‘Stop bouncing around like a ping-pong ball you tailless piece of shit!’ I said.
And it worked! The tiny, truncated bird, smaller than a sparrow, hopped onto a thin twig, and paused. Paused for just a couple of seconds, but after fifteen futile and frustrating minutes trying to glimpse the bird in the dense rainforest undergrowth on a misty morning, this was enough to get one clear view. If you can call staring through a pair of Swarovski 8.5 × 42 binoculars—my breath held to avoid fogging the eyepiece, my cold fingers clenched around both barrels, my shoulders and elbows locked, my torso twisted like a snake curling up an imaginary tree, my knees bent so that I could look lower in the undergrowth, past ferns and herbs and leafy tangles and fallen branches, through a tiny gap—at the briefly motionless bird twenty feet away, one clear view. A lot of effort, for one little bird.
I had not said the words out loud, of course, but this was no time to wonder at the power of silent abuse to pinion birds to their perch. I had details to note. A sprightly, dumpy bird, smaller than a sparrow. Underparts ashy grey; a rather big head coloured a dull olive green that continued onto his wings and back. A dark-tipped, pointed beak, like an elongated and sharpened pencil lead. Black eyestripe stretching through the eye, topped by a lighter yellowish supercilium to the side of his almost non-existent neck. Long legs, for a tiny bird, gripping the twig firmly, as he perched and gave me a slightly indignant eye over his shoulder. No tail. At least none that I could see. I would have been grateful for a few more seconds, but he had had enough. ‘Chirririt!’ he exclaimed, loud for such a little bird. ‘Chirririp!’, he let rip, again, before he bounced onto another twig, and plunged into the undergrowth. But I had seen enough. With a smug smile, I wrote his name down in my notebook: Grey-bellied Tesia. A touch darker grey below, a flash brighter yellow on crown and supercilium, and I would have had to put him down as a different species, Slaty-bellied Tesia. Satisfied, I pocketed my notebook, left him to sulk and skulk in peace.
The morning had not begun this way, with me casting silent abuse and expletives at unsuspecting birds. I had started on a far more polite note. I had walked into the regenerating rainforest with spindly bamboos and tall trees, at the edge of Dampa Tiger Reserve near Teirei in Mizoram. On a sober, serious note, I began birding, conscious that I was here to carry out a comprehensive survey of birds at the behest of the enthusiastic Field Director of the Reserve, Mr Lalthanhlua Zathang, on behalf of the Mizoram Forest Department. The December dawn had just broken beyond the hills and the sun was yet to crest the ridge.
In the chill morning, the dark forest stood cloaked in a grey mist. From the canopy, dew fell like rain on the shrubs and onto the leaf litter covering the earth. Through the soft patter of falling dew, all around, I heard the calls of waking birds. The excited tweets of a canary-flycatcher perched on some distant branch, the chatter of bulbuls flitting around some unseen tree, the piercing screech of hill mynas flying across invisible sky, and soft churrs, and metallic clicks, and nasal notes, all punctuated the quiet morning air even as I struggled to pin-point their locations. And not a single bird showed.
Still, I was hopeful. And polite.
‘Hey guys,’ I said, ‘I dropped by last evening, but it was all very quiet out here. I figured you were busy or tired and I shouldn’t disturb you. Well, it is morning now, and here I am! Please come out. Say hello!’
‘Nyeaahh,‘ said the White-throated Bulbul, in a nasty, nasal drawl. Like all the others, he refused to show. The coward.
I tried again. ‘Where are you guys?’
More patter of falling dew.
Minutes passed. I heard soft rasping notes alternating with a loud, continuous chaunk chaunk chaunk as a pin-striped tit babbler called from low branches. Elusive and ventriloquial, she frustrated my efforts to spot her, the soft notes seeming to come from nearer and the loud notes from farther away than where she really was. Further ahead, I stopped near a Bischofia javanica tree fruiting copiously: there were birds busy feasting on the high branches. It was perhaps just a tad hasty, a little too jerky, the way I raised my binoculars to my eyes; before I could focus, a large flock flared off the canopy in a great flurry of wings. Green pigeons, but which species? Pin-tailed, or Thick-billed, or Ashy-headed? No telling now, however crisply I focused on the still-quivering twigs. Later still, a little spiderhunter went, ‘Which? Which?‘, flying at top speed through the understorey. My eyes alighted only at the empty spots, in mid-air, from where each call was emitted, by which time the bird had already zipped past to the next, eluding me. From the skies high above, an unseen Crested Serpent Eagle laughed loud and shrilly: ‘Heeeee heee hee‘.
I began to get worried, impatient. I had limited time on this trip, less than two weeks in the field, and only one morning to explore this trail, which snaked along the forested slope above Teirei river. For the bird survey to be comprehensive, I needed to explore different trails and habitats and identify accurately all species seen. By preparing a complete checklist, documenting changes in bird communities across habitats, the survey could add to the knowledge on biological diversity in Dampa and potentially contribute to the conservation plans for birds in the Reserve. I knew that cold, misty mornings were not ideal for birding, as bird activity tended to be low. Notorious skulkers like the tesias and wren-babblers were hard enough to see on brighter days, leave alone the prospect of finding, identifying, and counting them on murky mornings. Such times are best avoided if one was out for a systematic census of birds, on point counts or transects. But now, I was not constrained by rigid survey methods, I was willing to wait for the bird activity to pick up as the sun rose higher, and watch quietly till the bird showed itself. For this to work well, the birds needed to cooperate, too; it was not just a matter of my skill. Or was it?
‘Qu-ick,’ said a bird from the shrubs. ‘Qu-ick!’
An unknown call, yet strangely familiar, like the voice of a long-forgotten friend who calls you out of the blue asking, ‘Do you recognise who this is?’ I scanned the undergrowth even as I racked my brains trying to recall if this was a bird I once knew. I had studied birds for many months in Dampa Tiger Reserve earlier, but all that was nearly two decades ago. At that time, I had learned to identify by sight and sound over two hundred species in a matter of weeks, while strictly adhering to a policy that ‘no record at all is better than an erroneous one’. When I finished that study in the summer of 1995, my list held over 210 bird species, and I prided myself in knowing the calls of virtually all the birds I encountered on my birding walks. ‘Here sings a Black-naped Monarch,’ or ‘There calls a Red-headed Trogon!’ I would note, or merely pause to listen to the soft, subtle notes of a Snowy-browed Flycatcher in deep rainforest. But now, I felt like I was back at square one, more neophyte than past-master at birding. I felt compelled to reaffirm my acquaintance with these birds again, as if I were transforming faded friendships into comfortable familiarity or flourishing relationships once more. But perhaps, in the return, there was opportunity, too: like when rotational jhum farmers returned to cultivate a fallow, after it had regenerated a full twenty years, finding soil rested and replenished by age.
‘Come on… come on! I can see the leaves shaking there near the ground where you are flitting around. Come out where I can see you.’
A five-minute wait and he refuses to show. I imagine the bird saying, ‘Sorry! Can’t come out now.’ More likely, he didn’t care a whit for my plight. His voice had triggered a cloudy memory, and a name had been forming in my head: Buff-breasted Babbler. But before I could confirm, he just left. Vanished.
This is when things started to get hairy. Here I was, after travelling thousands of kilometres to do this work, birding ostensibly to benefit the birds of Dampa, and they were simply failing me. Or, and the thought came close on its heels, I was here on my own work and failing, myself. In two decades, I wondered, had my field skills declined with age? Did I need to struggle that much more, strain my ears a little harder, to do the same things that I had managed to do earlier, apparently with élan? Had I forgotten the habits of the birds, their individual quirks and mannerisms, which had earlier guided my eyes and ears? Was I a fool to walk into a rainforest again, without the tape recorders and playback equipment that others use to lure birds out, without the mist-nets to snare the birds and securely identify them in-hand, without cameras and long lenses that snapped photographs in a trice to comfortably identify the bird on a computer screen, later? Was I just being a stubborn, old-fashioned geezer, a snob who believed, as I still did, that all one needed to do for a good bout of birding was arm oneself with a choice pair of binoculars, field notebook, and pen? I had no time to reflect on the answers—it was easier to deflect self-doubt and self-loathing onto the birds. Instead of naming the birds I found, I began calling them names.
* * * * *
After failing to find birds on the trail the previous evening, I had returned to my room at the Teirei Forest rest house to find solace, as I often do, in reading. As darkness fell and the temperature dropped below 10°C, I tucked into my sleeping bag and opened the book I had carried along—a book on writing by Anne Lamott which, oddly enough, was titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
In the book’s second chapter titled ‘Short Assignments’, Lamott explains the book’s title. She recalls a story of how her elder brother, when he was ten years old, was struggling to finish a report on birds, which he’d had three months to write and which was due the next day. Close to tears, he sat at the table, ringed by binder paper and pencils and bird books that lay unopened, frustrated by the huge task ahead of him. Then, his father sat beside him, placed a reassuring arm on his shoulder, and said:
Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.
Well, there I was the next morning, on my own short assignment, ready to put aside my failures and take it bird by bird. But the damn birds refused to show. I don’t know what you would have done in this situation. I screamed, mutely, at every mysterious bird call. I let fly, motionless, at every fleeting glimpse. In complete silence, I cursed.
With that, my luck turned. The tesia was just an early victim. My patience exhausted in fifteen minutes, I pinned him to the twig with one cutting comment.
A little later, briskly turning a bend, I spooked a bird that exploded from virtually at my feet.
‘Freeze! Asshole!‘ I said, behind gritted teeth, which applied, I guess, to both of us. I stood binoculars glued to my eyes. The bird alighted on a slanting bamboo culm thirty metres away and glared back. Feather for feather, he was one of the most beautiful Emerald Dove males I had ever seen: coral-red beak and silver-capped head on wine-lilac neck, zebra-patterned rump immodestly flaunted under emerald wings. I could have stood rooted there for ever. Only, the feeling was clearly not mutual and the bird hustled away in a clapping flutter.
‘And what are you fussing and churring and whistling about? Yes, you with the nervous tic, with your bunch of buddies on the branches. Show yourself clearly or shut your frigging mouth!’
It seemed rather extreme, even to me, to thus lambast what turned out to be a coterie of shy Brown-cheeked Fulvettas winding its way away through the bamboo. They were nondescript and dull birds, brown with a touch of grey on their heads, foraging in the shadow of bigger and more colourful peers.
The fulvettas made a dignified exit after their brief showing at my unuttered words. Only, after they left, other words—far greater than mine—came to mind and refused to leave.
The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.
And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.
~from ‘A Minor Bird‘, by Robert Frost
The fault was partly in me. A many-layered fault, of finding excuses when I failed at finding birds, of being stubborn, snobbish, or merely impatient. It was like blaming friends—who I had forgotten for years, not seeing them, not casting a thought in their direction—for failing to show up when I wanted them to. Like them, the birds lived neither for my convenience nor my disposal: they had lives of their own, free to roam and do unexpected things. It was I who needed to make more effort to see them to understand, once again if need be, who they were or weren’t. They were like characters in a book, and as Anne Lamott writes:
…if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t. You may try to get them to do something because it would be convenient plotwise, or you might want to pigeonhole them so you can maintain the illusion of control. But with luck… you will finally have to admit that who they are isn’t who you thought they were.
And what if, like the birds, the knowledge that I sought was not something to be chased after or coerced into revealing itself? If the best I could hope for was to remain receptive and observant, and let the story show, gradually, as a reward for attentive and repeated effort?
Finding the bird, identifying the species, knowing their calls and habits: these were just the first but crucial steps of a long chain of things I needed to do to translate a confirmed sighting to something of larger substance. I still needed to systematically cover various habitats from streams and rivers to fallows and forests, resurvey transects I had walked two decades ago, measure vegetation attributes such as tree density and canopy cover to quantify habitat change, then enter, verify, and analyse the collected data, then interpret and write my findings, all in the hope that it would lead to greater scientific understanding and better conservation and management efforts on the ground. Years ago, this had formed the bedrock of my work on the effects of shifting cultivation on rainforest birds in Dampa. Now, while surveying the same areas again after two decades, I had the opportunity to take my earlier work ahead, deepen my understanding of recovery of rainforest vegetation and bird communities. After this short trip in December, I would come again in February for several weeks of work, but I was beginning to wonder if even that much time was enough.
Even during this short visit, I was already becoming concerned about the changes in land-use around Dampa. Monoculture teak and rubber and oil-palm plantations were replacing diverse secondary forests and traditional livelihoods based on shifting cultivation on community lands were being beaten back by government and corporate interests to bring in economies based on cash and private ownership. In such a backdrop, the birds of Dampa seemed inconsequential and irrelevant, but they, too, had a role to play in helping understand the changes. The presence and kinds of birds in various sites serve as revealing titres of transformation in land-use, when habitat alteration reaches its threshold and that little extra drop of disturbance irretrievably changes the colour of the landscape. But, I realised, the birds were not the primary instrument of the assay, they were living measures of change in landscape. I was the blunt instrument making the measurements, scrawling notes and observations into my fraying field notebook. What if I was not up to the task? If all I could achieve was a mismeasure of a pertinent conservation issue, a partial diagnosis stemming from my own limited capacity, my shortcomings? Would I be able to describe my results clearly: after I record the right birds, find the right words, too? Again, I took encouragement from Anne Lamott:
If you don’t believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it. … However, if you do care deeply about something—if, for instance, you are conservative in the great sense of the word, if you are someone who is trying to conserve the landscape and the natural world—then this belief will keep you going as you struggle to get your work done.
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.
The trail that led to the river was overgrown. I could hear the rush of the river over rocks a hundred feet away, but could not see it through the tangle of vegetation. The plants were wet with morning dew sparkling in the sun that now rose over the trees. As mist steamed off the plants, I waded through grass and fern and sedge, wet to my thighs, and squelched along. I dodged swinging banana leaves and shoved bamboo culms and branches out of my way. With all the noise and disturbance of my passage, there was no question of finding birds. The trail almost petered out and so did the morning. I decided to turn back before I started cursing the plants. I would come back, later, begin afresh.
Through a small break in the vegetation, I saw a small segment of Teirei river. On a rock near the middle of the river, a small brown bird sat, flicked out into the air, and returned to its perch: a female Plumbeous Redstart. She kept sallying out, to catch flying insects perhaps, returning each time to the same spot. Out and back, out and back, to me, she looked loopy with life.
* * * * *