Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Nature Is My Religion...


It must be the bounty of dragonflies, butterflies, grasshoppers, and crickets thanks to the Vizag monsoon that must have brought them in droves. Off late, I have been seeing the Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) everywhere—perched on telegraph poles, lamp posts, and tree tops, “chack-chacking”. The otherwise dull (in appearance), unruffled, and solitary bird has resurfaced in a different avatar—noisier and in company of its own ilk. Chasing each other in flashes of “turquoise and sapphire”, their merriment presents a mesmerising sight.

When the blue jay flew
overhead… the sun caught its wings
and a haiku was born


The Indian Roller has been a fixture on Dolphin Hill, inconspicuous on a perch, in a picture of peaceful solitude. In flight, the dun-coloured apparition transforms into royalty when it unfurls its blue shade-card plumage, deserving of the epithet of Blue Jay or Neelkanth (blue throat, in vernacular lingo). Its languid twirls and swirls on wings make the other sobriquet of “roller” apt indeed.  

The Blue Jay is a bird of the countryside, a friend of the farmer as it is a natural “pest control”. Not for nothing is this beauty the state bird of several states including Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, and Karnataka.  Just as I was revelling in its antics comes the news that poachers are all out to net the unsuspecting creature.


Why would anyone want to do so? According to popular belief the bird is sacred to Lord Vishnu and its darshan is supposed to be propitious, particularly on the occasion of Dasshera. The Neelkanth is said to be sacred to Hindus. Likewise, the owl that is denigrated in many cultures as “evil” or “foolish” is revered by Hindus as a symbol of knowledge. Uluka (owl in Sanskrit) is the vehicle of Goddess Laxmi; inherent in this concept of vahan is the idea of conservation. And yet, the owl suffers a similar fate as the blue jay.

We know only too well what ill-fortune befalls snakes towards Nagpanchami and temple elephants that are kept chained or paraded for pelf, routinely. Going by the track record of such barbaric practices one can only imagine the plight of these hapless birds.

Isn’t it a travesty that birds are venerated and then exploited for its “religious” significance?

Unlike many anthropocentric religions which place Man on a pedestal, Hinduism places Nature in the same bracket as humans. The religion preaches love for and worships Nature in all forms—the five elements, animals, birds, fish, even stones.  And yet some of its votaries carry on pernicious practices in the very name of religion.

Man exploits animals for sport and food, for greed and in the name of God. He ensnares, captures, maims, poaches, declaws, defangs, gouges, skins, and slaughters creatures to fulfil imagined desires and fetishes. Vegetarianism is not the bone of contention here, but animal cruelty certainly is. My focus is on unethical treatment of animals and activities that are forbidden by law for being unjust and insensitive. These “criminals” who indulge in trade of animals and animal parts of vulnerable and endangered wildlife often go scot-free and untraced by moribund authorities. Laws such as Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 are mere paper tigers.  

Criminals are deliberate offenders but what about those who seek “darshan” or partake of such rituals because of their blind beliefs? How does one trace or book them and how many will you crucify? This section of “offenders” is a subset of the masses for whom religion is the opium, for which they can kill or instigate killing of animals. Who is to say they may not extend the same discourtesies to humans?

What I do not understand is why don’t any of our more respectable spiritual leaders such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev, to name two, raise their voice against these practices and condemn them as anti-Hindu? Why don’t they take up the mantle of animal rights activists to protect our wildlife and try and stop such inhuman practices in the name of “God”? 

I am an avowed spiritual Hindu who takes pride in the ideals of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and sarva dharma sama bhava; a jnana yogi, if you will. I distance myself from rituals, symbolisms, and idol worship. I go to a temple to “see” its art and architecture, learn about local deities, and not necessarily to pray. I am not a “practising” Hindu or a “believer” in the traditional sense. Having said that let me add: I am enamoured by Hindu epics, mythology, rituals and festivals for the stories and significance behind them. I am besotted by the pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses—some in animal avatar and others with their animal vehicles—for the million manifestations of mankind. I am completely smitten by images and symbolisms, therein, for the sheer ingenuity and artistry.  The universal principle of Sanatan Dharma appeals to me intellectually.

In recent times though, some political “Hindus” are giving the religion a bad name. I don't identify with that kind of collective, institutional brand of militant Hinduism. I wish to reclaim the pristine nature of my religion. I much rather worship trees, birds, animals, sun, moon, stars…that exist, if it will help break barriers, than create Gods, label them, and form a cult. Nature—the Earth—has existed for eons and is universal to humankind irrespective of geography, history, and borders. You just have to look at a tiger or an elephant, watch its behaviour in the wild, to know what Satyam Shivam Sundaram stands for.  

Look at the serendipity. As I was anguishing the roller birds’ fate and mulling over this piece, I happened to see the life-changing Marathi film, “Dr. Prakash Baba Amte—The Real Hero”, on television.

A blog will do not justice to his life-story. Let’s just say that here is a man who not only won the confidence of isolated Adivasi of interior Maharashtra and changed their lives, but also that of orphaned wild animals such as lions and leopards. For Dr. Amte, whose life and work is phenomenally inspiring, Nature is the binding factor for all humanity. It is mother, teacher, provider, healer et al.  Dr. Amte chose Nature over man-made religion to establish peace and harmony in his karmabhoomi, Hemalkasa, which is an El Dorado, of sorts.

The extreme right-wing elements of the party in power and the fringe will do well to remember that they are doing the biggest disservice to Hindu religion—to its inclusive nature—of which they proclaim to be custodians of. They better back off soonest.








TERMS EXPLAINED:

“...the turquoise and sapphire-tinted splendour of his wings…" -  description of a roller from JL Kipling’s, “Animals in India”

Haiku: A three-line verse of Japanese origin usually with Nature as its theme

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: The World/Earth is one big family

Sarva dharma sama bhava: All religions deserve equal respect

Jnana Yogi: A “seeker” or one who follows the path of Knowledge, one of the four paths to attain salvation 

Vahana: Favoured vehicle of travel of Gods and Goddesses according to Hindu mythology

Santana Dharma: It is not a faith, but an idea that there is no beginning or end to Universe and that Truthwhether we know it or notis universal and eternal 

Satyam Shivam Sundaram: Truth, Divinity, and Beauty

Karmabhoomi: The concept of “land of work” where one’s purpose in life is to be fulfilled 







ALL PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS BLOG AND WEBSITE ARE THE AUTHOR'S ORIGINAL WORK/COPYRIGHT.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

WAITING IN THE WINGS

MICRO LIFE WITH MACRO LENS


When one shutter closes, another one opens.

Like any birder, I started birdwatching by procuring a decent pair of binoculars and a bird guide. This was two decades ago, in India. Then came a time, during my Kenya sojourn, when I would reach for my camera sooner than the binoculars; my birding trips were rarely complete without my Canon PowerShot SX100.

The PowerShot was my first camera and, like a faithful friend, I  tagged it along everywhere. With an effective focal length of 360mm, it served me well for wildlife photography to seal in memories of once-in-a-lifetime (figuratively speaking) safaris. Of course, it fell woefully short in the face of the “bazookas” tourists of all hues flaunted there. Thankfully, I was not shooting wild African lions and elephants with a cell-phone camera like a visiting friend once did!

That is when there was a paradigm shift.

Passionate birders believe that binoculars are all you need for birdwatching. They maintain that a camera is a redundancy, a distraction at best. They believe that in the pursuit of obtaining the perfect picture, birder-photographers sacrifice acute observation and pure pleasure. The keen birder in me sees the point, but the bird-photographer in me has her own infallible logic.

Nobody can deny the immense contribution of photography in recording and documenting vital and subtle information. In many instances, logging of bird-sightings thus has aided in accurate identification of species that has confounded even a seasoned birder. Having said that, bird photography, like any other form of photography is, primarily, a "fine art" and not just means of documentation.

There is a breed of bird-photographers, as distinct from purist birders, that has to compulsively and obsessively entrap birds in its lens-eyes. This breed suffers from an irresistible itch to immortalize the subjects and aims to give it its best shot.  

For a while, I managed with the PowerShot, but soon it lost its appeal and application and I knew it was time to move on to a DSLR. As a greenhorn in creative photography, I settled for a crop sensor camera more out of consideration of budget than desire. I landed an incredible deal in a Canon EOS 700D with a kit lens combination—of standard lens and a macro telephoto. The entire kit cost less than the price of a good camera-body alone; what's more, a macro lens costing nearly Rs. 10,000 was virtually thrown in!  But as is wont with "interchangeable-lens cameras", without an appropriate lens I am still nowhere equipped for birding photography. Reaching for a camera-body was easier; it was the lay of the lens that had me in a fix.

Birding lenses which are super telephotos are the most expensive accessory of all photography gear. Of course, there are relatively cheaper versions, but they are not a patch on the “original” ones. I surveyed, researched, and discussed with friends and photo-enthusiasts the merits and demerits of birding lenses. I deliberated on the possibility of third-party lenses with relatively smaller reach to fit my pocket size, but nixed it presently.

In my book of photography, image quality is sacrosanct. For bird photography, smaller reach is akin to getting to the doorstep of the bird-world but no further. What I have my sights on is the latest version of the enduring Canon “100 – 400 mm” zoom, a technology marvel. But there is a blip between the eye and the lens. For a hobbyist, it is an extravagance ill-afforded, and I don't see me indulging myself; not yet. Of course, if I had my way I would go in for the best prime lens! There is no end to greed and need in photography, an expensive hobby if there was one.

As I bide my time for the perfect birding lens, I am out experimenting with the macro telephoto. My birding trips are now enhanced to being wholesome nature trips. In the process, I have stumbled upon butterflies and bees, dragonflies and damselflies, and chameleons and crickets.  Butterflies are always creating a flutter in Dolphin Hill where I reside, but now I am able to “see” them better with the "55 – 250 mm" appendage. The fresh “eyesight” has brought me closer to these insects-on-wings for I am discovering their habits and habitat, now. As I hover over butterflies trying to focus, I naturally latch onto dragonflies—dainty creatures with gossamer wings—in scarlet and sunset yellows.

With my macro lens, I am unravelling micro life.

After ornithology, I am drawn into entomology.

Birding and photography make for a captivating combination. Among nature- and photo-enthusiasts, birds and birding photography are perched high in wildlife hierarchy. It was my passion for birding that led to photography and that in turn has sparked interest in insects, anew. Delegated to low life, the insects were waiting in the wings for their moment in the sun. In my eyes and lens, they are now elevated. For their part though, they were always content in the knowledge—or perhaps oblivious—of the invaluable part they play in the web of life. 

































ALL PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS BLOG AND WEBSITE ARE THE AUTHOR'S ORIGINAL WORK/COPYRIGHT.

Monday, July 13, 2015

CREATING A FLUTTER

It seemed like the other day when Hudhud created a flutter. The fury of the cyclone laid waste veteran trees in its wake and took its toll on birds; the butterflies simply stood no chance. Birds made a modest comeback even before the natural ecology of Dolphin Hill limped back to life-as-usual. Summer has been unbearably harsh, but Nature’s resilience is such that scrubland and woods have rejuvenated on their own steam. Few showers of Vizag’s monsoon have helped the ‘weed’ understory flourish. Now nine months on, something else is creating a flutter. The hillside is trembling excitedly to the rhythm of butterflies once again. They have been tardy in returning, but they are back for sure.

The much-derided lantana camara – the ‘untouchable’ among plant kingdom, has come to the rescue. Sitting on the patio, I had been witness to few swallowtails, which were once the pride of this place, flitting over verge and low trees. Common Rose and Crimson Rose, particularly attracted attention as they doubled in size mating mid-air! The general buzz of these bugs was tantalizing, so this Sunday morning I decided to give in. In my part of the woods, where ‘weeds’ have been allowed to grow, I counted nearly 20 species of butterflies in as many minutes on a 50-metre trail by the fence. Armed with my new DSLR and a macro telephoto lens, I set out on a chase.

Most species give you the slip as they flit from flower to wildflower. Some like this tailless swallowtail – the Lime butterfly – that I went after, flap constantly proving elusive. Others like albatross and emigrants are difficult to pin down frolicking as they are, usually, in twos and threes. Tawny coasters and grass yellows were gliding energetically by a carpet of ‘coat button’ daisies (Tridax procumbens or ‘Ravana-heads’ of our childhood) and Crotalaria. I did arrest the slow flight of a tawny coaster and was surprised to see that it had an oily sheen to its wings. Thankfully, the common leopard and lemon pansy posed as they did surya namaskar (they love to sun-bathe with wings wide open) first thing in the morning.

The Calotropis procera or the Sodom’s apple that grows invasive by the roadside is considered an outcast, but it is another great butterfly magnet. Its bouquet of mauve flowers provides food for variety of butterflies from tigers to pansies and the waxy leaves are a great host for caterpillars.

In all that drama, there was also the side-show. There were caterpillars—that would metamorphose into butterflies, feeding on plants. Crickets leapt out of thickets making me jump. Bugs made my skin crawl. Common Indian Chameleons basked in the sun, lazily, watching me with a curious eye, wondering at my whimsy.

This is backyard biodiversity at its best. Such macro-life can thrive only in ‘hospitable’ conditions that may seem ‘inhospitable’ for us. Most of us think that landscaping, trimmed trees, and regimented rows of pruned foliage with big, bright flowers constitute ‘natural beauty’. That unwieldy grass or scrub with dried twigs is sight for sore eyes. How many of us know that the so-called ‘weeds’ are but wildflowers with medicinal and commercial value to mankind? It is this higgledy-piggledy wasteland we so despise that is the actual breeding ground for bugs, bees, butterflies and birds that constitute the web of life. It is not my contention that, therefore, we encourage indiscriminate growth of invasive weeds. Under controlled conditions, natural vegetation can be co-opted into ‘tree plantation’ and ‘greening’ schemes to help restore soil and micro-climate. Even as we create artificial oases, we must strive to preserve wild pockets.



Lemon pansies feeding on Sodom's apple shrub 

Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus)
Dark Glassy Tiger

Lemon pansy (Junonia lemonias)
Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus)


Great Eggfly (Hypolimnus bolina)
Common Leopard (Phalanta phalanta)


Common Indian Crow 
Tawny Coaster (Acraea violae)














ALL PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS BLOG AND WEBSITE ARE THE AUTHOR'S ORIGINAL WORK/COPYRIGHT.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Heritage on Wheels


As a suburban Mumbaikar, I grew up with local trains, their rhythm resonating with the dil ki dhadkan, as it were. Perhaps that’s why one took the railways for granted. There was nothing romantic about it; if anything it was a dehumanising saga of crowds and chaos. The seasonal travels of summer holidays were another matter and while it evokes great nostalgia even today, it did not make me particularly romance the railways. Thus I can’t claim to be an ardent rail enthusiast, certainly not the 'collector' variety.

Much later, when my son was a toddler in Wellington, Nilgiris, we embarked on the heritage BlueMountain Rail (BMR) when our sojourn in the salubrious climes came to a close. The ‘Nilagiri’ Express had just celebrated its centenary year and was still going strong. I have yet to see a railway station as quaint and back-of-the-beyond as Coonoor from where we embarked on a 'fantasy-land' journey to Ooty. I still remember vividly that as the ‘toy train’ whistled and wound its way through misty mountain passes and emerald countryside with its brooks and birds, I felt I was floating on clouds. It was an epic journey that contained in it the magic of my entire ‘Nilgiri experience’. The romance began then.

Thus, later in Kenya, I sought to track the historic Uganda Railway (UR) or the Lunatic Line as the locals branded it ominously. I visited various ‘ports of call’ from Mombasa on Kenya’s East Coast to Kisumu on the West, over three years, virtually tracing the history of the nation. 

At the legendary Tsavo station of the ‘Maneaters of Tsavo’ fame the Station Master was so overwhelmed by our presence (nobody visited him at this remote outpost) that he presented us a signal lantern from the historic era languishing in the yard. A friend—a collector of railway memorabilia—whose great grandfather had migrated from India to Kenya and worked for UR presented us with an original number plate of an engine of the erstwhile UR. Both these souvenirs corner a pride of place in my home fuelling my curiosity for railway history further.

Tsavo station in Kenya
Quaint bric-a-brac at Tsavo station










Recently, another serendipitous trophy came along in the form of an autographed book on Indian Railways by a birder friend and Railwayman, Mr. JL Singh. Indian Railways - More Miles…More Smiles is a modest anthology of assorted articles edited by him. In his words: “…all facets and aspects of this monolithic organisation have been covered and presented in various books, volumes, publications, manuals, even in novels and short stories. After much consideration and contemplation, I concluded that one dimension of the railways in our country that is not recognised, appreciated and understood is the tribe of railway enthusiasts.”

"A rail enthusiast could be interested in history of the railways, in its locomotives, coaches, wagons, its stations, signalling systems, its ticketing methods, its bridges and tunnels, or even the food served on the railway platforms," Joydeep Dutta writes in 'The Hidden Face of the Railway Enthusiast'. 

Thus you have an essay by Bill Aitken on ‘Branch Line Profit and Poetry’ ruing the conversion of Meter Gauge (MG) sections to Broad Gauge (BG), a philatelic journey of steam locomotives by Vikas Singh, a photo-essay on 'Trains in Motion', and JL Singh himself holding forth on the ‘First ladies’ and ‘Sporting Traditions’, among rivetting others. Through anecdotal information, personal histories and archival photographs the book covers diverse aspects of railway architecture, residential colonies reminiscent of the British era, engineering feats, rail modelling, Railway Territorial Army and so on. 

Sample this anecdote by rail enthusiast Ashish P. Kuvelkar in ‘Romancing the Bhore Ghat’: “Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus from Mumbai is one of the most photographed buildings in India. The erstwhile Victoria Terminus (VT), this world heritage building owes its existence to the 21-mile railway line that was laid from Boribunder near this terminus to Thanna (now Thane) in the 1850s. On this line ran the first train in India on 16th April, 1853. This 14-coach train carried 400 passengers most of them being invited dignitaries. A large crowd cheered as the train left Boribunder at 3.30 p.m. to a 21-gun salute on a day declared to be a public holiday. The train reached Thanna an hour and fifteen minutes later. Railways had arrived in India!”

While the information factoid here may not be novel, the drama certainly is and it did make me view the mundane local train commutes of my college days—daily date with the Thane creek and VT station, in a new light!  

After the sampler, we simply could not resist the opportunity this summer to travel by the World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, an iconic institution. Unlike the BMR, DHR retains its original character all with coal-fired steam engine. Unlike BMR, which is meter-gauge and therefore, luxurious, the DHR is narrow-gauge making the train compartments uncomfortably compact. Moreover, the constant clickety-clack of the wheels, the shrill ear-piercing whistle, the jerks, jolts, and the sooty fumes made for a nerve-wracking journey. 

The track hugs the hill-township such that we were snooping into shops and houses. What I found particularly fascinating was that though the train makes trips everyday, everyone left their business-at-hand to stop and watch the train go by, children and adults waving out. We traversed just the Darjeeeling-Ghoom (Ghoom is India’s highest railway station) stretch but that was enough for us to appreciate the guts of those who undertook the entire journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling in the colonial era. Of course, the hills would have been much more charming and serene then.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
India's highest railway station









Indian Railways is one of the world’s largest rail networks and as an organisation, the second largest employer in India after the Indian Army. More Miles…More Smiles provides a sneak peek into this world with a tinge of nostalgia. Through this book, Editor JL Singh, a ‘rail lover’ as he calls himself, awakens the rail lover in each one of us.  



Sunday, May 3, 2015

DAYDREAMING AND THE ART OF LIVING

Sometimes, at social dos, people ask me what I do, or if they know me a bit, what I have been up to. I am often at a loss to answer. Yesterday, when someone queried again, it set me thinking. You see, I am on a perennial sabbatical. Most mornings, I sit on the patio—ostensibly with the newspapers—and meditate to the bay-view. I deep breathe the bay breeze and let it fan my daydreams. I hear the carolling of the magpie robin and watch bulbuls weave in and out of the scrub awakening the day with their boundless energy.

As the day wears on, I eavesdrop on the yakking mynahs and tune in to the intermittent call of a shikra and the aria of an oriole. I attend to the ‘Mother Tree’ banyan in the backyard where a resident pair of spotted owlets plays house and treepies or coucals come visiting. I let the call of the koel—two-note cadences or a longer melody—wash over me with its soothing effect. At times I am party to a shrill dialogue, or should I say, a slanging match, between two male koels; often, a third joins in for a strident trio.
   
I watch the neighbourhood duo of stray dogs with their individual personalities frolic like children. On somnolent afternoons, they wander about listlessly doing their little job on the car tyres marking their territory.  With the whole day at their disposal, between play, they look at each other with an expression that seems to say: “What we gonna do now", "I don’t know, what you wanna do now", like the mangy vultures in 'The Jungle Book' movie!

On a bright day, I study the 5 p.m. sunlight trapped in leaves in a tender portrait.

On a wind-racked day, I listen to the heaving trees and whispering leaves. I trace the pattern of a falling leaf and follow its journey to the ground.

The child in me chases butterflies (not with a net or to catch them in my palm) to arrest the flight of a Crimson Rose or a Common Mormon mid-air and imprison it in my PowerShot. More often than not, I find myself searching the horizon or the neighbourhood for ‘wild’ stories to capture on camera or on paper.
 
On some days, I go hunting for eagle owls with the desire to shoot them! Such spontaneous sojourns in the neglected neck of woods have been rewarded by sightings of a female rock thrush, grey francolins, nightjars and even a stray peafowl. These serendipitous and special instances only lure me further into the alternate world.

I drive down the Dolphin Hill road taking in the bio-blitz—the rocky ridge, the vegetation, the wildflowers and brahminy kites or white-bellied sea eagles encircling the harbour with nary a worry in the world. It lifts my spirits to see a bird of prey soar into the sky gliding on the thermal. That flight encapsulates a moment and an eternity at the same time. I often gaze up at the rocky outcrop flanking the road to look for signs of life. When once my eyes locked on to a monitor lizard lazily surveying low life below, in that instant, I became her.

Yesterday, errant winds brought in unseasonal rains... with it the aroma of wet earth. When the downpour stilled I stood witness to the interplay of sun-shine and cloudy skies. On my evening walk, I soaked in the cool vapours suffused with the hint of eucalyptus by the rain-drenched hillsides; the best aromatherapy I have known. I witnessed termites take wings shooting out like subsurface to air missiles only to drop dead littering the path. Within minutes the ground beneath the feet was flushed with black ants that emerged out of nowhere to scavenge the critters clean.

At dusk, today, standing on the verandah, I could barely make out a blob—the size of a cricket ball—on a lamp pole. A spotted owlet unfurled its wings and when it caught the glare of the sodium vapour lamp it seemed to flare up; a magical moment, indeed. A parliament of owlets—six of them—was shaking off sleep, flexing its wings, and getting into action in the valley across, for the night. It was their time and their territory.

I stand and stare.

I halt and hear. In the pristine silence around me, I hear myself, loud and clear.

I smell the air, breathe the greens, hug the trees, talk to plants and feel the hum and throb of life.

I commune with the Earth.


I do not know if these idyllic snatches add up to anything or even whether they add years to my life or subtract years from my age. What I do know is that each such moment seems fulfilling, an end in itself.

In between all this living, I watch people go about their work and routine; I grapple with ills that ail the society; I try to make sense of Indian politics; do a bit of writing; run errands; do household chores; cook; look after my family; engage with friends; and keep up with social obligations…  


Purple fountain grass catching first light of the day


Indian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo bengalensis


















All Photographs in this blog and website are the Author's Original work/Copyright. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

POCKET BIRDING

There are long stretches when I cannot go birding early in the morning, out on field trips. But that does not prevent me from watching the backyard banyan or snatching time to search pockets in my neighbourhood—whenever, wherever. It is like what the doctor orders: when you cannot spare time for a full-fledged workout, take the stairs or stretch in the confines of your office!

A word about my neighbourhood: I stay on a hill where the tapering topography gives me a clear and unhindered vista of the bay by the foothills. My block is also wonderfully ensconced in an isolated lane giving it a fantastical world-of-my-own feel. Precisely because of the vast expanse, it is not easy to spot birds from the perch of my balcao, particularly now in the post-Hudhud (cyclone that visited us last October) phase when the tree cover and the shrubbery has whittled down.

Three blocks sit in my lane and at the last the road curves in a U-turn; there is a children’s park nearby, a patch of neglected woods and overgrown scrub beyond the fence. The other day, saddled with excessive work, I had to forgo my customary evening walk and could step out for a quick stroll only at dusk. Just as I crossed the blocks and turned the corner, I saw a nightjar squatting in the middle of the road right under the noses of the noisy children at the park. I could barely make out its form in the fading light until it took off. It sallied and swooped down to the same spot again and again with a chuk-chuk call.

Nightjars are funny creatures… unlike most other bird species they will not turn tail at the slightest human presence. They stay put mid-road, sometimes at the peril of being crushed under wheels, and take you by surprise if you get too close unawares, before taking off.

I moved closer without unsettling this one and sat on the parapet watching its sorties, mesmerized. It was a magical moment stolen from a mundane existence. Few days later, I set out on the same trail around the same time hoping to see the Grey Nightjar (Caprimulgus indicus)or was it an Indian Nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus)once again.  Birds, you see, are creatures of habit and routine. Imagine my excitement at spotting not one but two nightjars. A few more rounds and I was rewarded by a huge apparition of a Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) atop a lamp post. Hoo-hooing softly, it peered down at me wide-eyed and for a moment our gaze locked. In that instant, it took wings, and ever so lightly, disappeared into the descending darkness. Birding like this without the encumbrances of binoculars, cameras, guidebooks etc. is ‘pure pleasure’. 

After sundown a new world was coming alive. Nocturnal birds were blinking sleep off their eyes, stretching their wings and embracing the dark. It made me wonder what orgies play out when we are safely tucked in and fast asleep in the dead of the night. Nightlife such as porcupines, foxes, civets, even leopards—who knowsmust be lording it over! An aside: In the savannas, tourists on safari have to be strictly inside the safe havens of the resort by 6 pm. Unless you go on a night safari, there is no way of knowing what happens in the pitch black yonder. But once in a while a streak of lightning lights up a zebra herd huddled in the open plains, or a hyena cackles close by or worse, a lion strays outside your room or a hippo by your tent! It is a sneak peek into an alternate world.

Female Blue Rock Thrush 
Some days back, in the morning the park had another visitor, literally and figuratively. Perched on the fence wall was a dull brown heavily streaked bird, a lifer for me. Going by its stance and general appearance, it seemed to me to be a female Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius). Its unmistakably blue counterpart was nowhere to be seen. This is a winter migrant from Europe and national bird of Malta, I learn. Also present was a pipit, not sure which sub-species (need to cross-check with my expert birder friends). Just a small patch of neighbourhood slightly off the beaten track had thrown up extraordinary and innumerable possibilities.

Similarly, the banyan in the backyard is a transit point for koels, treepies, orioles, besides being home to a pair of Spotted Owlets (Athene brama). From my bedroom window, unbeknown to them, I can pry into their ‘bedroom’ and watch them snuggle up to each other—grooming and kissing.

Who says you need an earmarked birding hotspot or dense woods to indulge in birdwatching! The smallest of space—a tree (banyan flush with figs, mango in bloom or silk cotton bursting with cotton pods), a playground, a modest water body, roadside wasteland, pockets of deadwood and debris (like that generated after the cyclone and still lying about), and of course, a house garden – all can be fertile birding sites, no less. In fact, more neglected the pocket the richer it is likely to be in birdlife.  

One of my most unusual birding experience was at the Tiger Hill (War Graves) Cemetery in Coonoor, Nilgiris in South India. The cemetery entrance was a charming, compact stone building with an arched doorway and lancet windows housing the graves of WWII soldiers. Weeping cypresses and firs towered over the dwarf facade and dry leaves littered the ground providing a haven for lower life. Nilgiri verditer flycatchers could be seen weaving in and out of the gravestones that also served as props for other avifauna. With not a soul around, the place seemed dead, and yet, with plenty of birds, so alive, that it was a surreal experience just to be standing there!



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CAUGHT IN THE ACT

RESIDENT PAIR OF SPOTTED OWLETS IN THE BACKYARD