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…