Other lives, other worlds and other creatures
What do you do when your friends speak a language which you don’t understand? Play along ? Keep asking the obvious repeatedly and irritating them? Yes I did, and shamelessly,but what are friends for if they don’t tell you which one is a nuthatch or what is a Verditer?
White Tailed Nuthatch – Joydev
Five days spent with friends who are passionate birders taught me a lot. It was a journey into a territory of which I had an idea but knew little about. I love animals, perhaps more than humans but the trip revealed how much more an involvement is required to truly call yourself even a hobbyist in this field. I also experienced the challenges of bird photography. This genre has a language and grammar which cannot be compared with other forms of documentary photography. The equipment is heavier and costlier too.
Both the friends are not professional photographers. Ishmeet is from Pune. He is an engineer and an industrialist. Joydev is from Delhi and works in the treasury department of GE Capital and when they get together, it is mostly about bird photography that they talk. Not that they don’t have other interests, but somehow their souls respond eagerly to the sight and call of birds. I must admit that I was taken by surprise with the commitment and passion which they have for their craft. One good example I can give you is that Ishmeet came armed with an i-pod full of bird calls. He uses these sounds to draw the bird out into open so he can take their pictures. Often the two of them would travel to far reaches of the country for a picture of an elusive specie. Time, temperature, altitude and comfort has little meaning in their quest. Honestly before this experience, I had an impression that part time photographers like them were like sahibs brandishing exotic cameras and lenses to pursue an expensive hobby. Far from it, these guys are crazy to the bone. Caring little about their backs or limbs, they carry the very heavy equipment to the very edge of a calamity for a picture of a little brown bird which you and I would not even notice in the first place.
Ishmeet handed me his Canon 40D straddled with a 400mm f5.6 lens to take some bird pictures of my own. This was the first time I had an experience with this focal length. Everything, including the immovable is extremely nervous and fidgety in the frame at 400mm.To make matters worse you try to see a little bird which moves around as if it is powered with short sharp jabs of electricity.
One of my efforts
Meanwhile these guys were happily firing away with a 500mm extended to 700mm with a 1.4x tele-convertor. Agreed! a lot has to do with equipment but to make it useful is still an art which requires a lot of practice and patience.
Birding goes beyond photography too. Here it merges with other forms of documentary work. Knowing one’s subject is an important part of the process. These guys can tell the difference between a small Niltava and the Rufous Bellied one in a glance.I believe their spare time is spent studying species. In less than an hour spent with them, I found how woeful my memory is. Time and again I asked for the obvious. Out of the forty odd species spotted, I could retain perhaps three by the end of the trip. This despite making a conscious effort to keep up with them.
We started at 3.30am from Delhi. Joy had some lovely music recorded for us on CDs. There were some hard to find old numbers from the ‘Scaffolds’. We had a happy journey due to the music. The roads are not bad and we made it to our destination in good time, well before the arrival of the open Gypsy hired by Joy for birding.
Pangot is a small village, fifteen kilometers from Nainital. It has a population of about seven hundred. A thick forest of Oak and Rhododendron overlooks the village. At 6000ft above sea level, the place is fairly chilly even in May. The first thing which strikes when you descend from your car is the silence. Lack of sound, rather the noise is the biggest indicator of your space-time shift. Suddenly thoughts are louder and you wish them away. Call of a bird, deep from the jungle is heard effortlessly. Bark of a dog or the grind of an occasional vehicle jolt you from the soporific effects of peace. Then slowly, the vast valley and the undulating mountains in front creep up closer while the sky rushes forth to ensconce you with its clarity.Later the quality of sunlight finally reminds you that you are far away from your city.
We checked into the Jungle lore Birding lodge. A well built, comfortable place to stay. The dining area is cosy and has many prints of miniature bird paintings done by Mughal master painters . Instead of rooms there are cottages, which are large and well equipped. We settled quickly. Ishmeet and Joy wasted no time in assembling their equipment and acquainted themselves with the appointed guide, Mr Llama Singh.
That it was not a holiday sojourn for my two friends became immediately clear by the urgency with which we had breakfast. No loitering around or soaking the morning sun.Camera, lens,tripod all was out in a matter of minutes and soon I found myself in a group peering in the local bushes for a specie or two. The gypsy had not arrived but we decided to walk on towards the jungle for the shoot. Llama Singh would occasionally point toward the trees, asking us to navigate between the thicker and thinner branches or to their left or right, beneath the clump of leaves or some knot in the wood to locate a little bird.
Soon our relationships were more precisely defined. The following is the most common conversation which I would start in a typical manner,
“There, in that branch over there”
“Where? which branch.”
“That one over there. Can you see that crooked stem. Come down from it and then to that tree behind it, there the big branch, go to its left. See that little blue bird.”
I strain my eyes, try to negotiate the branches and still ask the question
By this time I notice that the two of them are already deep into their cameras firing away at 10 frames a second. I align my sight with their lenses to finally see a little blue bird minding its business far in the foliage.
“What is it?”
“Asian Verditer Flycatcher”
I get the reply from somewhere within the mass of metal and shutter snap. So to get a better glimpse of that blue speck, I raise the 400mm lens only to discover that I am more lost than ever. The picture in the frame is moving fast and nowhere near a semblance of a bird. All I manage to see is a blur of leaves and stalk. After a few tries, I give up. There are other things to see , let the experts handle the birds and I will look at the broader picture. The forest was buzzing with the cacophony of cicadas, bird calls and you might find it strange, the fast sketch of light and shadows. Yes I can hear the music of light. Soon I found myself training that long lens on the ground and elsewhere. I saw dancers, watchmen, bloodstains, jesters and funny bairds in a friendly melee.Scattered clouds in the sky were repeatedly plunging everything in darkness adding to the drama of this sylvan stage.
Then some commotion.A Himalayan woodpecker graced the stage. The lovely bird repeatedly disappeared behind a bough and then showed itself briefly to provoke firing of overexcited camera shutters. It was also my first experience watching cameras being used like a high speed sewing machine.
The gypsy finally appeared. It was summoned from the Corbett National Park. It is an open vehicle suitably modified for viewing wildlife.I sat at the front while my friends adjusted themselves with their equipment at the back. The engine of the jeep was in the last throes of its life. Piston rings especially the oil control ones must have thrown the towel six months ago so she ran with a cough and sputter. Fortunately its gearbox was in a good condition, for most of the time in it was spent in the first and reverse . The communication with its driver Pramod went like this..
“Move a little back.”
“Stop..move a little forward.” The jeep will move a couple of paces, then..
“Stop.. go back a little…stop…what is that?”
Pramod is a patient man. No questions asked, just kept moving his battered beast back and forth. The moment it stopped a mass of emanated fuel and oil vapor would catch up with us. I offended the driver more once by asking whether the jeep can make up the next climb. It hurt me to see a creature so badly treated. But for the fuel gauge nothing in the dashboard was functional. The plastics resembled the skin of a man who decided to end his life by overdosing on gunpowder.
It was a fruitful morning for my friends. A surprise was in store for me when we stopped by at the local grocer to buy fifteen kilos of rice grain. It was bought with a buy back agreement from the shopkeeper. The rice was to fill four odd U shaped bags. The bags then were slung over at appropriate places of the gypsy for the long lenses to rest. Quite ingenious! The bags were designed by Ishmeet and were pretty well crafted.
Evening in Pangot had some of the most lovely warm orange light. Rims of leaves were lit in bright gold, while the rest illumined like a bright idea. The contrast and the shadows filled my cup of joy. I did take a few pictures of birds but soon got distracted with the play of light.
Conversations at the dinner table revolved around what was achieved and what remained. Ishmeet was totally focused on birds while Joydev had many questions for me. He was intrigued by what I was interested in. Frankly I was in many minds. Watching avid bird photographers at work was fascinating but was coming to some conclusions about this kind of photography on my own. My day was spent trying to create narratives, looking for metaphors and allegories. Some were successful, some fell flat.
The next day I decided to use my camera and completely alienate myself from bird photography.
Our guide was using a small flute like instrument to make a bird call. It would invariably agitate the birds above. On inquiry, I was told that the particular call was of a Collared Owlet. Birds sensing danger will stick together and not fly here and there. It becomes easier to take their pictures this way.
The real bird is not much bigger than what you see in this picture!
My photography centered around textures, crests, crevices and shadows. The one thing which frustrates me is the wide gap between feelings and expression. Somethings are exciting, call to me optimistically but later,were lost completely in the frame. The expression just could not stand up to what I had felt at that time. I guess it is a personal struggle. I am becoming better at the process of elimination right at the stage of shutter release but have a long way to go yet.
Weather played truant right through. Clouds threatened the day but later cleared to let us take pictures. We had started early and saw the sun peep through cloud cover in a magnificent display of God Rays.
We sighted Himalayan Griffins basking on a precipice. They are big vultures, so need a thermal up draft to climb and soar. The cloud cover had them incapacitated as far as flight was concerned.
Eurasian Jays evaded picture taking by mischievous hide and seek, I think they got pictures of Blue Rock Thrush, a White Throated Laughing Thrush , a Rufous Sibia, a Blue winged Minla and a Grey Bushchat amongst others. The amazing thing is that I’ve been to the mountains so often and never noticed these birds. To see them one simply has to stop….and look. They are there, happily living in the trees by the roadside. A wealth of beauty for anyone who cares to slow down.
It was the end of trip for Joy, for he and his wife had to reach Delhi by next morning. The two days which he spent with us, he made full use of, by shooting from dawn to dusk. Only an hour of lunch break was the luxury availed, other than that all the time was spent in the pursuit of birds large and small. Ishmeet was no different, right up with Joy in intent and enthusiasm.
It rained quite a bit at night. Cleared for a while then rained again. Ishmeet was hoping that we will have a clear day the next morning as it was time to capture the Koklass pheasant. It is a shy and a regal bird. Normally is seen by the roadside early in the morning. Much of these sightings are a matter of chance. The bird might simply decide not to make the appearance or might have no business to cross the road. One of Ishmeet’s friend had come from Goa with his family. A bird photographer of good repute, Sandesh Dhareshwar had run into some great luck with the Koklass. This made Ishmeet even more enthusiastic ( and anxious ) to make some good pictures.
Clouds, wind and an oppressive eight degree temperature made the morning quite a handful for photography. Ishmeet was undaunted. He was not going back without the Koklass. The gypsy had gone back, so we were in our car. Slowly we made into the forest. Then all of a sudden I hear Mr Llama Singh cry..
I’m with the usual “Where?”
“There by the road”
Again my second question was ignored, Ishmeet was already pointing his lens towards some bushes. I drew the imaginary line from the lens to the ground to catch a glimpse of the bird. The bird is well camouflaged, just its head is a deep violet which makes it identifiable.
The bird vanished soon enough. The guide called it from his mobile phone. I am not joking. He has these bird calls on his mobile and simply puts them on the speaker. So the Koklass was called, it replied but remained discreetly hidden from the view for the rest of the morning. Ishmeet got a few shots at crazy ISOs and even after chasing its call for the better part of the day, it remained elusive.But later we were blessed with the lovely flight of the spot winged tit. A little black bird which had made a nest in a wall by the roadside. The couple would survey the landscape from atop a neighboring tree then one of them would dive with its wings plastered on its side and at the nick of time, control the fall with a brief flap, rise for a while to repeat the dive again. The whole pattern of the flight resembled a hem of an arched crochet table cover.Light was good by this time and I believe Ishmeet got a few good shots of this lovely bird.
We headed towards Sat-tal after the morning session. Sat-tal stands for seven lakes. It is a place vehemently protected from the hustle bustle and rampant commercialization. One simply doesn’t expect a place so sylvan and serene barely three kilometers from a scene full of hoardings and vehicles caught in a traffic jam.
We checked into the Sat-tal birding lodge and soon after lunch were ready for a shoot. Weather was playing hide and seek again. The afternoon had some thunder threatening clouds, but we were undaunted. I busied myself with taking pictures of the lakes, tourists, tea and food stalls and later joined Ishmeet at the jungle to take pictures of leaves, water and other foliage.
At Sat-tal the first major pursuit was for a crested Kingfisher by the banks of the Cha-fee river ( it is pronounced like this, I am not sure of the spelling). The guide spotted the first one sitting far away on a high tension wire. As usual it took me quite a while to locate it. It was too far even for a 700mm focal length.We negotiated the river bank, water and some rocks to reach a spot where we could see a bird basking in sunshine. It seemed oblivious to our presence but Ishmeet was very careful not to disturb it with sudden movements. So like a foot soldier he moved on his elbows and knees, stealthily to reach a vantage point for a good shot.I think he was happy with the results. The Kingfisher meanwhile yawned, spread its wings and continued with its siesta. A couple of elegant Red-billed Blue magpies descended to investigate us. These are some of the most languid and graceful creatures I’ve seen. With an attitude of an over affected opera singer, their flight and demeanor is unhurried. The way they sat and the way they took off seemed as if they have perfected the art of existence itself. I was very glad to meet them and want to be like a Red-billed blue magpie in this life.
For a little White capped Water Red-start, we negotiated steep descent, boulders, human feaces and flies to reach a brook where one expects to see the tiny brown fuzzball. Finally we managed to spot two children and their mother. Father was reclusive and I was promised a grander sight if we managed to spot him. Llama Singh wondered whether he has been eaten by something bigger. Looking at the size of the bird, a common crow could swallow a couple of them like vitamins to start his day . However to our delight we managed to see him a little distance away. He is just a little larger and has a spot of red on his tail . Then a very similar bird appeared and it was pointed that this one was a Plumbeus Water Red Start. Frankly it was Greek & Latin to me. I hope for all the effort Ishmeet got some good pictures. We searched for a Spotted Forktail high and low, but to no avail but got a glimpse of a Brown Dipper. This innocuous bird had Ishmeet all excited. I wondered how nature has created creatures which look like nothing and then some which are so beautiful that you can’t take your eyes off of them. The Dipper looked like nothing, just a face in the crowd, but my friend was very eager to get its picture. The Dipper dipped behind all sorts of rocks to elude us as if it were the most regal sight in the world.
I did not accompany Ishmeet for the afternoon session but explored the nearby landscape. A large part of Sat-tal belongs to a Christian Ashram. One of the reasons the area is protected from commercial marauders. I walked to the ashram from our camp to experience the beautiful evening . Light was exquisite. Mountains were at peace and leaves happy. The jungle whispered stories and memories which a mild breeze carried from near and far. Sitting on a cement bench, facing the sunset and hearing everything the jungle had to say, I missed my wife and son, I missed my parents and I remembered Juhi, my long gone dachshund. The atmosphere was that of a longing and a reminder that each instant we can be alone, but it is our relationships which define us. I meditated at the grave of E. Stanley Jones, founder of the ashram and felt the love of his spirit and the gratitude which the woods have for him.
I took some pictures, found some symbols, some directions, captured a sentence or two and walked back to the lodge with my mind in waves.
The next morning was spent in the pursuit of Spotted Forktail. We pulled up next to the Kainchi Dham temple. Apparently its layout resembles a pair of scissors. The forktail is a lovely black and white bird with a rotund white belly. It was early morning and we were in the shadows so the atmosphere had a blue hang to it. The bird was spotted in the brook which ran next to the temple. Ishmeet wasted no time to descend into the rocky littoral. He got some good pictures.
Above the bank, from where I had watched the proceedings, I saw children coming from within the forest to go to school. Most were accompanied by their fathers. I was happy for my country. As long as education is considered important, there is hope. Sometimes when I see filth and squalor I get terribly pessimistic, but watching many a child go past in neat and well ironed school uniforms made my morning. I was optimistic and blessed those children and their families with good wishes. The morning turned out well for all of us. Ishmeet got some great pictures of the Small Niltava. Now these birders value eye level shots.Pictures of birds above on the branches are considered poor. The little bird graced the ground on which we stood and benevolently gave good pictures for some time before it found some other matters to attend to.
Sat-tal gave me a glimpse of the most beautiful bird I’ve seen so far. The Long Tailed Minivet. By a glimpse, I mean just a glimpse. It didn’t stay at the tree perch for long. Like a little flame flickering, it came to sight and disappeared in a flash. The colors of the adult are deep scarlet and black. Juveniles are a flaming orange . As they grow older, their feathers change colors. Amazing how creatures are ‘programmed’ to appear. Is genetic code like a program? I wonder if the ‘Matrix’ has revealed some of the most compelling philosophy of modern time.
There is a stream at Sat-tal, actually stream is being very kind to its size and flow, more like a trickle of water leaking from a small water source but it creates a wealth of pictures for birders. Enterprising guides have planted a few twigs on the bank of the stream. A wide variety of birds come to drink water and invariably end up sitting on the twigs, giving a great view of the proceedings to the photographers. Its a funny sight. On one end you see the photographer sitting on the ground quietly taking pictures and on the other his guide is rolling on grass listening to songs on his mobile. It is when the guide has to take rest, he brings the photographer to this picture heaven and is relieved of his duty. Birds of all kinds keep the photographer busy for hours on end.
A bird which I could not see but hear too well intrigued me. It was the Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon which went on and on with its complex long note. Its flute like contralto filled space like a sad song does in an inebriated mind. Believe me, I’ve seen many a drunk get sentimental over sad Hindi songs and this pigeon’s call creates exactly the same atmosphere. Time and again it appeared as if saying,”I’ll wait for you forever and ever.”
This show I won’t forget for a long time. I’ve been to Sat-tal many times but have been ignorant of its avian wealth . I love the place for its serenity but now I’ll have another reason to visit it again and again.
I would love to own a long lens and do some bird photography ( It is very expensive) even though I enjoy what I’m doing at the moment . Birding and wildlife photography has a language of its own. It will take me many years to learn it and then create a personal narrative. But even if I don’t get to take pictures of these lovely creatures, it will be fun to savor the company of my crazy friends whose commitment I admire. So don’t forget to invite me for your next outing folks.