Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Starting off: The Kawal article

One of BSAP’s newest members, Ludwig, messaged me this week: ‘Golden oriole, fem. What is wrong with Begumpet?’ I gave him that old birding truism: ‘Birding gives fresh eyes.’ But it isn’t just that, you know.

What it is is also beginner’s luck. Take a newbie with you on an outing and if they’re even halfway inclined, you’re bound to see all manner of species short of Rhodonessa caryophyllacea, all of course just to make sure they’re well and properly reeled in.

With me, it was the Scarlet Minivet. Tyda, Eastern Ghats, Andhra Pradesh. The first day on the trip left me a little overwhelmed – I knew I hadn’t the best eyesight but people were apparently seeing things with the speed of light. There! There! they went, and all I saw was bouncing branches. Till we stumbled upon a hunting party and saw what seemed like a forestful of birds – nuthatches, orioles, verditer flycatchers, minivets, chestnut bee-eaters.

I’d written this account of a trip to Kawal, interspersed with general remarks on what a beginner can expect from birding. Published in India Today Travel Plus in July 2005. It also belongs here.

Two in the bush

By Sheetal Vyas

It’s early morning, and still dark. A group of soft-footed people walks along forest trails, a sharp ear out for a rustle here, a chirrup there. As the dawn grows lighter, noisy screechy parakeets zip across the path and bulbuls raise a din. Binoculars raised, the birders communicate in near-silence or murmurs, tapping each other on the shoulder to point to a woodpecker or a sunbird. A couple more hours in the strengthening sunlight and the morning’s session is done. Notes are made and compared. A birdlist is made, coffee is drunk, and all’s well with the world.

Fact of life: there’s no such thing as a former birder. Once you’re hooked onto observing or identifying the feathered ones, one way or another it’s an affair that lasts a lifetime. Why, though? What’s the deal with birds? They’re cute and all that, but why should watching them be so addictive?
There are many reasons: nature, knowledge, activity, community… but there is one word that is never far away when you mention birding: joy. The sheer joy of it. The grace of a heron soaring across the horizon, the flutter of geese as they flush, the flash of colour as a jay takes flight… yes, the most enduring reason to bird is the pleasure it gives.

We were ten birders on this trip. Our destination: Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary, Adilabad district, Andhra Pradesh. About 900 sq km of dry deciduous forest, and reportedly one of the best sanctuaries in Andhra Pradesh. I was excited.

Kawal is a charmingly untouched place. In these times, when you find tourists milling around the smallest hill station or jungle lodge, it was refreshing to find a place still off the beaten track, still undiscovered. No resorts, no guided tours; just a government rest house and forests that are… just forests. Our trip was linked to two wildlife organisations, the Birdwatchers' Society of Andhra Pradesh (BSAP) and the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (Hyticos).

Birding is done best early in the mornings and the evenings, which makes it important to be up early and in the field as the birds stir. Our first foray was to Dongapalle, a Telugu name that translates roughly to ‘village of thieves’. The first sightings were of the more common ones: red-vented bulbuls, small green bee-eaters, rose-ringed parakeets and a white-breasted kingfisher.

Common, did I say? There was a time, a few years ago, when any bird that wasn’t a crow or a pigeon was ‘exotic’ to me. It took one birding trip and a little ‘tuning in’ to realise that red-vented bulbuls dropped by my garden every single day… I just hadn’t seen them before. As do purple sunbirds and common tailorbirds. Shocking, to know they had been right here all this time.

I have progressed a little since then, but there are still aggravations. At Dongapalle, I was engrossed in spotting what may have been a woodshrike, when violent ‘come-quick’ hand signals from the others sped me on. They’d seen a Tickell’s flycatcher, a lovely blue bird with an orange throat. As it always happens, it had quite disappeared by the time I got there. I’ve never ever seen the dratted bird, and it always appears on the consolidated bird lists.

It takes a while for a wet-behind-the-ears birdwatcher to get the hang of birding. First there’s the little matter of spotting a timid little flutter in dense foliage. Peer as you will, you can’t tell if there is really a living creature in there. If you do manage to get a clear look, then comes the noting of its size, form, colour, beak, markings – all on the basis of a single, very fleeting glimpse. Then comes the job of pinning an identity on this bird, which means wading through the 1300-odd species in India… it comes, they tell you encouragingly, with experience.

Our afternoon session was at Kadam reservoir. Kadam River, a tributary of the Godavari, runs along Kawal’s southern boundary. Soothing waters, surrounded by forests and a long walk along the bund itself. Plenty of water birds: open-billed storks, ducks, herons, egrets, cormorants, lapwings. Also, gulls by the dozen, swooping about, and beautiful to watch.

Make no mistake, birding can be frustrating, especially when you’re getting started. There! someone will exclaim, a pied kingfisher! And you swivel madly, adjusting your binoculars as you go, trying to get a fix on the exact location. Minutes later, you come to a bare-looking stump. Look around you and everyone’s finished with the now-missing kingfisher and moved on to the river terns. Speed, I learnt quickly, is of the essence!

As dusk advanced, so did we towards a gond tribal hamlet in Mysempet. We were now in the heart of the forests, glimpsing black bucks and a herd of chinkara as we passed through. The hamlet is accessible only by four-wheel drive and is quite a vantage point over the surrounding forests. The adults stared at us and the children followed us around noisily as we walked in. The houses are all made of timber – it felt odd to see solid timber worth the-lord-knows-how-many lakhs sheltering cows and poultry; but so it is.

We were put up in the local school, the only concrete structure for miles. No electricity, and so a good fire set the mood perfectly. The night was as clear as we could hope for and we lay back and toured a few constellations. After dinner was polished off, we sat around to campfire tales. There was just a light nip in the air and the fire crackled comfortingly. There had been a tentative night outing planned, hoping to see a few owls and nightjars perhaps, but the full-dinner-and-hypnotic-fire combination put paid to that and we wandered off to our respective charpais and sleeping bags.

Waking up was a comedy of sorts. We were four women altogether, and all the alarms we’d set mysteriously refused to go off. At 6.30 – the hour we should have been setting off – there was a banging on the door and what a mad scramble there was! I see no shame in confessing that no baths were taken on that morning – it would have been a greater shame to miss out on the wonderful morning light. The day was still young and we made good time.

As we set off, the ubiquitous Indian roller greeted us good morning. This is a brilliantly coloured bird, splashed in electric blue: it’s attractive enough as it sits, but breathtaking in flight. Also, the state bird of Andhra Pradesh.

We saw plum-headed parakeets also, high up on a perch, their bright heads catching the light beautifully. Then we something that caused much consternation: distinct grey heads amongst the plum. How could this be? After all, the grey-headed and slaty-headed parakeets are never found in this part of the country. A quick consultation with the guide books solved the mystery - the female of the plum-headed parakeet is actually grey-headed, see? The sexes in many species look completely different, adding yet another complication to the already challenging task of identifying a bird.

The technicalities of birding needn’t bog down novices, though. Birds enrich even without your going into species, habits and habitat. You begin to absorb more without knowing how. It’s a learning curve that never quite ends, for no matter how many years you’ve been at it, there will always be some bird you’re seeing for the first time. Birders have been known to cross continents to see a single bird so they can tick off yet another in a long wish-list.

We had just sat down to a snack in a clearing when I saw my first, my very first paradise flycatcher. It’s heartbreaking to miss rare birds that others have sighted, but equally maddening to miss out on one particular fairly common bird at every outing. Oh, I’d seen the female – an exquisite, brown flighty creature, but unless you’ve seen the white male, you just haven’t seen this bird. So, there he was, in all his glory, flitting about the reedy growth, his delicate streamer-tail swooping behind him in utter grace. I got a nice, long leisurely look. Worth the wait? Every minute of it.

We saw about 55 species in the three days we spent in Kawal. That isn’t a bad count, but go to the Eastern or Western Ghats, and we could easily double that number. Bharatpur alone can give a count of over a hundred in a single day. I came away thinking that is remarkable what ‘tuning into’ birds can do to your life. It’s almost like an additional sense and more friends. I’ve developed a tendency to scan the skies, with a casual eye out for a raptor. It’s a comfort to register that there’s a set of babblers in my garden, parakeets on the guava tree or a coppersmith at the very top of the Ashoka, flinging his soul into the air.


Gayathri said...

Oh dear. And birding was one thing I thought I could relegate to the "not in this life-time, not for me" list. But now you go and describe it so well and I weep that there are only 24 hours in a day.

Arjun said...

hehe my first sighting of a pradsie flycathcer was near my old house..was going to the uni with the weight of the world on my shoulders ( in other words arey Prof Borealot ka 5 hour special class hai) when suddenly i hear some vague noise followed by the sound of fluttering...and there it was a beautiful paradise flycatcher in the flesh the result of this was i missed my direct bus and was very late for the class so had 40 minutes less of hammering to withstand. I saw him (the bird and not the prof) again a couple of times but that is a different story.

Sheetal said...

Gagu: You're such a superb multi-tasker, if you ever got started, you'd fit in somewhere :-)
You had to sign WV thrice?! Awww, thank you so much; you touch me, you do.

A'jun: A Paradise flycatcher and forty minutes less of Prof Borealot? You lucked out, boy.

Ludwig said...

upupa epops! How can not one be smitten by such a thing?!!

Sheetal said...

Lud: Ain't it the sweetest thing? And Upupa epops is among my favourite-est latin names, with Amandava amandava coming close.