My tryst with bird watching began when I discovered an expensive pair of binoculars sitting in my cupboard, unused after its impulsive procurement several years ago. We’d used it to watch wild bears and whales on our holiday in the Canadian Rockies and had promptly packed it away. Noting its dust-smitten state, I tucked it into my bag on a weekend trip to Coorg.
On an early-morning guided nature walk organized by the resort, I found myself fascinated by the colourful beings flitting so close to me with the help of my Olympus lenses. Listening to our guide talk about each of them with such knowledge and passion inspired me to pay attention. The entire process felt new and important, kindling a curiosity that went beyond my basic fondness for nature and open spaces. Despite the several embarrassing moments when he would point out to a specific bird as I fumbled stupidly while asking, ‘ Where? Where?’ till the oblivious subject flew away, I knew I was on to something special.
When the husband and kid napped in the afternoons, I escaped with my binoculars to secluded parts of the property and plonked myself in one of the many nooks designed for guests to escape to. I drank hot cups of black coffee brewed from locally harvested coffee beans and savoured the process of sitting in silence. I watched kingfishers waiting patiently before diving for their meals and heard the melodies of whistling birds that I couldn’t quite identify yet. Every time I spotted movement, I focused. As they ruffled their feathers or basked in the light of the setting sun or hopped about picking insects, I adored them. And when they flew away, I felt their freedom spill in to me.
Upon returning, I bought a basic bird book listing species in India. Since then, I’ve taken every possible opportunity to explore the biodiverse Nilgiris. I have walked with strangers through beautiful forests dripping with dew and sunlight, whispering softly and following bird calls. The first time I saw minivets, I marveled at the existence of such shades or orange, red and yellow. A pair of Malabar hornbills at a Sakleshpur homestay evoked tears because I’d been trying so hard to spot them for over two years. Once I gatecrashed a group of crazed wildlife photographers carrying cameras the size of mini bazookas and we all chased a crested goshawk as it flew through treetops before settling upon a branch. I’ve had the privilege of hearing the white-rumped shama sing its courtship tune by a watering hole in Wayanad, even if I didn’t get to see it. In Kotagiri, glittering purple sunbirds dazzled as they hovered a mere foot away from me and drank nectar from orange flowers.
Watching birds has given me some of the most intense realizations of what life means to me. It is more than a hobby, it has become a path to my centre. I have always struggled with unsteady nerves and a sense of inadequacy; never feeling like I’m doing or being enough. Entering my thirties, the mental health problems have mushroomed. I’ve feigned contentment, walked about with half-dead anxieties, tossed at night while pondering over the question ‘What on Earth am I doing out here?’, compared my existence with those of others’ to permit self-loathing.
Birding slows everything down for me – my mind, the world, my problems. Each bird with its own song, personality and plumage makes me feel insignificant enough to step outside my head. I am still mastering the skill of losing myself to nature while staying alert. I have to listen, focus and at times use my gut. Even as I gleefully tick off the species that I’ve spotted in my bird book, I know that this is more than being able to brag to others of what I’ve seen I can have hours of peace and witness marvelous scenes without having a single photograph to show for. In a world where joy feels incomplete unless shared and we’re scrambling to fill an imaginary scorecard to prove to others of how fabulous our lives are, this is my respite.
A renowned naturalist in Coonoor, Aggal, told me about a woman who came all the way from Hyderabad to the hills for a weekend just to see one particular bird – the Kashmiri flycatcher. It took luck and a whole day’s perseverance but, in the end, she got her perfect shot and left thoroughly grateful. Aggal has been doing this for almost thirty years and when he speaks, it’s as if there are birds around us all the time that he worries about scaring away. He is pained by how the number of migratory birds has reduced in the past few years but accepts that the best we can do is respect and watch them from a distance. He says that despite the certainty of growing human encroachment , it is the love of birders and other nature lovers that fill him with hope.
There are no guarantees that I will be rewarded if I wait and listen for long enough. Birds can be surprising that way – some days they’ll make you sit around for hours for nothing and on others they’ll come out, fully resplendent, when you aren’t even looking. As I write this while sitting in a garden, I can hear a blackbird singing in the distance. The wind carries its song to me. I dread my return to the city where I must strain to hear a sparrow’s twitter above the cacophony.
The skies and forests are filled with so much I’m yet to see – hypnotic colours, incredulous mating dances, oddities, lessons on making the most of the sunshine and wind.
My binoculars await.