Saturday found us on a birding photography trip after a longish break.
We set out early to catch the 6:17 AM sunrise at Narsapur, and managed to make the 50-odd kilometers in time to reach there at dawn. We stopped first on the trail leading to the ANGRAU research station. As we drove along the trail, we saw a sounder of boar slowly walking away from us into the undergrowth.
We parked off the trail and set off into the woods. While the others wandered off into the scrub, I walked along a trail that separated a patch of scrub jungle from a cleared area where some sort of farming activity had been attempted. The transitory zone between two habitats would make for some interesting birding, and I was not disappointed.
The morning was already warm, even though it was not even seven. There was a slight breeze now and then, and the air was filled with birdsong. As the sun rose over the horizon, it shone through the trees on my left. I kept a watch on my right for any interestingly lighted birds. The usual suspects were all there – the babblers noisily moving about, letting everyone know where they were with their noisy incessant chattering; the robins making their way along, hopping daintily from bush to rock to branch, merrily breakfasting on freshly-awakened insects; the ashy prinia flitting about busily, finding insects to eat and perching perilously on soft wavy shoots along the path. Inside the scrub to my left, with the sun bright behind them, two grey hornbills were going beak to beak, jumping from branch to branch in that ungainly fashion that is so characteristic of them.
The day promised good birding, if not some decent chances at photography. As I made my way along the path, I came across a column of ants cutting across. I sat down and watched them for a while – their single-minded devotion to the chosen path appeared magically religious, when in truth they were merely following a chemical trail. There must have been a few thousand of them, and after a while, they had all disappeared into the undergrowth. While I had been engaged in watching them, I was sitting on the path, not making too many movements. This had the unexpected result of bringing me face to face with a mouse. As I watched the last of the ant column disappear into the horizon, there was a faint rustling in the bushes right next to me. Expecting a robin or a prinia, I turned around slowly to see if I could get off a couple of shots.
Now, this happens more often than you might imagine. For all their sharp senses and survival instincts, if you keep still enough to be part of the landscape, quite a few birds will get alarmingly close to you. Of course, once they realize you are sitting there, they will be startled and disappear instantly. I remember once at Gandipet, I managed to remain still enough for a wandering sunbird to get really close to me. He was merrily flitting from flower to flower, like a teenage drunk on Pub Street who had found his dad’s credit card, when he suddenly realized I was there. He was undoubtedly startled, out of his wits, I might add. In his hurry to get out of there, he flew straight into my thigh and fell down stunned at my feet. He got up and groggily stumbled into the nearby bush, where in a couple of minutes he regained his breath and flew away.
Coming back to the mysterious rustling, I looked carefully, but couldn’t discern any movement in the leaves. I remained still and kept looking, when in my peripheral vision I caught a bit of movement at the foot of the bush right next to me. As I watched, a blur of movement stopped and revealed itself to be a mouse. I was quite thrilled – this was the first time I had seen a mouse in the wild – it was a lifer, if you will. The mouse was bent on filling his stomach – he stopped every now and then and nibbled on some tender green shoots of grass. I was quite fascinated, and was able to get off some shots. This was the closest I had come to a wild animal, and I was rather proud of my ability to remain still enough not to be spotted by the mouse. I spent about twenty minutes in the wonderful company of Mr. Mouse, when he decided he had had his fill and wandered away from me, deeper into the bush.
After this, I got up and walked into the scrub to see if I could get any shots of the birds in the treetops. With it being summer, most of the trees were leafless, and I could see the birds on the treetops quite clearly. There were the brahminy starlings, with their perpetually frowning faces. They always remind me of that shrill and argumentative person we all know – they are annoying, but we also know they are right. The starlings however make for wonderful pictures, and I was rather disappointed that they were too far away on the treetops for anything more than a few record shots. A lone female plum-headed parakeet kept an eye on me as she sat gently swaying on the uppermost branches of a nearby tree.
I stepped out back on the path after a while, and as I walked back towards the parked cars, I could make out that the hornbills we had spotted earlier had returned, and they had brought their friends. As I hurried to the tree, a tree pie above me sounded a startled alarm and flew off. The hornbills were sitting with the light almost at their back, and I knew no good pictures would result. However, hornbills are entertaining to watch, and there were five of them roughhousing in the branches of a ficus tree. I moved carefully and slowly along the path and stopped once I had got a little closer. They jumped from branch to branch, chasing each other and calling noisily. I watched them for about five minutes, after which they flew off one by one.
I walked back into the scrub to see if I could find a spot and wait for them to come back when I heard a loud buzz. A large cicada flew past my head and settled on a nearby tree trunk at eye level. I set up my camera on the tripod and waited for the cicada to slowly move into a position in the light. I looks like the cicada also wanted some sunlight, as it slowly moved around till it was completely in the sun. I was able to take a few pictures of it in good light – I was not carrying a macro lens and had to make do with my telephoto, but I managed a decent picture. After that I retired to a shady spot near a large tree and prepared to wait for the hornbills when my ears were suddenly assaulted by a chorus of cicadas. The buzzing was loud, repetitive and physically hurt my ears. I toughed it out for a while, but the hornbills showed no sign of coming back.
I folded up my equipment and walked back to the car, and was soon joined by the others. We still had about an hour and a half of birding we could do, and we decided to go to the Narsapur lake.
As we drove up the trail, back to the highway, we saw the biggest troupe of bonnet macaques I have seen. There must have been around 150 individuals, and I stopped and waited for them to cross the trail before us. The macaques were in their mating colors – red hind quarters shining in the sun, and made an interesting procession in front of us. Babies clung to their mothers’ chests, juveniles fought and played with each other and the males remained on the periphery keeping their watchful gazes on us.
The lake is a few kilometers down the road and is a considerable body of water. Even now, at the peak of summer, it still has a lot of water left, even though vast stretches of water have dried up. We walked through these stretches, stopping for a while at a waterhole to watch a white-throated kingfisher and two pied kingfishers getting their breakfast. A lone little egret was fishing at the edge of the waterhole, and an Asian openbill sat on a treetop, watching the proceedings without exhibiting too much interest. A few trees over, another little egret stood among the leaves, one foot tucked up, and watched us with interest. In another tree on top of a mound, a long-tailed shrike sat in the sun, striking a pose. I crept as close to the tree as I dared, and as I clicked away, the shrike was filled with confusion. He could hear the clicks, but couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. He kept turning round and round, and finally spotted me and flew away.
After that, we struck out for the main water body – a hike across a large plain of dried grass. It was an uneventful walk with the sun beating down on us, except for a lark that was going about his mating display – soaring high almost vertically, sounding three notes as he hit the top of his loop, swooping down vertically and pulling up at the last moment before crashing into the ground. We finally reached the water and found a large group of Asian openbills. There must have been at least a 100 individuals, and they were busy grazing a bit in the distance. Ajith and I sat down by the water’s edge, allowing the birds to come to us, while the others went off after the Asian openbills. The breeze over the water was pleasant and we didn’t feel the heat as we sat and waited. A few sandpipers grazed their way quite close to us, and a black-winged stilt kept an eye on us as it grazed a little further away. An Indian pond heron alighted on the grass in the water right in front of us, and spent a few minutes posing for us before realizing we were there and flying away.
We sat for some more time before it got really hot and we walked back to our cars and drove back.