Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Birding K. B. R. National Park, Hyderabad: 17 April 2011
Sometimes it is invigorating birding with beginners. Their enthusiasm rubs off on ‘old hands’ like me, whose airy mantle is scrubbed off with the vim of fresh blood.
This trip to KBR has a flock of juvenile birdwatchers flexing the pinions of their new hobby. Some are photographers with forbiddingly long lenses, no doubt a handy tool even for seasoned birders. A photograph gives me the privilege of armchair identification. Others bring less extravagant equipment, their palpable enthusiasm.
Early morning perambulators goggle our motley lot in disbelief, as though we are knights of Arthur’s table. But we are used to this attention, and invariably win the day by mist-netting one or more gawkers who succumb to our intriguing behaviour and unrestrained joy at sighting a bird; so that they join us.
The first stop is near a flowering tree. It is a-whirr with wings. A family of Indian golden orioles; purple sunbirds in various stages of dressing-up, resplendent shimmering males, demure hens in mute olives, and an eclipse-dishabille male in just a necktie; a ménage-a-trois of Indian robins; a self-consciously pink-billed Tickell’s flowerpecker, peering at the world through polished beady lignite eyes; a dapper cock Tickell’s flycatcher glistening in the recessed shadows, lisping a droll whistled cadence. Too the commoners—chattering redvented-, and white-browed bulbuls, crooning spotted doves, the distant clarion of a grey partridge cleaving all noise with its shrill urgency. Shot arrow sprays of rose-ringed parakeets tearing the blue sky above, giddy house-swifts chasing each other’s dazzling white rumps.
Where does one begin with a cheeping novice? With the first bird. Sometimes it is even more basic—how to use, no, with both eyes open (!), the shiny new binocs. There, look to the right of the tree trunk, half way up, or better, imagine the face of a giant clock in front of you, and look at 3 o’clock.
To point out the pastel orange, off-white, and blue bundle that sings upon the bough, and give it a name to hold on to, identify with, and watch the visible pleasure, the disbelief-impregnated gasp, is my reward. My hope is that a life-long appetite for birding has been ignited.
Thankfully no one argues when I point out a black-coloured male Indian robin, as one had many years ago, “A robin has to be blue,” a-la, Robin Blue garment whitener advertised in various media. His shock at learning the truth was colossal, and for the rest of the trip he looked positively let down by the demigod the media has become.
One asks how I remember birdcalls. The only way I know is to follow a sound, to cut a direct path towards it, then to stop and stare at the songster, to allow its song to drench you, soak into your very skin, become a part of your existence, your charmed private landscape.
An invisible iora whistles variations on the theme of “shaubheegi.” It blanks out my world, deafening in its lilting simplicity, it pulses into every green fibre around me, ricochets in canopies, distils the breeze, sings a glorious morning.
In the leafy world around me an intense drama is enacted, covering the ambit of essential human emotions—sex, food, and territory. I am an unseeing spectator, an aural witness.
A barbwire tangle of dry thorny branches snares an iridescent star. A cock purple sunbird, glistening in burnished purple has lit upon a twig, pouring in the breeze a cascade of exuberantly tripping notes. Its hidden golden-yellow epaulettes erupt into brilliantly contrasting searchlights, as it sings its heart out. In the circular field of my binocs a blue canvas holds jumbled thorny bush, and the mesmerising radiance of the tiny songster. As it swivels fervently, now bowing, now stretching on tip-toe with head thrown back, intent upon proclaiming territory, or enticing a coy hen, light dances its plumage into a coruscating iridescence.
A few “good” birds, those that are seen well, enjoyed thoroughly, listened to carefully, and thrilled in, give me greater joy than the endless pursuit of variety, fleetingly glimpsed, abandoned, unabsorbed, and unimbibed. The insatiate twitcher is ever hungry. Here is another thought for a beginner. Allow birds to come to you and savour their individuality, bird by bird.
If I were to choose a seductress from the common birds, to tempt someone into the birdwatcher’s fold, it would be a tantalising golden oriole. A resplendent male dazzles us as it feeds on the green berries of a tree. Light bounces off him with almost artificial effulgence. Unaware of his magnetic attractiveness, he paces the branches in showy preoccupation. His glistening black primaries and masquerade ball mask contrast spectacularly with his golden-yellow plumage. His strangely flesh-pink bill is an untarnished, pure appendage that is inserted delicately into nectar-sweetened flowers.
A few of us just cannot move on. We stand hypnotised by this aurum creature. Words are few and far. What can one say in the presence of such beauty? All are awed into a hushed silence of admiration. Thoughts are voiceless, internalised. All the senses combine into a single invocation, which at such times, overwhelms, despite stoicism, or temporal belief, and leaves us stranded amidst the glacial progress of civilisations, the upsurge of cultures, alone, in the presence of untarnished natural sublimity. Each one of us imbibes an oriole moment in those fractional seconds, in absolute solitude.
The path meanders towards a shrunken wetland that draws annual rafts of waterfowl, in winter, when it is augmented with monsoonal runoff. The authorities have been moving earth in their wisdom, deepening the trough to catch and hold more water. Excavated mud is piled up as a causeway on one side. Now the water is a shallow pool, its margins, atrophied in the increasingly hot days, fringed with cooling reeds. Rounded boulders lie scattered on the shores, some under an umbrella of stunted scrub. A couple of them form convenient islands in the water, on which some birds rest.
The group is tired, and hungry, sinking to the ground, under the leafy trees. Breakfast is passed around, throats quenched. Gradually conversation re-surfaces, and laid-back birding takes hold of satiated birders.
Dabchicks float placidly upon the still water. One or two are in breeding plumage. There are a few juveniles, precociously swimming behind adults. One, albinistic, sits on a rock in the water, foxing our rationality. Only when it slips into the liquid do we realise our folly … and it is not an albino! On the opposite shore a grotesquely long-toed jacana flashes its cuprum wings, as it scampers, as best it can on toes that have evolved to tread floating leaves. In the process it uses its wings like the balancing pole of a tightrope walker. Still, it is difficult to see, and the newly minted birders learn another trick of the trade. Do not move yourself, but spot movement. The next time the lily-walker flutters for balance, it is spotted. Its white eye-stripe is an instant hit. Two eternally questioning red-wattled lapwings stride about confidently on yellow legs, on the dry foreshores, yelling their lungs out. Much ado about nothing, or is it? Nature abhors wasted metabolism. A purple heron sails in on cupped wings, legs dangling for a foothold, planeing towards a small clump of reeds on the near shore, touching down gingerly, before folding wings over its back with visible relief. It is in brilliantly fresh plumage—ever a delight to behold. A few minutes later, its cousin, the grey heron appears in a slicked descent to the trembling margin. The ‘essed’ neck, ending at the rapier beak, is tensed up and back, like a reined-in stallion, stilt legs lowered to gently touch down into the pond-smelling ooze of its preferred terra infirma. This individual feels the heat and wades into the water no sooner it lands, letting the stagnant marsh rise to soak its belly. It looks comical, walking thus, as though swimming! But herons hunt in different ways, and this is one, wherein prey is consciously disturbed by the wading bird, and snapped up.
Our way back is partly strewn with dead leaves. The cataclysmic orgy of spring, the colossal putting-forth of leaves, the landscape transforming green foliage, lies in absolute ruin all around, devastated by the stealthy turn of seasons. Stark and bare trees surround us. Not to worry, I philosophise, this annual cycle is the engine of rebirth that is as old as the earth itself. It sustains life.