Thursday, March 05, 2009

Falcons in focus

Driving towards the “Red Lakes,” a set of twin small ponds in ICRISAT Campus (near Hyderabad), I glimpsed through the corner of my eye, a grey arrow streaking across the landscape, and disappearing into the crown of a Toddy Palm. We stopped on the bund, unfolding the spindly legs of our tripods, to scope onto a pair of Avocets that had been reported from here around Diwali. A small flock of waders huddled close to the fast-evaporating small pool. Ruffs stood about, some on the ground, sleeping with beaks under a wing, a few knee-deep in water, probing listlessly. No sign of avocets! Swinging my binoculars towards the crown of the Toddy palm, I spied the profile of a Red-headed Falcon. The tiercel would have seen our car long ago, as he shot through ether, abandoning a pouring landscape in his wake, to perch abruptly with a stone-hewn stillness in the palm. I could only see his bust over a frond. The hunters’ large all-seeing eye, brown, and yellow-rimmed, reflecting the very world it absorbs; the powerful curved beak; the chestnut hood and moustache. His white throat gleamed with bounced sunlight. He watched me then, in a casually alert way, boring with his eight times more powerful eyes through the binocs into mine. I could not hold his intense stare.
From his elevated, shadowed perch, he watched the flat landscape spread away all around, a quilt-work of undisturbed brown and ploughed red earth, of yellowing and green vegetation, of stagnant paddies and distant water. Small clusters of trees huddled here and there and bare branched thorny shrubs spoke an arid language. A bright sun shone from behind me in a wind scrubbed cloudless sky. The surrounding industrial hub was a noxious nuisance. If there were larks in the fields close by, they lay low, merging their browns with the furrowed earth. A roller rasped in the background, not threatened by the hunter, but nervous in his presence.
Suddenly he rose, pumping his pointed wings with a surge of purpose and power. In the blinking of an eye he exploded from the sun upon the Common Swallow that had been zipping and unzipping the sky in pursuit of midges. At the last moment the swallow tumbled out of the tiercel’s scorched trajectory, glimpsing the brilliance of the sun in his blazing eye as it slipped past the tiercel’s flung anchor shape, avoiding miraculously, the clutching talon. When I took the binoculars from my eye, pointing out the drama to CTH, we saw the falcon blurring towards her mate on closed wings. Miraculously the terrified swallow avoided the red-masked meteor, as both raptors overshot the fluttering little feathered heartbeat. The element of surprise was blown but the hunters pressed on. Again and again the swallow escaped by a whisker, buffeted about in the frenzied violence of the attack, the rushing roar of wind caught in a whirl of horizons, a panic-struck heart thudding frantically within its frail plumage. Predator and prey pouncing and prancing, locked in the tragic ballet of survival, spiraled to pinpoints in the domed firmament.
Fear, they say, gives strength. Mercurial reflexes, honed in the pursuit of flying insects, and the sagacity of an earth traveller migrating between distant shores, thrummed in the genes of the lucky swallow. In a moment, plummeting on curved wings, the falcon lit on the palm frond from where the tiercel had launched his attack and he followed on her heels. The world swung back on its axis and surrounding birdcalls reached my ear again. CTH pointed towards a woodpecker. In that moment of distraction, the falcon slipped away. The tiercel continued to watch a warming world as swallows now hunted their winged prey between him and the sun.
Pittie, A. 2004. Falcons in flight. Newsletter for Ornithologists 1 (1&2): 30–31.

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