Thursday, June 21, 2012

My kind of birding

In recent years I have often heard a refrain that one sees the same species of birds on field trips. Initially I would get cross at such an observation, which was remiss of me, for everyone does not think the way I do, and that’s okay. Later I was bemused, for how could new species be ordered up for a birder? Now I am concerned, for I think this is a symptom of a deeper malady.
            I have been birding for a little over three decades, and never have I been put off by the prospect of seeing the same common species on a birding outing. When something new turned up during outings or a rare bird was sighted, we were ecstatic. The excitement ignited a sense of awe in the entire group. But I cannot recall even one instance of a birder complaining about the lack of species novelty. So this lament is new to my ears.
            I feel that it is a symptom of a syndrome often called boredom, which is particularly prevalent in the digital generation for whom the predilection to channel-surf through life’s situations is an overpowering need, and this gives them a false sense of control over their lives, of the desire to change a situation at the mere press of a button. The downside of this is an ever-decreasing attention span. If this phenomenon begins to seep into one’s very nature, then activities that are not considered ‘essential’ in the life of a person, say leisure, inevitably fall prey to a ceaseless, futile hunger for novelty in whatever one does. Given such a bent of mind, and with the mind-bending peer pressures rampant today, how long will it take, I often ask myself, before this malady leaches into the more essential areas of the fabric of one’s life? I see signs of it daily in traffic snarls. Tempers flare at the avoidable inconvenience, but people do not hesitate to slip out of their lane on spotting a chance for a quick exit. If everyone stuck to traffic rules, the flow would, undoubtedly, be smoother.
            Leisure activity, as I was saying, is the first victim of such aberrant behaviour. I am of the firm belief that the constant desire to spot at least one species never seen before, and the paradoxical moaning that follows the no-show of a new species is a symptom of the channel-surfing mindset. I am concerned about such an overpowering desire for novelty, when a dynamic activity like birding, becomes suspect of being mired in stagnation, and the disgruntled birder actually begins to wonder whether it would be worth the while to spend another mundane morning tramping through the countryside, chasing the same old birds!
            Bird watching is not an eternal quest for rarity, though no birder denies the thrill of sighting one. It is not about racing all over the landscape and tallying a century of birds before lunch, though no birder will deny the special joy of such a ‘ton.’ It is not twitching for the most number of species seen, though there have been many that have basked in the sunshine of that self-indulgent high-life (they truly miss the woods for the trees).
            Bird watching, in its essence, is the fine art of becoming invisible; of merging into the surroundings in such a manner that the breath which Nature has held back upon your entry into Her parlour, is joyfully exhaled, and normal respiration restored; in such a way that the frozen statues of animate wildlife, interrupted by your brashness, are coaxed into resuming their activities; in such a way that your aural and visual senses are drenched with the buoyancy of life; in such a way that you get outside yourself and become a part of the pageant around you.
            This does require the cultivation of a patience that slows down your pace to that of the elemental cycles dominating the flow of life in an immaculate world run entirely without human help. It requires the marshalling and re-aligning of vision, and a new focus of hearing so that you absorb every single sound and identify its source, and gradually its nuances, its cadenzas. It demands the preoccupation with stillness.
            What are the rewards of this exercise? I can think of at least two that will last you a lifetime. One, you would have begun to notice things about your surroundings that you never knew existed, bringing you immediate, immeasurable joy. Two, you would have wound down your restless inner dynamo to such an extent that you would discover a quietude, a stillness within you; a fount for a fresh view of your surroundings, a new approach to life, based on re-energised sensitivities. But first you must do this.
            Then suddenly a new world opens its doors to your mind’s eye. You remain standing in front of a fruiting neem, while the large group of birders moves on, having identified one or two species. You inhale the aroma of its foliage. A fluty whistle from its canopy leads your eye to the Iora. He is dressed in breeding regalia—jet cap and coat, deep canary shirt, white epaulettes. He courts a hen iora with song, he postures, he patrols; his aria persuades her and dissuades rivals from his territory. You do not exist in his scheme of things, just in your own sensory world, as a witness. You stay with him as he perambulates the leafy canopy, lifting his warbling beak skyward, fluffing his velvet beret, vibrating his dark tail, standing on tiptoe in the fervour of his operatic song. You are trapped by its intensity. You are mesmerised by its elemental simplicity, by the realisation that the Iora’s entire world, in that moment, is its song, and that he has enmeshed you in it, albeit momentarily, till your focus expands to take in the larger picture, the shining curved leaves of the neem, the soft yellow fruit-pods, the darkened bark, damp from last night’s rain, the tangled undergrowth.
            A movement you spy, from the corner of your eye, and realise it is an Ashy Prinia that’s flown into the Iora’s neem, and you stay with it. As your senses expand, your absorption of the drama around you becomes acute and before you are aware of it, you are invisible to yourself, a part of the very landscape you’ve come to partake, all eyes and ears, inhaling its scents, feeling it on your skin. If you become aware of yourself, the spell is broken and the pageant melts away into simple, mundane, two-dimensionality. The trick is to be yourself invisible, but completely present in your surroundings. Now you are on the path to my kind of birding.