Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Anantgiri, Vikarabad, Andhra Pradesh: 20 March 2011

A faint “scree” chalk-on-slate sound comes from my right, as I descend into the valley. Repeated, it piques my curiosity, bouncing an echo from a befogged memory. It is uncanny how our recumbent sensory memorabilia hibernate, coiled and forgotten in the recesses of the mind, springing forth, afresh, at the slightest provocation.
That whispered gossamer note draws me towards it. I climb a few rough-hewn steps in the rocky side of the valley, deliberately, carefully, lest its source fly away. A faint movement, a give-away white spot on a dark rock background arrests my searching eye. Stealthily raising bins I focus on a glowing male Blue-headed Rock Thrush. Standing erect, with neck out-stretched, and beak partially open it is the picture of concentration as it creaks out that rusty-hinged strain. About the size of a black-headed myna, its plumage is broken up by an amazing mixture of cobalt blue, black, chestnut, and snow white, its eye covered by a bandit’s black mask. Its mien, however, belies the swagger of its flamboyant feathers; it is hesitant and uneasy on the darkly pitted lava, the confidence of its cut-up clothing crumbles as I approach. In a jiffy it is off, swirling its torn cape into flight, flashing glistening white spots that mirror its irritation.
It remains in the area, despite me perching on a convenient rock, taking notes, observing other goings on under these ancient banyan trees, rooted in aeon-defying stone that is carpeted with their yellowed rustling dry leaves. I spy it often in its furtive, tip-toed flight, bluffing my existence while hunting around the margins of my vision, disappearing exasperatingly behind an obstructing branch, as though the act of shifting my head by a hair’s width, for a better view, tugs it miraculously behind a screen! Who says the art of birding is a breeze? One way of succeeding at it plays upon patience: enough to earn the trust of and, sufficient to fool one’s target into considering you a part of the landscape. One has to sharpen this tool on the whetstone of practise, to savour its fruit.
Two relatives of this elegantly feathered elfin also share these spaces. They are heftier, the size of jungle babblers, of which anon, but more suave—every feather in place, always at their best behaviour. Their grey-blue mantle is setoff by a sumptuous wash of ochre, their cheeks tearstained white and brown, marking them for life with a palpable sadness.
It seems a busy time for them—the hour when they worm an ocean of dry leaves, and they are in no mood to let me distract them from their toil. Unlike their timorous mountain-dwelling small thrush-billed[1] cousin, they are bold blue-eared animal hunters[2], and so they stay. I am spellbound by their magical existence, and gutted by the visceral realisation that I am not even a part of their world.
They flick aside leaves with stout beaks, peer into crevices and shadows with moist black eyes. They parse every extraordinary movement tirelessly, ever vigilant, for invariably such motion means flight, or food. Today they are determined wormers, working the leaf-litter methodically, purposefully hopping on to the rough stone platform, never far from each other. I wonder about this, till I see, just once, one of the pair shiver its wings in the giveaway gesture of a hungry juvenile. There is no loud fussing, like some birds I know, but neither is there any lagging by the other thrush. Instantly it is beside the now revealed youngster, with a satiating morsel. When I eyeball this domestic scene through the bins, my ears filter a ratchety scratching buzz from the background noise, which is uttered in a ghost whisper by the young worm hunter.
The thing that strikes me, whilst I watch these two, is the method of their terrestrial locomotion. The jungle babblers show me how the thrushes differ in the way they hop. The babblers bounce along the ground, tackling undulations, obstructions, etc., without hesitation or extra effort. Their legs are placed higher up their bellies than those of the ground thrushes, and I think therein lies the difference. The thrushes are lumberous hoppers. They lean forward, shifting their centre of gravity, thereby creating an impetus, simultaneously pushing off with their feet—launching into this laboured serial of bounds, from one point to another. Their execution of this movement is so well-oiled and spirited that when seen casually, it is a joyous sight.
The thrush-mimicking[3] babblers seem to absorb their exuberant energy directly from the earth. A ruffian flock of four rummages the leaf-layered earth pelt under the figgery, ping ponging across its floor with the belligerence of self-appointed bouncers. They exude boundless energy as they graze the detritus strewn land. No tindery leaf is left unturned; no crevice of bark or stonework escapes their inquisitive eye; no suspicious morsel is left un-jabbed. Their constant guttural banter, variable to the extreme in pitch and intensity, forms an impenetrable cloud of sound above their gastronomic safari—but their demeanour remains blasé. Propelled on springy legs they bounce with surprising swiftness, towards some unfortunate arthropod whose utmost frantic attempt at escape, burying itself into the decomposing litter, is preordained to fail. The sweet-voiced thrush is no less a ruthless killer, nor the belligerent babbler, than a stooping peregrine—flung like an anchor across the firmament to hook itself into one isolated member of a frantic flock of rock doves. Human sympathy is biased towards spilt gore and guilty in dismissing crushed chitin without remorse for the simple reason that we cannot relate to it emotionally.
Babblers banish boredom. Between bouts of babbling and squabbling, they bounce, belabour, bludgeon, bulldoze, berate, bicker, and blaspheme. They are members of the avian paparazzi, the brat pack that goes berserk at the sight of a forest-dwelling celebrity, be it a Shikra espied, an owlet discovered, or a vine snake cornered. The flood of invective that they pour at the poor creature, fluttering, fluffing, switching this way and that while feverishly gripping the branch with their feet, in such paroxysms of petulance that they succeed in summoning more of their bothersome ilk to bolster their annoyed lamentations to such a pitch that the hapless victim is forced to flee, often trailing a stream of its tormentors, desperately trying to outdo each other in bravado.
Babblers are also the contact calls of a forest. They fill the pockets of stillness and quiet that envelope me suddenly in a glade, with an apologetic grunt, uttered intermittently, keeping fresh the breath of life that peoples the kingdom of trees. This is the way a sisterhood keeps in touch as its members glean the foliage, hesitate on the ground before fluttering up into the lowest branch of a tree, to work their way upwards, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, till they have scrutinised the entire canopy, reaching the top, and then launching off on feebly fluttering wings, guided by a choral thread of obscenities belabouring the enormous effort required to eke a living, dropping one after another in an untidy heap at the foot of another unforaged tree. Their extreme indecision at this moment, fuelled by mercurial, enormously opinionated egos, erupts into a free-for-all of such vituperation that one would think it is a fight to the finish. They pile upon each other right there, on the forest floor, visible to all and sundry, with nothing but murderous intent in their heart. And yet, the very next instant they begin preening one another, the best of babbler buddies!
Another avian marvel perambulates the debris of shed leaves, first noticed when I am taken aback by the apparent self-propulsion of a fallen leaf, but dismissed for the wind. But it keeps happening, and when I finally focus on a moving leaf it is transformed into a delectable Olive-backed Pipit! Three stroll among the disintegrating leaves, hidden so completely that if I look away, I lose them. They are feeding with an obvious single-minded zeal—tucking in for the long and arduous continent-spanning journey back to their breeding grounds in the Himalayas. If the globetrotters in front of me are Anthus hodgsoni yunnanensis, they will travel much further north, to the taiga belt. Alarmed by a shikra’s mock sortie, one bird flies up into a lower branch of the ficus, perching bolt upright for a few moments, its bold tiger-striped chest in spectacular display, pumping its tail up and down, bolstering its quaking heart. It saunters blithely along the branch, till fear abates, and descends to feed again. Tree pipits are the silent waifs of our forests, for even when feeding in each other’s proximity, they seem aloof, impersonal, introverted. These individuals in front of me, in obliterative fatigues, look rotund with accumulated fat, essential fuel for their mind-boggling peregrinations.
Looking straight up at the fecund ficus, into its filigreed lacework of a million leaves and tiny orange figs, glowing in their ripeness like thin-skinned Jack-o’-lanters, I enter an uncanny planet, humming with vibrancy, peopled by a myriad world of feathered bipeds, all so utterly and completely unaware of my own living constellation intent upon general annihilation, that I am sucked up into their hubbub, suddenly becoming aware of the microcosmic immensity of all this as though in a vision. In an unbelievable momentary epiphany I merge with the avian metropolis above. And then the spell breaks. A gargantuan archaeopteryx slides into my prism-enhanced field of vision. Perceptibly darkening the trillion sun specks bouncing in the foliage, it slips through the upper canopy rending the verdure fabric of an idyllic morning with a blood-curdling shriek that momentarily freezes all feathered frolic. The grey hornbill resembles a giant aircraft so much, and the birds below it, a gawking crowd at a busy airport, that I involuntary sink onto a rock—the world encapsulated by that fig is no less a melting pot of avian diversity than are airports of humans.
The dazzlingly bright morning starts to warm, as the rising sun filters into the valley. We wander on, enchanted by sight and sound, mystified, exclamatory, surprised, and fascinated by turns. The valley widens ever so slightly, with space for trees and shrubbery, and tiny ephemeral rills that puddle water from some recent, off-seasonal rain.
In a sun-dappled forest patch, atop a chest-high bush perches a brown-breasted flycatcher. Bathed in golden light, surrounded by airy verdure, its large pensive eyes follow every movement in the buzzing understorey, sharply watchful for flying midges. It too is piling on fat for a shorter journey than the tree pipits, and in the opposite direction too. Its summers are spent on the emerald island of Sri Lanka. Its obliterative grey-brown plumage, and its muted, undemonstrative ways convey a false sense of secrecy. Flycatchers of its ilk demand our focus and therein lies their charisma. They tantalise not due to any innate reclusiveness but because we are blind to the obvious. Bird … watchers … need also to see!
Muscicapa muttui’s[4] aerial realm exists in the understorey of open forest, where it sorties after flying insects without any extravagant display, taciturnity being its dependable oeuvre. Once, when I press suspiciously near it with the, well, characteristic intrusion of a birder, it vanishes in a smoke screen of blurred pinions. Then I re-spot it across the road on the tip of a declining thin tamarind branch, and raise my bins, and for the second time that morning, incredibly, the eye streams sound into my ear. Sotto voce, Muscicapa muttui is muttering malignments in my direction. We see two more of them further ahead, invisible in the open.
There are erythrinas on the path, medium to tall trees, open canopied at this time, leafless, sky revealing, but rubied with a nectary of small tiger-clawed blossoms. This little valley surely pampers its wild denizens. Here is a street displaying hundreds of nectar heavy flowers luring the birdy-eyed.
It is almost midday by now and when we turn back, the frenzy of dawn tipplers has thinned to a couple of diehard chestnut-shouldered petronias and a few mousy-voiced white-eyes, pushing each other self-consciously, towards the lambent red temptation. In the settling heat, their buzzing replaces cicada music. The petronias don’t give a fig about the world. From flower to flower they move, thrusting bills deep into each cup, savouring shiny nectar, emerging glistening beaked, dazzled momentarily by the sun, only to spot another heady tumbler, conjure another ethereal dive into its depth. One of them, in sheer drollery, eschews the mandatory hop to another blossom’s base, and simply leans across space to partake off a fulsome flower, flashing its nectar-dipped beak. It is a rich sight to end a glorious morning’s worth of birding.

[1] =Monticola cinclorhynchus
[2] =Zoothera citrina cyanotus
[3] =Turdoides
[4] Named after the Sri Lankan discoverer’s servant, Muthu!

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