Settle for the easy, or chase the dream? Lessons from the desk of an adman, birder and photographer.
As I tip-toed through the underbrush in the Aravallis in search of the elusive Indian Pitta, that jewel of the Indian forests, a feathered kaleidoscope of nine colors (and hence called the Navrang in many Indian languages), I had an epiphany of sorts.
I had been chasing the Pitta for close to an hour, hearing its distinctive two-note whistle in the undergrowth, scanning every rock, every shaded patch where the bird was likely to be. Meanwhile, I was running out of time - I would have to return to a hundred Saturday errands with nothing to show for my outing.
Conveniently perched on a branch next to me was a Drongo – a beautiful bird, forked tail, glossy black sheen on the feathers, photogenic and a great poser. The black feathers look gorgeous with green foliage. Flipside: pretty common. Almost every electricity post has its resident Drongo.
So, what do you do? Utilise the limited birding time to get some nice shots of the daily Drongo? Or persist with the Pitta?
Bird in hand vs bird in bush. Settle for the easy, or chase the dream?
Birdwatching has a way of coming up with such moments. Perhaps it’s the state of Zen one enters when one is birding – the hushed silence, the single-mindedness of the quest, the heightened self-awareness when even a twig crackling underfoot can be the difference between a sighting and an empty branch. Or maybe it’s nothing as exotic, just the sun and the heat playing tricks on you. Who knows. But the lessons keep coming.
Another abiding learning: for best results, imagine. The Indian Roller on the branch is a great composition but it has the potential to be a show-stopper when it extends its wingspan fully for milliseconds as it takes off, displaying its other-worldly mosaic of indigo feathers, like some magical, medieval cloak.
So, you imagine. You anticipate. You prepare for a better frame, in case it comes – factoring in the position of the bird, it’s probable angle of flight, you zoom out and create space in the viewfinder to capture the full extent of the wings, you adjust your shutter speed to freeze the motion that you hope will happen. And then you wait patiently, silently, holding your camera, holding your breath, for the breathtaking burst of form and colour that is the reward.
Imagination, anticipation and patience. A birder’s mantra, applicable everywhere.
Another lesson learnt across birding trails in the mountains of Chopta, the scrubland of the Aravallis or in the rolling grasslands of Sultanpur is this: Follow your instinct. No matter how counter-intuitive it may sound, if a small voice inside you is persistently asking you to zig instead of zag, listen. I once waited for hours with a bunch of experienced birders at a spot which I didn’t think was right. My internal compass told me the bird was elsewhere that day.
Eventually after the group left empty-handed, I took a chance at the spot where I thought the bird would be. Time passed slowly. I remember looking down at my watch. When I looked up, the Indian Paradise Flycatcher, with its crested blue head and white silk-ribbon of a tail was looking at me quizzically, barely three feet away.
Another lesson. The universe does conspire sometimes to give you what you want. Call it what you will - destiny, or an infinitesimal part of some grand cosmic plan, but there is always hope out there under the wide skies. As Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, the noted Hungarian-American psychologist said, it’s good to have a naïve trust in the universe.
When I saw the crimson sunbird for the first time at a bend of the Mandakini river, I was mesmerised. But try as I might I could not get a clear shot that day. The bird was just not sitting still, flitting from branch to branch in the deep shadows of the oak forest. And throughout the ten-hour drive home, all I could think was of missed chances.
I returned next year during the monsoons. As any birder knows, that is the worst season to go birding. In the two days we spent on the banks of the Mandakini, I saw nothing.
On the last day, just before leaving for the long drive back, I heard a call. As I peered into the branches, I couldn’t believe my eyes. On a trip that had been spectacularly fruitless so far, here was redemption – the crimson sunbird, creature of my dreams, was posing patiently on a branch, resplendent in crimson and metallic blue.
And as for my immediate personal dilemma between the Drongo at my elbow and the call of the yet unseen Pitta?
Tolkien is apt here: “Not all those who wander are lost”.
I was glad I chose to heed Pitta’s call.
Dip Sengupta is chief growth officer and region head – North, Creativeland Advertising.