High mornings, when you wake up early, stand and pull yourself up, stretching your arms wide open, on toes reaching eternity, until perhaps your back makes a creaking sound; standing in my balcony, eyes wide open to catch one of the early bird species flying across, at the same time reckoning the weather! All set today for the Big Bird Day 2014, the participants in the JNU + Southern Ridge team made their way to the School of Life Sciences (parking), to meet our team leader Dr. Surya Prakash. Cast in a mesh of fog, JNU appeared more beautiful than ever. As the team assembled, voices other than that of birds crept slowly up the ear canal, thereby mystifying consciousness afresh. The Barn Owl, Spotted Owlet had already been reported, thus ‘checked’ on the list! The irrepressible Alexandrine Parakeets seemed quite busy as we finally started the count.
Random words and bird calls continued to intermingle, as the team began spotting birds in the academic complex. “There Red – breasted Flycatcher.” Out came the Pinocchio cameras and snap! “Where? I don’t see it.” The Brown – headed Barbets were out now too. The pictures are important too unless we manage to scare the birds away. Anyway, amidst the bustle, the team progressed… “What if I get lost in this huge JNU campus?” Perhaps a genuine fear, but it was now on to the grasslands of JNU, where the Black – Shouldered Kite and the Red Avadavat are often seen. During the sun’s constant efforts to penetrate the fog, the grassland lay silent, laden with fresh crystal droplets, some birds including the Rufous Tree Pie, Red vented Bulbul and White eared Bulbul could be seen in their usual short flights. Mesmerized by the surroundings, I decided to take a step outside and be a part of this heavenly silence. Some shrubs and bushes with unbroken series of chants of the Indian Silverbill appeared no less than a temple. Silhouettes of trees emerging at distances, cold condensing, and the impulsive nose being the first one to cry in this royal sensation!
The Black – shouldered Kite not at home today, but its brother, the Black Kite, atop a tree was kind enough to give some quality shots! Meanwhile, the parallel Universe of Neelgais (Blue bulls), looking at us with all their ears up in the same direction, tried to figure out the early morning chaos! And then again someone on the phone with directions, “Take a left, then right and turn into the grassland near the newly installed convex mirror!” Some other delights and Ashy Prinia! “There! I think I saw the Indian Roller!” Heading to other parts of the serene campus we met another of our teammates along the way.
It was now time for some minivets and tailor birds, but wait if only the Purple sunbird, today is in a mood for pictures. Rest of the team progressed, but two cameramen were captivated by the Asian Koel (f), as it sat on a branch right up ahead. Joys of biding, good pictures and smiles shared!
Gradually towards the sports complex, the awkward silences began falling apart, perhaps it was starting to get warmer! And of course! The spoken words were now brewing into stories, which blemished the already tweaked consciousness. They induced a certain hilarious pleasure, when some pieces were picked up by the ‘ever starving ears’. This warmth regularly found its way into the entire birding scene. Yes! Some enthusiastic humans were birding on a ‘City Sunday’. The flavours of which were seen, when others from our species decorated the pathways, blending into the lousiness of the holiday!
Contagious as it seems, true on my part at least, we developed sensations of hunger and an urge to take a break and eat something. Next I remember Dr. Surya Prakash mentioned, “This is my surprise every year!” All drenched in food, I constantly picked up some notions that levitated in the air of his cozy home! “It’s Lt. Col. Sangwan’s birthday today”. “We dirtied your home with our feet, ab toh jhadoo marna padega!” “Arey! Jhadoo guys have quit!” “Maybe it’s the time for some mopping” Group pictures! Occasional smiles and small talks, but to me sandwiches, pasta, cake and paneer pakodas were of utmost importance! Munching on… “Hey! How are you? I heard you passed away last year!” Now that was something strange. Maybe I was high or I wasn’t up even now! A black coffee with insane amounts of coffee powder in it could perhaps see me through! “How’s everything?” “Take a picture of us together!” “Tejus! I think we should start moving now!” “Oh! That’s a beautiful poster!”
Huh! Out into the sun now and a song from David Frankel’s The Big Year, did strengthen our cause! “I can’t look at the rocket launch, the trophy wives of the astronauts, and i won’t listen to their words, ’cause i like… Birds – The Eels” Moving on to Sanjay Van in cars now, we looked around for some waders. The Wood sandpiper, Black – winged stilts and White – breasted Kingfisher were the headlines. The center of all attraction was the Blind Snake, found near one of the lakes in Sanjay van. Snakes are always a treat to the eyes! Also, a lot of conversations floated here and there, ending with Dr. Surya Prakash’s hypnosis of luring many leaving participants to Bhatti mines, known for raptors. The species count too had reached high figures of seventies and eighties… A century perhaps, the needed motivation!
A warm welcome and lunch at Bhatti mines was overwhelming. Col. Sandhir’s generous gesture of the warm hospitality did help to get back in shape and ready for the final session of intensive birding. Traversed by muddy paths, the area provided an excellent facility of cars. Dismay at first, but then spotting the critically endangered Red – headed Vulture and getting some good pictures, really helped to give a thrust to a team, constantly losing motivation… From then on the count crept very slowly up to the nineties. The Egyptian Vulture and the Long – tailed shrike were among the latest additions…
In a dramatic turn of events, one of the team’s car found itself stuck in puddle, owing to the water retention capabilities of the clayey sand showcased in the recent weekend rains. A man with a pleased face accompanying a smart looking hat was out to help. Yes! It was the birthday man, Lt. Col. Sangwan. His superior driving skills saw this and another car out of the clayey dungeons! “Olive- backed Pipit!” “Yeah! Bang on!”
The sun was now tired of shining all day, but adamant on making a century, three of us (youths) went on a mission to find the four missing birds after the Black Francolin had been spotted! No new birds were found, but countless abandoned Baya weaver nests! As souvenirs, we picked up a few of them, which lay unclaimed on the ground.
Back into the cars now, some chips and snacks shimmered the presence. But then again, the puddles found us. Col. Sangwan to the rescue and again another time, few minutes ahead. With a smoky aura all around him today, the birthday man had also given us a tea treat during our morning session in JNU.
Finally as distances began glinting with artificial evening lights, the bird count came to an end! Final discussions at the Bhatti mines’ gate and our total at 99! The Green bee – eater, common Hoopoe, Indian Roller and the Spotted Owlet, were already on the list! No suggestion seemed to be helping the count to reach hundred. Just then someone called Dr. Surya Prakash on his mobile phone. Okay, no prizes for guessing, who it was, but the bird sighted was the Indian Scops Owl. Hundred it was, and joys all around. It was then time to part from a day which had really been a great experience and a shared memory for all of us!