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A fountain on the pillion

A wonderful birdwatching experience, just a little distance from a bustling city

“Yes, let’s go,” my college-going daughter announced, taking a moment off from her smart phone. A college campus job placement syndrome, looking for a cool hobby, I wondered aloud. Adventures are in need, came the retort. She had to forgo bungee-jumping in New Zealand and snorkelling in Mauritius because of me. But for now, birdwatching is cool. Besides, she wanted to check out the blue green bird spotted on her college campus. But no car or water birds because of the parking dilemma during our last birding trip on a highway tank. She secretly loved our birding trips, but no forcing her.

So we went in search of perching birds, straddling my modest motorcycle, the cool morning air and the light sun soothing us. Unknown to many, Madurai, the bustling temple town of southern India, hosts many birding spots for nature lovers. The southern part of the city peters into a dust bowl while the north and the west are hilly and green.

We avoided the rock monoliths. Naagamalai is a green hill stretch with a non-normal distribution, unlike the normal bell curve of a typical hill. Nature is the master- creator of statistical distributions and patterns. The hill in the southern part was heavily colonised. Undaunted, we took a detour to explore the northern side and spotted a small road along a dry canal and went in. Within just a few metres the scenery changed. The snaky Nilaiyur canal bank has become the road. Lush green groves of plantain and coconut passed us by. The tree thicket grew, stretching and almost hiding the rolling hills. The gentle slope suggested an altogether different country. Beautiful roads are always inviting, be it a straight road parting through lush meadows or a winding mountain road with deep valley views. But this simple road on a bending canal by a hill stretch and sloping fields is a new thrill. Charming small bridges stretched across with their iron sluices. Odd motorcycles waited on their side stands while their owners tended the groves. The clean air and the birdsong were liberating.

Tail-end stories

My daughter was rewarded right away with her blue bird with squat features perching on a line. Looking through her binoculars she declared it was cool indeed. The Indian roller did not care much and concentrated on the emerging insects below. Suddenly it opened into the sky in a splash of velvet blue, green and rufous furls. A rainbow on wings. We heard the trills of a common bee-eater. The green-and-blue bird with a gracious head had a streak running from the eyes to the neck like an elaborate decoration. The vivacious tail was looking as if an arrow head was attached to and hanging behind a colourful body. It shot up like a swerving arrow ruddering with its tail to snatch a flying insect and returned to the perch in seconds. The road hid secrets at every bend. A red vented bulbul sang in two notes like a clanging doorbell and left. Drongoes flew with their long gracious forked tails.

Tailor in a bush

A pale pink tailor bird hopped in a bush, twitching its tail to a comical, almost vertical angle. Is there a connection between the tailor bird’s stitching skills and the tail twitch? Perhaps the tail twitch is an instinctive reaction to the intense strain on its beak when stitching, pulling and stringing together leaves for a perfect cup nest. A wonderful pull, string, stitch and twitch story. How a tiny bird can be so skilful and creative is nature’s wonder.

A kite with a brilliant white body and black wings and blood stone eyes looked at us from a high line. A glowing purple sunbird with its long curving bill hopped and briefly hovered on flowers probing for nectar on a tree. It shifted balance and swivelled 180 degrees to explore another flower hanging upside down. This tiny bird is amazingly agile and pulsates with energy. It can remain hovering to feed itself on nectar. The wings in combination with the tail are bioengineered to swirl and rotate at impossible angles to produce the lift, buoyancy, gyro balance and hover, which are only replicated in the design of complex helicopter rotor blades and rudder combination by bolted joints.

My admiring daughter would rarely part with the binoculars by now. A white breasted kingfisher, much like a wise and calm judge, was keenly watching the proceedings from a vantage point in impeccable black and white and we were the only witnesses. We got directions for pulloothu, the grass spring grove at the end of the road, and had to take a U-turn.

Heartsmith

We stopped to listen to the Coppersmith barbet metronome. This elusive bird, famous for its calls similar to tapping on a copper sheet, was full-throated. For me it sounded more like the live and strong beeps from a healthy heart’s monitor. It continued from 45 to 70 seconds without missing a beep. The bird was definitely there on a tree but invisible. It avoids movement to keep the rhythm. A bird-watcher typically looks for rustling and quivering leaves to track movement and spot birds. But with the coppersmith it is impossible. It just stays put and keeps beeping.

Is this my moment of life, the bird a metaphor for energy, rhythm, search, thrill and discovery, with a young daughter for company? A golden oriole with its splendid yellow body, black wings and red beak was foraging for food. An Indian robin scurried away from the road, giving an alert hiss call and showing the white wing patterns and the red vent. A bird would have spotted you thrice before you spot it once, famously wrote Dr. Salim Ali.

Eternal spring

We had to cross a small bridge and the road became a steep, tough dirt track towards the foothills. We rode top gear to climb across strong tree roots crossing the track. The track ended in an open shrine under a tree with snake god and other forest goddesses. Behind us there was the pulloothu, the grassy spring. A tiny stream came down from the grassy hills. It gushed from a simple elegant spout and collected in a tank and flowed further. Locals said it is a faithful spring and never dries up. We drank the cool spring water and sprinkled it on our heads and started back. It may not be a gushing fountain but the small spring is certainly a life-enabler. A rufous tree pie hopped overhead. It looked like a thin and elongated crow dressed for dinner in a long black tail coat over a yellow suit.

The hope

We also spotted the famous group of seven babblers. They love to carry their non-stop group discussion on the ground and in air virtually about everything from a tasty catch to a cosy perch. There were egrets, an Asian koel with pearly body and a pruning shikra, a small predator. Green parrots screeched us a high goodbye while three peafowls closely watched us from their stone-perch huddle. We stopped at a tranquil bend drinking in the entire beauty around us, in silent solitude. Then we turned back to go home.

My daughter still could not believe this place existed within 8 km of the city. Stretching just 4 km, this road was our amazing discovery in a jostling city. Her bird checklist had seven additions in a single day. I told her how these birds, which were quite common around our home 30 years ago, had been pushed to survive in a small stretch by the spring grove. I remembered the words of my mentors, nature-lovers such as Suresh Krishna and Theodore Baskaran, to respect and live in harmony with nature. As they have pointed out, the youth are our only hope and we have to let them discover nature.

We parked our motorcycle, and with a glint in her eyes and a spring in her steps my daughter rushed inside the home excitedly to gush her discoveries to her mother, grandfather and friends.

vadamalaiappan@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 10:11:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/a-fountain-on-the-pillion/article18515089.ece

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