Ever been so happyexcited, so tired that you had no words left? Had your head in such a whirl of activity, been so pumped up with the thrill of competition that you couldn’t tell anyone else what the hell that had been about? That was the Hyderabad Bird Race. I came back with honest intentions of a nice long post on it, I sat down to write it, and nothing would come. Best say it baldly: it was FUN. Bole to, kutte ke maze.
Three days later, I feel calmer and more able to give an account of sorts. More than 15 teams, people of all ages (the youngest was four or five and we certainly had people in their sixties), more women than men – all haring off after birds. What’s more, we discovered our true characters: who’d stretch a half glimpse into a tick on the checklist, who’d conjure up a pink headed duck, and who would play it so scrupulously as to come back with half a dozen less than they should have.
More than half the teams wound their way first to the beautiful ICRISAT-Patancheru campus, which has never yet yielded less than 50 species to anyone knocking at their gates.
Winning team: Geese with a final tally of 110 captained by naturalist Rajeev Mathew.
We were allotted teams so as to even the playing field a little. So there was one captain, usually a more experienced birder, with a couple of wet-behind-the-ears newbies in each team. The first couple of hours in many cars went like this:
Newbie: What was that?
Captain: That’s a rock pigeon. You’ll see great numbers in our cities. Greyish bird with glistening sheen of green and purple.
Newbie: Oh, look, look, another bird, there, flying in there.
Captain (who’s driving, avoiding pedestrian and craning neck perilously): That’s a rock pigeon.
Newbie: Oh? But it was so far, how could you tell?
Captain: Aaaah, umm… it flies in that typical way…
A few minutes later
Newbie (alert and determined): Oh, there, there!
Captain (pulling over to look, and then, with voice ever so slightly edgy): That’s a rock pigeon.
Newbie (with embarrassed laugh): It looks so different…
Ten minutes later
Newbie (hesitant): Oh, there’s a bird there. Maybe it’s a rock pigeon.
Captain (not turning around and driving past resolutely): Yeah, probably.
Behind them a Peregrine Falcon swoops for its prey.
ICRISAT was good, but nowhere up to its usual standards. The lakes were almost bare where normally you’re unable to look at one bird for any length of time because there are at least half a dozen others clamouring for your attention. Still, slowly, with more hard work than we’re accustomed to at this campus, the numbers went up.
Reluctantly, we shifted to the Hyderabad Central University which gave us many of our more common birds, as well as the gorgeous Tickell’s blue, a bronze-winged jacana and what Shweta is fairly convinced was the brown flycatcher. A peacock silhouetted on a rock against the dying sun was our last bird of the day. My team’s tally was a middling 79.
I must tell you about this mystery bird at HCU. Clearly a babbler, rusty brown down the back, distinct white underparts, sharply defined. And – I’ll need your special attention here – red, red eyes. The newbies shuffled impatiently – such a fuss over one bird! but Arjun, Shweta and I needed to know. We rifled through the books to the babbler pages. The rusty cheeked scimitar babbler strayed across from the Himalayan foothills? Perhaps not. Had we missed a little grey on the head, could it be a Wynaad laughing thrush? After all, how far are the Western Ghats anyway; the birds don’t really refer to distribution maps. Finally we filed it under the suspense account.
The mystery was cleared up for us after dinner by Rajeev Mathew. It was the yellow eyed babbler. ‘But, how…the red eyes,’ we spluttered, ‘we saw it distinctly – it couldn’t be the yellow eyed babbler!’ Patiently, the explanation came: yellow apparently is only for a yellow ring the dratted bird has AROUND its RED eye – the yellow was bleached out in the afternoon sun and we hadn’t been able to see it. Salt was rubbed into wounds by Sharada Annamaraju, who knew all about this little trick the bird plays on gormless birders, and was disgustingly superior about it. Incidentally, the bird was in our neck of the woods quite legitimately: its distribution is widespread and splatters into every contour of the Indian map.
Well then, much maja came. We are going to insist that BSAP have this every week.