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Birds of the same feather, and a flutter from the past



When birding runs in the family, watching winged beauties is not just a pastime

Patti, did you see any bird?” shouted my seven-year-old grandson, Tanuj, as I returned from a morning walk in the Law Garden in Ahmedabad. “Yes, I saw woodpeckers. They were shrieking loudly and spiralled up a tree trunk.”

Tanuj persisted: “What sort of woodpeckers were they?” I mentioned a few features that I had noticed. “Their back was of a golden colour, they had a red crest, black and white stripes on their head.”

Tanuj ran to get his mother’s Salim Ali book. He swiftly turned to the colour plates, and announced that what I saw was a golden-backed woodpecker.

He needed more information to know if it was a common, lesser or greater golden-backed woodpecker. Unable to describe further, I showed him the pictures that I had taken with my smartphone. Since the middle white stripe had gone all the way to the bird’s belly, he concluded that it was the lesser golden-backed woodpecker.

Tanuj wanted to help me identify the other two as well. He drew side profiles of the head and neck of three woodpeckers, asking me to focus only on those parts. He put a red crest in all of them, but the head and neck differed in the three profiles — four alternate bands of black and white in the common golden-backed, three bands in the lesser golden-backed and a long central white band and three short bands in the greater golden-backed that stopped at the shoulder.

Tanuj asked me to keep the drawing for quick reference. Another day while sitting in the balcony in my fourth floor apartment in Jamshedpur, four small birds alighted on the branches of a jamun tree. I had not seen them before. I took a photo with my mobile and send it by WhatsApp to a former classmate in Kerala. I came to know him through an alumni WhatsApp group, and was pleased to know that Sam is a passionate bird photographer and his wife a birdwatcher. He replied immediately, “Blyth’s starling”, and complimented my photograph for its clarity. I have an advantage as the balcony is at the same level of the tree tops.

After my retirement last year, I set off to fulfil the first item in my bucket list — visit Thattekadu, a bird sanctuary in Ernakulam district of Kerala. Armed with binoculars, a camera and a bird book, I was among eight other birders from North India. The home stay was comfortable, guides were knowledgeable and we saw many birds at close quarters from the “hides” and at feeding points. Birds on treetops and among thick bushes hopped out in response to bird sounds played from bluetooth speakers.

We walked through dense forests and saw owls sweeping down at mice kept on platforms. The serious birders had big cameras, two to three feet long, mounted on tripods. They were professionals and businessmen who systematically covered all the birding locations in India by devoting a week once in two months.

Eldhose, owner of the homestay, asked me with reverence about my uncle, K.K. Neelakantan — Induchoodan for him and Neelamani chithappa for me. I remember my uncle discussing literature with my grandfather, an English professor, and birds with my father, a Conservator of Forests. Chithappa could wear the hats of a professor and a birdwatcher with equal felicity. I had seen his drawings with details of bird beaks and legs and meticulous notes on bird habits. Usually a person of few words, he once came home with great excitement to share owl hoots that he had recorded by hiding in the bushes a whole night. If that was my exposure to birding in the 1960s, now from social media, I learn about my uncle’s great contribution to ornithology in Kerala.

A sense of regret looms large of the missed opportunities to interact more with the remarkable person. Perhaps I was naive and birdwatching was arduous. Now as I do armchair birdwatching in my ancestral house, my grandson’s quick guide is tucked in the book Birds of Kerala dedicated to his great granduncle.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 9:51:36 AM |

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