Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Twenty Years of Birdwatching

When I came to my current abode of three months – on Dolphin Hill in Visakhapatnam – the green hills seemed devoid of avian wealth. All I was witness to was a countryside trembling with countless butterflies. Swallowtails – as big as the smallest humming birds - suffused the lantana verge; but no birds! Of course, there were the garrulous mynas and the rowdy crows of the garden variety. Then, one fine day, parties of screechy parakeets announced themselves. From the eyrie of my balcao, I almost missed the drab Roller perched on a pole until it took to the skies in resplendent blue - a la Cinderella. Soon, I was toting up bee-eaters, pigeons, drongos, and babblers, wondering where indeed were they hiding earlier. In the hills, unlike in the plains, spotting birds is a tough game. The tiered topography doesn’t help, nor do the cloudy climes that often play spoilsport. 

In the sepulchral silence of NDA (National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla, near Pune) woods - my first armchair birding destination - no trill or tweet went unnoticed; in fact, with no other distraction it commanded attention. Following the sound trail, many times I would be led on wild goose chase, literally, before I finally confronted the ‘ventriloquist’ bird. And thus began a journey into the bird world. Soon, identifying a bird by its whistle or song, sally or stance became child’s play. To my trained gaze, then, birds stood out stark with the foliage and flora melding into the background!

Twenty years back when I first saw - or saw the first - Oriole in the sylvan environs of the NDA, it seemed to me a golden bird out of a fairy land. After years of living in treeless urban-dump, it was the first time I had encountered wildwood. But as years passed and the noob bird-gawker in me became a seasoned birdwatcher, the golden orioles became more visible, more plentiful, like the ‘Rose’ of Saint Exupery’s "Little Prince".

In Goa’s Mandovi Periphery, the Orioles were so commonplace that I would see them every day, everywhere. Golden Orioles may not be as “common” as the crows or sparrows, but they are “common” enough to make it to the list of most common birds of India. Come to think of it: sparrows aren’t “common” anymore, are they?

A Bangalore-based ornithologist recently compiled a list of “50 Most Common Birds of India” on a social networking website to which a dear friend commented: “These are most common birds…I would have thought most of them are uncommon.” This comment is precious not because it is innocent and an inadvertent admission of ignorance but because it is perspicacious. Even many birdwatchers would not have dreamt up that exotic-sounding bird species such as Zitting Cisticola or Rufous Treepie could figure in the ‘commoner’ category’. So what’s behind this conundrum?

After two decades of birdwatching, it still took me nearly a month or more to start spotting birds and realize what a haven Dolphin Hill was! This just illustrates how we presuppose - subconsciously perhaps - that birds should be seen readily and obviously to make their presence felt!

A year back, I made a Powerpoint presentation on ‘Backyard Biodiversity’ for the denizens of Mandovi where I talked extensively on birds. A friend, fledgling into birding, asked me: “Where do birds go at night”? Another real riddle! My answer was the counter-question: “Where do they go during the day? Why don’t we see them even in broad daylight?” For a common man not into active birdwatching, spotting birds is an elusive proposition. For one, not all bird species are gregarious or noisy; many are solitary and silent and unless out in the open or on telegraph poles or in the garden, they easily merge into the elements of the ecological habitat. Camouflage is their ace cheating card.  If we miss the avian action in the light of the day what is to be said of the night?

You see birds when you seek them and when you start seeking them, you start seeing them! On one of my evening walks in Mandovi, as the day drew to dusk and the birds fell silent, I resigned myself to a close of yet another birding binge. Suddenly, as though by a sixth sense, my attention was drawn to a faraway tree by the flank. An ethereal, magical moment gripped me. In the twilight, silhouetted against a tree top was a flock of peafowls settling in for the night. In the stillness of the woods, it was a rare communion we shared that day.

In Dolphin Hill, the other day, as I was walking with a friend engrossed in conversation, well past sunset, I really do not know what made me turn to the distant fence. Sitting bolt upright, absolutely still, the size of a monkey, was a Great Horned Owl! The joy of such serendipity is supreme. That then is the beauty of birding. After a while, you don’t look for them, the birds look out for you!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


The Woman in Red

Red chiffon
Vermilion on forehead
Coral round the neck
Adorned are the Ammas of Andhra
Bhavani becomes them!


4 a.m. Durga Temple
Janaki keeps her date
With Maa Devi Durga Bhavani
Darshan done, sindoor and mala donned
‘Bhavani’ now returns home
To the call of family deity
for Puja and Prasadam
Uncombed hair, empty stomach,
She walks for an hour
from Yarada village to Dolphin Hill
Bare feet - in penance
To meet call of duty…
8 to 5 ‘domestic’ routine
Washing, cleaning, cooking, ironing
On 2 ½ cups of milky tea
In descending darkness and black-out
Also an outcome of striking ‘power’
Fear of snakes banished 
She hurries home for evening prayers
To her two daughters
And an alcoholic husband
Fresh naivedyam to prepare… yet again
Until Vijayadashmi
In the innocent hope of appeasing the Demon!

‘Modern’ Amma

A minister once
In his wisdom… or lack of it
Called women ‘names’
Parkati aurat, he said –
For those with short-crop,
And, by corollary, thence
for their ‘modern’ outlook
He, perhaps, never ventured
Down under… South
Or he would have seen
The Ammas of Andhra
Head tonsured off its tresses
Sporting skull-crop of grey
Or, a bob and a blunt
Nose-studs and saree in place
The mane left behind
At Tirupati…
At the feet of Lord Venkateshwara
Fashion sense or religious stance
It is, finally, all in the glance

Note: I have used the description Amma in many places… it may seem a derogatory connotation to some (ironically so, given our penchant for poking fun at “Madrasis”), but I use the word, in its true sense, as a genuine term of endearment and respect.