The gradient was not that steep for the mildly experienced climber that I am, but the lack of level ground to get a firm footing was turning into a trifling issue. I had climbed about halfway up the rocky slopes and, wedging my feet in the space between the crevices of adjacent boulders, I lowered myself into a sitting position on the incline. Looking up, I could see the black rock rise and then disappear into the clear blue sky overhead as if someone had taken a giant, sharp knife and carefully run it through the hillside, shearing it down the centre. On either side of the incline the brush was quite dense and impenetrable. The rocky slope with its stark contract of negligible vegetation plausibly hosted the passage of a small waterfall in the monsoons but now, at the height of summer, it was stark and bone dry. The sun had finally succeeded in putting me in the crosshairs of its sight and sweat was beginning to emulate a river down my receding hairline. So what was I doing here perched in this precarious position for the fifth successive day?
It can be explained in four square words – elephantiasis of the ego! My grey matter ever so often has a delusional impression of being a naturalist commissioned by one of the documentary channels sent into the wilderness to learn the secrets of the forest. It is an altogether different matter (unfortunately, not synced with my grey matter) that, except for a few sunbirds and an occasional bee-eater, none of the inhabitants of any jungle consider me anything of material worth beyond a nuisance. And that ego had a further oedema three days back when I sighted the Flame-throated Bulbul (Pycnonotus gularis) in these very environs.
This bulbul rarely ventures beyond the deeper parts of the forest and prefers the safety of thick undergrowth. What piqued my interest further was that the pair seemed to be in the midst of an elaborate courtship. That was enough to tip the scales – the awakening of the pseudo-naturalist was imminent! My telephoto lens in place, I was all set to document the spectacle. The pair humoured me for two days, showing off with impunity, be it catching insects mid-air or even discerningly plucking wild berries, so much so that I was beginning to wonder whether they were taking advantage of my services to get a free portfolio done. And then on the third day I hit the jackpot.
One of the pair started collecting silk from spiders’ webs on the bushes to bind the leaves from which they would fashion a nest! This activity in itself was such a sheer delight to watch. It was then that I started climbing up the rocky slope to get a better vantage. The bird moved quickly from bush to bush, hovering in front of a web, collecting the silk with its beak and depositing it around the leaves it has selected for its nest. And then, just as I was feeling elated with my apparent success, there was a sharp cracking sound from somewhere above. I looked up, just in time, to catch the sight of a troop of Gray Langurs moving among the trees at the top of the hill, feasting on the berries. One of the smaller and weaker branches had cracked under the load and just then gave way and came hurtling down, unfortunately, crashing into the very bushes where the nest making was in progress. All I could see was the blurred figures of the escaping bulbuls.
And they never came back. Neither yesterday. Nor today. They may have, I fervently hope, selected a safer place to go to roost. The swelling within my brain had receded by now and it got deflated to the extreme when I started sorting the pictures that I had so “expertly” clicked. In my avarice to devour the action playing out before me, I had actually missed out shooting many of the key moments. In being absorbed with watching the scene with my naked eyes, I had raised the camera way too late. Consequently, there were quite a few tails wagging in the frame and back of head shots showing the bald olive pates! And the worst was reserved for the best – the “hovering in front of the spider webs” shots. I had one, repeat, one shot where the wings of the bird were not blurred. The pseudo-birder had died – killed by his own impunity. Ego, punctured.
And then, as if reacting to soothe the sting, I reflected. Come to think of it, I did have the best shots – captured in 576 megapixels and 7 million colours…
– Narendra Nayak © 2019