Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why I birdwatch

The water floats about 400 ducks. It is still, and a dark grey-blue, under a perfectly clean January sky. Four of us are huddled behind a mound of earth, on a man-made earthen bund. Large-canopied tamarind trees line it along the water’s margin. We have come to this little wetland to count birds, driving from Hyderabad for two hours, the landscape pouring away from our speeding car; and now this sudden stillness is very welcome. Its grounding elemental stability, and the warm sun on our backs are comforting.

As we settle into the basic mathematics of a census, the southern sky is suddenly stitched with uneven lines of ducks. Skeins approach this lucid earth’s eye, floating like motes from one end of its curving firmament to the other, turning in tight formation, tugged back by the instinctive bond with their swimming brethren, as though an elastic band were stretched to its maximum, and then relaxed. Twice they circle the water at breakneck speed, with a completely mad effortlessness; then two peel off, making for the water. A cohesive tension in the flock breaks, and the entire lot plunge in comic pell-mell. Their sharp descent rips aloud the blue sky-cloth, and in the enveloping silence, the tearing sound of wind forced through curved feathers is an astonishing aural delight.

Is there a palpable joy in these returning anatids? Open-mouthed I gape as one, then three more flip in their descent, turn-turtle, belly-up in their plummeting fall through ether, up-righting last minute to belly-flop in the water. It’s a remarkable feat of contortion. While the body rotates upwards, twisting at the neck, the head is held straight to retain orientation. Why would a bird do this? I grope for logical answers; then settle for anthropomorphism—for the sheer thrill of it. Happiness may not, after all, be an entirely human privilege.

From the moment I spot them, through their fantastic airmanship, the magical rending of sky-cloth, to the jubilant bushel splash of sparkling water, I sit mesmerised by the beauty of the moment. It burns indelibly on my mind’s eye, etches itself upon my heart, and I think, this is reason enough to watch birds.

The red-headed pochards bob like cork in the eddies their landings create. There is great excitement and agitation in the manhandled raft of Anatidae. Drakes rear up in the water, stallions on hind legs, flailing wings vigorously. This flotilla of punks, dressed up in luminous orange headgear, and candy pink beaks is riveting. Gradually peace returns on the waterscape, and ripples plane out. A jostled breeze sighs through a million tamarind leaves. Wind bourne come the whistles of wigeon, flaunting their sandalwood paste-smeared foreheads in the distance.

It is a wonderfully idyllic setting. In the lee of the bund stretches a square patterned paddy tapestry, embroidered with glinting still waters. Its miniature dykes patrolled stealthily by rapier beaked pond herons, its sky-reflecting water frogeye dimpled. Forlorn toddy palm clumps stand abandoned in scattered disarray across this quilted landscape.

Screaming palm swifts tail each other, swing around fronds, arrow from clump to clump, boomerang back on slender fluttering wings. Green bee-eaters catch prey with an audible snap of mandibles, and float down to a telegraph wire to dismember a bee of its business end, or disrobe a butterfly roughly, tearing off its wings, tossing the naked body down their gullets. The buoyant colourful wings, plucked and discarded, bereft of direction, abandon themselves to the wayward breeze.

Bullock carts clatter past to a village at the end of the dirt road. A skeletal bare-footed toddy-tapper pedals his spare bicycle towards lanky trees, in the crowns of which he has tied a neat cluster of earthen pots, to collect oozing liquid that gradually ferments into toddy. He travels light; loincloth, turban, circle of climbing rope over one shoulder, to hoopla around the thinly corrugated palm, sickle, and the throat-scratching packet of rolled beedi leaves. He passes by trailing a haze of mild fermentation.

Birding takes me to such serendipitous settings where the zeal of citizen science takes a back seat and my senses absorb an essence of landscape I otherwise rarely imbibe. It creates wonderful opportunities to delve deep into myself, stilling a futile search for life’s meanings in an increasingly fractious world that we are urbanising at catastrophic speed, taking away from a generous land the solace of open spaces.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happiness may not, after all, be an entirely human privilege. Very beautiful this piece.

That feeling of joy, a kind of completeness and peace, in doing that one thing close to the heart. No economics involved.

I could watch it rain, in a similar way, from a moving train or a window sill.