My journey to photograph the bird species of Palani Hills started when I got a job in a private school at Kodaikanal. During my initial days at Kodai, I was fascinated by the landscape and I focused on landscape photography. The clouds taking a nap on the hills, the reluctant mist among the pines, the drenched moss on the Shola trees, the moon tangled in the reeds, the dripping sunlight over the Salvia, and the quiet and shimmering lake are the images that thrilled me and birds were just a passing curiosity.
In my third year there, I developed an interest in birds. I started to go on birdwatching trips in and around Kodaikanal town. I think this interest was a natural extension of my ever-present curiosity about the natural world. Also, as a high school biology teacher I thought the activity would help me to kindle some interest among my students in bird diversity and behaviour.
Birding as a hobby has many advantages. You are outside your den in the natural world, you become more aware of your surroundings, you become more observant, you become physically active, your neck gets exercised peering into the canopy, and your reflexes get fine-tuned, especially when you notice a fleeting activity among the bushes. If you are carrying a camera and zoom lens weighing two kg, your shoulder and arm muscles get exercised and, above all, there is the peace and happiness you feel when you are out birding in the wilderness.
I opened a Facebook page, “Birds of Palani Hills” to have some structure and direction to my quest. Palani Hills is in the southeastern part of the Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu. It is a global biodiversity hotspot and is well recognised for its high endemism. The habitat is diverse and include thickly forested areas, grasslands, plantations, lakes, and meandering streams.
Birding in such terrain can be both ecstatic and taxing. In two years, I was able to photograph 150 species including the endemic ones: black-and-orange flycatcher, white-bellied sholakili, Nilgiri flycatcher, Palani laughing thrush, Nilgiri pipit... But the broad-tailed grassbird still eludes me.
The hardest part of this journey is that this is a one-man quest (54 years old and borderline diabetic); even though my wife accompanies me at times, this has been in most parts a lonely endeavour.
Some days I do birding for eight hours, especially on cloudy days when birds tend to be active for longer hours than their usual morning and evening outings. Birds like raptors don’t mind the sun much and stick around for longer hours compared to the other species.
Some days, I come home frustrated and tired — I have not spotted even one species that I have not photographed before. How often I have cursed the bulbuls, they are everywhere, and then I think how selfish it is possible to become during the quest. Overall, this journey has given me joy, taught me patience, and has given me the confidence to encourage my students to carry out projects on bird diversity.
Now I travel all around Palani Hills, looking for birds at different altitudes. American writer Jonathan Franzen, in a Guardian article titled The Radical Otherness of Birds, writes “The stories we tell about the past and imagine for the future are mental constructions that birds can do without. Birds live squarely in the present. And at present, although our cats and our windows and our pesticides kill billions of them every year, and although some species have been lost forever, their world is still very much alive. In every corner of the globe, in nests as small as walnuts or as large as haystacks, chicks are pecking through their shells and into the light.” Given the importance of birds to any ecosystem, I think my quest has a purpose, and I wish these feathered creatures survive, beat the odds set before them by humans, and don’t become just a memory on someone’s FB page.