It was not long before, that I had attempted defogging my lens’s front element, and messed up the already unkind humid odds. Comfort of car AC had lazed both, the camera lens and me. The distance of 555 kms between Bangalore and Thattekad not only has a direct role in biodiversity changes but also in the humidity levels.
Driver chettan was already there, to pick me up in his 4×4. His hurried look hurried me further, I stopped the redundant over cleaning of the glass and hiked on to the co-driver’s seat. It was a huge leap, literally. We were off, with dust chasing the knobby tires. ‘Treepie hide!’, he screamed not looking for my response. Neither did I know enough to bother. Hide photography could be a popular option for some bird photographers but enthusiastically ridiculed by far many more; I choose to ignore both and consider myself an opportunistic birder but ethical types.
Minutes after I got dropped at the hide entrance, I was still checking if the road had spared my gear undamaged, when the driver chettan reversed his 4×4 in haste. It was clear he had forgotten to pass on a message, an important one. He hushed, ‘snakes ok, noise not ok – birds will not come again tomorrow if disturbed’. I agreed with a continuous Indian head shake, adding neck rotation slyly to help ease the already complaining neck. I sometimes wonder, why neck hurts when shoulders bear all the weight? Well, lets leave the anatomy to Doctors.
Three minutes later, I found myself just barely saving my gear from biting the dust for the fourth time. My balancing skills turn particularly bad when I attempt crossing over a stretch of small mound with feet deep trenches on either sides. Yes, the expensive heavy camera gear is to blame and the paranoia of pending EMIs worsens it. Finally, I entered the hide. Not just unfallen but also saving almost all the visible cobwebs enroute. Hunched, I managed a safe landing on one of the stools inside, it was a signature bird hide sized stool – stood small and with at least one leg almost broken. I always wonder how obese birders settle their seats on such flimsy setups, even with just bones to sit on, I barely survive 15 mins in one go.
3.30 PM is arguably the best time to start afternoon birding. It gives you half an hour to start easy, waste a couple of shots with ill informed exposure settings and course correct. I sometimes feel, birds like the 4 PM schedule. More often than not, you see them taking a dip in water sharp at about then and onwards. My focus for this year’s Thattekad birding trip was set on one bird, the colorful Indian Pitta. I had decided to spend two full days looking for it and not return until I found one. But the vegetation around this hide, where I was destined to spend the day one afternoon was clearly not favourable for ground birds, no wonder it was nicknamed “Treepie hide”. Perches around indicated larger birds and their intriguing party hunting habitat.
Party hunting, actually referred to as ‘mixed-species feeding’ is a flock behaviour which involves different species of birds that join each other to collectively engage in foraging. The master mimic, Racket-tailed Drongo is a popular initiator of this “dialogue” per se. Their iconic vocal imitations are known to initiate bird communities for the party hunting behaviour and of course, the undue advantage that they take of their voice mimicry to divert smaller birds to aid food piracy habits! Rascals, aren’t they!?
It was about time I moved my seat to readjust my base and as I engaged in the circus, I heard loud shrills. My years of birding has taught me to interpret bird calls to the extent of the possible size of the originator, but this was different. Not just different, it was peculiar! I immediately knew there would be more colour to my afternoon, that had a fast approaching “golden hour”.
A quick switch from two notes to three, and three notes to four and back to start all over again did convey a thing or two. I peeked through the box sized cutout window of the hide only to scratch my forehead with a rude protruding metal wire. Cursing, I poked my head out again but this time a little more carefully. There it was, the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo.
Within minutes the atmosphere turned exhilarating, all the passerines of Western ghats seemed to line up. Not just the bulbuls and the robin but also the sought after Asian Fairy bluebird showed up. All them appeared to see something, say something and fly away in haste, as if they had a ‘touch and go’ OCD. This continued till my index finger hurt and the camera buffer froze. Little did I know the main action was yet to begin.
The drama went on for a better part of the afternoon until I got bored and stopped clicking. Then all of a sudden, there was a hurried flight by all. The sudden escape was more sudden than any that I had witnessed. Just as I thought it was probably driver chettan’s entry which scared them away. I sensed something huge come and land just above. A big bird I knew, but which one? A Large-billed crow perhaps, I thought modestly.
I stuck my head through the box sized cutout window of the hide yet again, but immediately retracted it back this time almost as efficiently as a tortoise. There was a Crested-hawk eagle perched right there! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I carefully aligned my lens barrel and pressed my face to the camera eye piece and had my first spine chilling moment with this raptor. Our eyes met through the lens, and I clicked this image..
I was allowed a maximum of five minutes or may be lessor before the tree canopy took control of the light situation and in the meanwhile the majestic raptor actioned it’s wings. I did make a few images which I will treasure for life.
Few moments later I stepped out of the hide, packed and excited. Of course I couldn’t wait any longer and had to attend to the nature’s call I had been holding for the entirety of this time.
None, no one to date believe that a raptor could ever pay a visit to a hide of this nature/habitat. It is too good to be true. Retrospectively, this is what I think had happened – the master mimic ‘Racket-tailed Drongo’ mimicked a call that enticed the Eagle. The Drongo went overboard and repeated this call not once but many a times, so many times that the Crested Hawk-eagle actually showed up!? I will leave you with this assumption and allow you to share your assessment and reasoning of the entire episode.
Nature never ceases to amaze us, the excitement and surprise she throws at us is unmatched. My trip continued well and in fact turned out be one my best visits to Thattekad of all time. More blogs on that will follow.
If you have come this far, thank you for your patience and hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did narrating it.
Please do keep visiting this page to relive and experience many more such wildlife escapades with me.