned tap dancers, and hunt for crustaceans and small fishes.
Profundity has been amiss; the mind – adrift. I have nothing special to tell you about them. Because I haven’t learned anything valuable from them.
Whereas spotting a notoriously shy bird is an incomparable thrill. It is better than sex on a wintry morning or a really good sneeze. There are hurdles in traveling to a new location in search of some rare bird. The urge to overcome them is addictive. Especially, when there are dangers involved. Then, it gets exciting.
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.
While in Kodaikanal two years ago, a friend had shown me something up in the skies I only saw once before; that too, as a child. Around midnight, Arun – a photographer and astronomy junkie – and I were taking a stroll to gaze at the stars. At one point, he hurriedly pointed towards a section of the sky above a canopy of trees.
During the Christmas weekend, while in Ponneri, I saw the flycatcher breakfasting on a large moth. It was a breathtaking sight. How beautifully its iridescent crest glistened. The whirling dervishes that were its milk-white tail-feathers. Unable to contain my emotions, I cried. Not in a way that makes passersby smile at how kind and wonderful this deranged blue planet can be. It was sort of awkward. Weird-sounding. There was definitely some reverse-blowdrying of the nose. I had been waiting for the moment since 2013, after all.
On January 2, though, bad news arrived. I was diagnosed with a disc prolapse in my lower back. And it had struck a nerve that is connected to my left leg. There isn’t a cure for the condition. However, with the right treatment, I may be able to return to my routines.
Great Indian Hornbills look visibly upset when they sense danger in their surroundings. They let out a guttural cry as they take flight like wondrous paper planes, to find a vantage point. They aren’t scared easily, though. They are one of the largest hornbills in the world. Any predator would think twice about pissing them off. Malabar Trogons panic, like most smaller birds, when their nests are under attack. With one swift movement, they position themselves at a safe distance. Then, they stare at the intruder, dead in the eye, and purr softly – like a spellbound cat.
Earlier this year, I had the dubious distinction of interrupting the feeding sessions of these gorgeous birds. Yet I was spared the guilt of being a nuisance, and the Hitchcockian tragedy of being pecked to death by birds.
Seeing Orioles makes my insides flutter. They look like they are on a mission from another planet. Perhaps, they are here to tell us that there is such a thing as too much yellow. Or that our ancestors weren’t primates; they were plants. And how silly it is that we move around so much instead of sitting still and reforesting our homes.
I bet it was something our ancestors had never bothered to listen to. It is probably why the Orioles gave up and turned into earthlings. Eat. Poop. Procreate. Sleep. Repeat. No more spilling of universal secrets through subliminal birdsongs.
I have seen three different sub-species. The Golden Oriole, the Black-Hooded Oriole, and the Black-Naped Oriole. They haven’t yet asked me to take them to our leader. Perhaps, they know how poorly governed we all are.
I have tried before to harness the power of positive thinking. But I used to feel worse than I already did. I became angrier over how things never worked out the way I wanted them to. So, one fine day, I just stopped. I am unsure when exactly it happened or what led to it. I only know that letting go of positivism, during certain times, was the best decision I could have made.
It liberated me. It taught me that karma isn’t some magic trick. Nobody owes us anything. First, we see the rabbit. And then, we don’t. But there is no argument over where the rabbit is.
Over the past 11 months, I have spotted and photographed 200+ birds in South India. I have also spent the year working on two documentaries. It means that I was not gainfully employed. So, time was on my side. I got to watch birds every single day. I was on the lookout for bird poop that drizzled from above. The thin branches that swayed when all else remained still. Dancing phone lines, scissoring through cities and forests, on which they perched upon. Quick movements in shrubs and bushes.
But, it was mostly several gigantic strokes of luck. I saw them wherever I went. Soon, I started to believe that the birds found me as often as I searched for them.