A profusion of clumsy rustling on a carpet of dry leaves under the scrubby vegetation somewhere to my left told me that I was in luck. And as the collective patter of feet came closer, my eyes naturally began to scan the tops of the scrawny trees which, with their few green boughs, would be strengthening their last resource to fight the blazing summer sun that would be upon them in a matter of a few hours. But at that moment, lit by the benign golden hue of the breaking dawn, the browning hulks seemed to be enjoying the succour afforded by a mildly tepid breeze. And then my eyes locked on – there it was – the sentinel!
No, I have not taken to writing war or espionage thrillers – but come to think of it, espionage this very well could be. Cause I was on the trail of a foraging group of the Jungle Babbler (Argya striata). And how did it come to this? Well, a few days prior, on one of my deep jungle trails, I came across a large patch of Ukshi (Calycopteris floribunda) in full bloom. Any such flowering abundance is a bird watcher’s paradise since the fragrant ambience attracts a host of pollinators, and on the hot scent of the insects come the larger wings! A wealth of minivets, ioras, bulbuls, flowerpeckers, sunbirds and bee eaters thus embellished the forest at dawn with a befitting dazzle. And I took ample advantage of this providence filling mine and my camera’s memory with amazing captures. But among all these feathers floating around, I found a particular one quite impressive – the Jungle Babbler.
Over five days I watched them. They would straggle in from the West, a group of about 6 to 8 birds, quickly honing in – ground up – from two flanks, attacking the buffet of juicy bees, wasps, beetles and butterflies with gusto and drift off sombrely in a straight line headed for the sun. What intrigued me was an imperceptible presence of some method in their execution. The gang of babblers was, however, quite quick in their manoeuvres and I would need a better vantage point in order to study their methods. Mentally charting their path I walked upwind through the brush till I came across a wide expanse with relatively sparse vegetation. As luck would have it, this point was slightly uphill and I had a clear field of vision above the undergrowth into a fair distance. This would do. The next morning, up earlier than usual, I trekked up to the spot well before the break of dawn and settled down with my back against a teak tree. If my sense of direction was correct, the babblers would pass within a few metres, moving from my left to the right on their way to the morning buffet spread. And here I was; and possibly here they were too!
So as I was saying – the sentinel! It is common practice in a foraging group of babblers for one member to move slightly ahead of the group, climbing to the highest position available in the surroundings to look around and scan the forest for imminent danger, while the rest of the group forages. If this observer notices a cause for worry, it gives out an alarm call and the group scatters. From my position I could make out the group moving in as I had fervently hoped it would. And as the birds approached, I could actually make out the outlines of the machinations of a foraging group. The sentinel was there! From its perch on the tallest boughs, it would cast a glance into the bushes around before continuing to the next tree. Not far behind, on the ground, I could make out the vegetation being disturbed where the rest of the group followed, oblivious to the surroundings, their claws and beaks scratching around for delectable snacks. Oblivious – because they rested absolute faith in their sentinel.
The sentinel was now at the junction where the group would have to pass me – albeit from quite some distance away. For a brief moment, its eyes met mine, or rather my camera lens. I had been spotted! In an instance it let out a long, sharp, squeaky, cackling call and the entire group dispersed into dense shrubs. I sat there for a while feeling guilty that I had interrupted their daily route and routine. However, within a few minutes, I could hear those distinct scrabbling sounds moving, though farther away from me and outside my visual field, in the right direction. It was a relief.
Raising a water bottle to my smiling lips I closed my eyes and reflected upon that one lasting image imprinted on my mind that morning – the sentinel watching me and probably contemplating:
“Who sits out there a friend or foe,
stranger with one eye I shan’t say hello,
to my folks down there as much I owe,
an alarm call warning it’s time to go…”
– Narendra Nayak © 2019