Tuesday, October 21, 2014

ICRISAT diary: 12 October 2014

Barn Swallows pepper the skies. The mind flutters to think that their fluid flight has power enough to propel these feather-light globetrotters across the crumpled and ruptured geography of continents, over the endlessly curving horizons of oceans, keeping faith to a genetic clock whose earth-girdling pendulum swings them between the high points of procreation and perpetuity. And here they stretch a horizontal seine, an animated mobile net over marsh, open water, open crops, snaring the massed arthropods in their flying gapes!

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In black cotton soil stood three Indian Coursers. The field had been prepared in neat rows, as most fields seemed to have been, and their accordion canvas revealed these smooth humped creatures on their bleached bone skeletal legs. The symmetry of their beings is such a powerful magnet. We glass them, twisting uncomfortably in the car, whispering our awe to each other, scared our movements might scare them into flight. They too seem frozen in fear, or that supreme confidence cryptic creatures have in their invisibility. The tension is palpable. Their tricoloured heads, black, white, and shades of sand, remain fixed at one angle for endless minutes. When they relax, it’s the head they move first, easing the crick in their larynxes; one cocks a black iris skyward, another looks away and I glimpse the tricoloured ‘V’ at its nape. Gradually they begin their comical dart-stoop-straighten-dart form of foraging, moving away from us imperceptibly.

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Opposite the Red Tank, separated by the raised earthen road, and at a much lower level than either, lie inundated paddies. They’ve been freshly planted, at least two fields, and the sprouting crop of rice is still thin; much soggy ground clearly visible.
            Three Common Snipe stand in ankle-deep water like earthworks. When one tilts and inserts its straw length bill into the squelch, does it sip up the earth and become dun-coloured? When still, they coalesce in their surroundings, gathering the mantling sky and the cradling earth into their protruding nocturnal eyes. In flight, are these bedazzled in the shining light of day, zigzagging the rocketing snipes as they skim towards escape?
            Their hungry companions in the field are a few jittery and cautious Spotted Sandpipers. Both birds more seasoned than the swallows as world tourists, returning to India once the monsoon has quenched her bone-dry pelage and the depressions in her contoured landscape softened with reflections from the liquid succor they hold. They form the vanguard of the teeming flocks that will arrive as the cooler months progress.

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Treading a trembling floating world of plant and water, Purple Swamphens utter shrill creaks, as though freaked out by the sudden sensation of sinking unbidden. They mime a scuba diver crossing overland, as they exaggeratedly lift their reed-stalk toes high over recumbent soggy water plants, pantomiming stealth, and place them cautiously upon floating fronds.

            Several were on firm ground, twitching their stubby white tails up over their backs as they strolled in the thin shadows cast by reeds on the margins of banks. I saw one reach up to a seeding grass head, with its beak, and bend it to be clasped in the folded skeletal umbrella of its grotesquely long toes, then clean the seeds into its mouth with a sideways swipe of its partially open crimson beak. Their feathers are a frenzied palette of the azure and verdure world, now dominated by dark hues of shadows, now bouncing the light of the sky through emeralds. Yet my eyes miss their robust rotundity in their marginal world of land and water.

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