Sunday, 24 October 2021

Yellow-rumped Honey guide - the story of a bird

Well, Honeyguides are an interesting birds and there are a number of them. Ten to be precise in the Genus Indicator. Eight of them found in Africa and two in Asia. Out of these two - one in India. I was chasing the one in India, the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. I will get on to it after telling this story to start with. The story goes that I wanted to see this bird (like all other birds of the world I must add) and set my mind to it. Now every time I visited the Himalayas, I was on a constant lookout - I was waiting for and encounter in Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and of course on my last visit to Uttrakhand. Well to be fair I was also looking out for it in our visit to Borneo, the other Honeyguide of Asia - Malaysian Honeyguide. Well, being on a lookout and to actually see the bird is like the sip and the lip - both close but it will be when it will be. 

The hunting party - our Birdguide on the left...

The Yellow rump being clearly displayed.

The bird that refused to be afraid - leading me to the Beehive?

My visits to Sikkim, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and even Borneo were a washout and this happened over a period of more than 5 years. Then came the last birding trip to Uttrakhand, a trip to Chopta, tugged in-between the two COVID lockdowns, that still had the name of this bird as a target species along with a dozen others I must say. Our Birdguide was absolutely certain that we will see the bird and in hearts of hearts, I was not so sure. The past failures were weighing heavy on my mind to say the least. Well the day arrived and we walked upstream from the road the first day at Chopta and that was where we were to see the bird for sure, or so our Birdguide has said - like a 100% sure. Well we waited, scanned the area for any signs at all for the birds - but for the huge Beehives humming with bees in the far distance on a ledge - there was nothing. Well they were other birds and pretty ones - but this was not to be. We waited and scanned the nearby areas for over an hour. Since we were to reach our destination that was still a few hours away we had no choice to cut the chase and after a small Maggie Lunch and moved on. The disappointment was on my face. A few hours down the lane we stopped again with a Cliff in far distance and the Birdguide telling us that we might be lucky here as the bird is seen at this place also sometimes. Missing the bird where it was surely to be seen and now at a place where it is sighted sometimes is really not very hopeful. Well, we stopped at the stream and all our group started looking out for some beautiful birds around the stream. I asked our guide if we can walk along the road to the place near the Beehives that was about half a km away and since rest did not respond enthusiastically - we both, the Birdguide and me, moved on. As luck would have it, just about 200 m ahead - there was a flutter in a tree nearby and both the Birdguide and me shouted simultaneously - HoneyGuide. I was shaking with excitement and moving my feet barely a few inches at a time to ensure the bird does not fly away. The bird was still not clearly visible even though we were hearing it and catching the glimpses of it in that tree. I got one clear shot and the bird decided to be more confident than me. It perched on to a branch an arms length away and was not at all afraid. I heart was jumping with joy - I called out to the rest of the team. The bird did not mind my shout at all - they all came - and the bird was there still singing in front of all of us and what a day we had. 

Oh what a sight it was - especially when it has eluded you for 5 years plus some change ;-)

The Scientific Name of the bird is Indicator xanthonotus. The first part of the name, Indicator, and it is exactly what it sounds - to Indicate as in English. And the second part xanthonotus can be broken into two parts - xanthous - that means yellow, and ~nōtos that means backed. This basically gets down to Indicator bird that has a yellow back. And now you can correlate with the common name - the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. The story of the bird is an interesting one and it goes something like this... this bird is known for leading mammals and humans to the bees nests, enabling the stronger mammal to break open the hive/nest and benefit from honey, whilst the honeyguide eats the grubs, bees and the wax. The local (African) superstition demands that some of the honey is left for the honeyguide, otherwise next time it will lead the searcher towards a hidden snake or leopard. Well - search the net and you will find such videos doing rounds but most of them are not proven or verified - all the same the folklore lives on…

This is the reason why birding is my passion - every bird has a story and every story has a bird 😎

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Story of Ibisbill and an Arrogant Birder!

There are birds and then there are target birds - like the one I mentioned in the title. The Ibisbill, a bird that I chased for a long long time. The chase happens when you go to a place and do research for the likely birds in that season at that place. 

When I planned a trip to the Jim Corbett - it was not the tigers on my mind but two birds that were still refusing to be ticked as my lifers, the Collared Falconet and the Ibisbill. The Falconets are residents in and around Corbett and seen with very regularly but fairly often on the very top of the tall trees - so that was not really my concern - I was sure that I will be able to see them. It was the Ibisbill - the altitudinal migrant that moves to the higher reaches of the Himalayas that was my main target. With March around the corner and the weather slowly changing - it was difficult to guess if the bird was there. The last bird logged was a week or so ago so the surety that the bird will be around was anything but a certainty.

Collared-falconets on tall trees in the distance

Anyway - I tried to get a bird guide under my wings and unfortunately - it being a high season, none of the guides that mattered was available. The alternative is sometimes better than hiring a Birdguide - get a Gypsy driver, the ones with permits for the forest, the good ones many a time rival the best of the guides spending years learning on the field. I contacted and managed to convince Mr Kaleem Khan to be with me for a day and a half. 

Flying Pied Kingfisher

The next morning, he was there dot on the time waiting for us at the gates of our hotel. There was a quick exchange of pleasantries and as we chatted - I listed out the list of birds that were desirable and stressed - the Falconet and the Ibisbill. He replied almost immediately, Falconet - a sure thing - but Ibisbill, I could see the gears of his mind tossing and turning to process the information. As he taught out a reply I was thinking, with my father who was nearing 80 and my son who had both accompanied me to Corbett, the chase of the tiger was a priority as of now as we were to do a safari - do birding while on the safari if possible, then drop my father and son back to the hotel and go for some unadulterated birding, Ibissbill in particular.

Little Egrets

Though we were lucky to see some animals and birds but more or less the first slot of Safari was uneventful. To get it on record, we did see some Falconets but as expected - a bird the size of a bulbul can hardly be appreciated on top of a tall tree even with the binoculars. After the first slot of safari - we dropped my father and son at the hotel and drove to hunt for the place-a few km away from where the Ibisbill was last seen. The chances were anybody’s guess as the last sighting was a full week back and since then the weather was getting hotter. The bird being an altitudinal migrant - chances were that it had moved to the upper reaches of the streams in the Himalayas. In any case, we were not giving up - so here we were - on our way to the river bed where the bird had been seen regularly during the season.

We reached the location, walked almost a km, and I was quickly disappointed. I scanned, fairly meticulously the entire riverbed on both sides and saw no signs of the Ibisbill. Two-three scans and I had already started checking out other birds in the area. All this while my mentor, my guide, Kaleem kept saying - sir this is a difficult bird to see. It merges with the rocks and you have to be careful while scanning the area and it takes time.

The walk at the location

Ah - to hell - after birding (as in birding with effort and dedication) for almost 30 odd years - you think someone else will teach me that a bird the size of chicken can hide from me? Hell no - and I disregarded his advice. All the same, Kaleem continued scanning both banks of the river looking for clues. Meanwhile the ‘disappointed me’ chased and clicked a flock of little egrets, flying shots of a little egret, pied kingfisher, and river lapwings. Then I spotted a Crested Kingfisher sitting in the far distance - I pointed it out to Kaleem who almost seemed disappointed in me and had his eyes peeled on the banks, peering through the binoculars finding ‘my target bird’ with all his concentration. Meanwhile, I started making my way to the Crested Kingfisher with the confidence of getting close to it. The tactic was simple. Move at a tangent not peering towards the bird, Take a few steps, stop, click and pray that you will not agitate the bird to fly away. Another few steps, stop, slowly raise the camera, click. Repeat it till you are satisfied respecting the bird’s space.

Crested Kingfisher

River Lapwing

All this went on for almost an hour and a half. I looked back at Kaleem and he was still doing his thing - scanning the banks of the river. What the hell I thought to myself. Why is the guy so bloody hell-bent on finding the bird that I was confident was not there? Another half an hour passed and I was chasing all the birds other than what I had set a target for. Suddenly I saw movement through the corner of my eye and that was Kaleem in the far distance with excitement, pointing to someplace towards the river. I hobbled over the big stones of the river bank and took almost 10 min reaching him and in a hushed, but the excited voice he said - Ibisbill - there. I just could not believe it - birding for years and I was so arrogant to take the advice of someone who was perhaps more dedicated to ‘my desire’ than myself. We saw the bird and it was there - a lifer - a bird I did not know how I could have missed. We moved to position me for some pictures and the bird did not oblige. As we moved closer - it flew further. All the shots I got are highly cropped - but I celebrated the moments spent with my life.


The curious one...

This incident taught me an important lesson of my birding life - be patient - listen to the guides - after all - they might have more experience and than you hope in their circumstances and place. Oh what an arrogant idiot I had been. I thank the Ibisbill and Mr Kaleem to humble me and get me down to the roots of being a good birdwatcher.

I still sit and fondly remember the moments… Oh, what a fool I had been…