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A Pre-Dawn Adventure to Locate the Magnificent Malabar Hornbill

Another morning waking before the dawn. Today it was an annoying mosquito doing its thing right near my ear. And also a sense of coolness. It certainly is somewhat cooler here, maybe we are higher, but we are definitely away from the coastal strip where we first commenced this Indian odyssey.

We scrambled up the dirt path to the dining hall in the dark. There were no lights anywhere apart from a few small glows suggesting someone was there somewhere. We arrived at our destination to find no one. We had been instructed to appear for coffee, tea and biscuits – the usual fare when you are off early in the morning. It seemed that our staff had slept in! Ajay soon had them scrambling and within a few minutes they had our coffee ready for us.

I use the term coffee loosely. It is an unusual mix of coffee powder, not granules, that is topped with a hot milk and water mix. My first cup had me wrinkling my nose and pulling faces but after a few, I learned to appreciate the caffeine rush and the warmth of the hot drink.

Soon we troop back down the path, this time accompanied by our guide Viney. We leave by the same, bumpy dirt track by which we entered the camp. It is lined with two deep ruts made by the vehicles that arrive here during the wet. Viney tells me that this Old Magazine House is named for its function in 1964 when it was built to hold the explosives used in the construction of the nearby Supa Dam. For the past 18 years, it has been used as accommodation for birders. Unlike some of the nearby resorts, this place is specifically for birders.

I should also note that there is supposedly other wildlife here. Viney warned us about sloth bears. They are the most prevalent animal here and also quite dangerous. There is also said to be panthers, leopards, civet cats and wolves. But we’ve seen none of these. Only multitudes of birds.

As we drive through the morning, the light begins to glow illuminating the mist rising from the lower parts of the landscape. Along some narrow patches of flat land, a few paddy fields have been carved out. Other plots contain green plants looking like vegetables. But mostly it is the houses, temples and remarkable statues that my eyes see. One statue jumps out at me from the darkness, a strong man astride a large black horse is holding a lance and dressed as a soldier. He is probably an ancient king or freedom fighter but today he commands only a small patch along a busy road. Orange flags and streamers make a tenuous link with the earthly realm. In a flash, he is gone as we continue along our rough ride.

We drive through sleepy villages, the smoke just beginning from the fires people make to burn their rubbish and the endless leaves swept up from where they fell at the end of their life. The houses are mostly shut but from a few, sari-clad women emerge to toss out some water, to sweep their front step or to stand in the morning light while they brush their teeth.

A few people are walking along the road but it is mostly still that beginning moment of the day when life is just stirring. We arrive at the park office and pay our entry fee. Although our charge is INR330 (50 rupees per camera, 20 rupees per person and 50 rupees per car), we only have a 500 rupee note and so we are ‘forced’ to make a small donation!

We gather our cameras and walk amongst the fallen logs. This location is named the Timber Depot for a reason. There are many logs neatly stacked and labelled, carefully arranged in rows along the road. We are told that they only take the fallen timber but this seems unlikely given the number of logs and their similarity in size. Then we are told that for every tree that is taken, 10 are planted in its place. While this seems a good strategy, it appears that they are planting teak, which is a very slow growing tree and not likely to provide the shelter of the older trees.

Within a few steps we see our first bird, the yellow-footed green pigeon perching safely in the high trees. This is the state bird of Maharashtra Viney tells us. We see many more of these birds in the course of the morning so it may be part of the reason for its designation.

Then the hornbills appear. These wondrous birds are prevalent here at this particular location. They love the trees, and in particular, the trees that provide the seeds they desire. I don’t know the name of the tree but it sure does a good job of providing for the hornbills. We see probably 30 or more in the course of the morning. These ones are the Malabar Pied Hornbill but there are about five different types found here.

They perch high in the trees, clacking their big, odd-shaped beaks together to form some type of tactile communication with each other. This is the courting season Viney tells us so that might explain why they are mostly in pairs and exhibiting this smoochy behaviour.

Their ungainly flying, awkward hopping from branch to branch and general weirdness entertain me no end. They are such an unusual and large bird. But they are not the only bird we see. We find an owlet perched high in a tree. It calls loudly, the sound echoing through the clearing filled with tree trunks. A man sits on one trunk quietly smoking a cigarette as he checks his phone and pats his dog. Unusually, the dog is a German Shepherd, a breed not often seen here. There are always packs of street dogs that yip, bark and howl at random. They are of varying degrees of health, with scars of previous encounters on their skinny bodies.

The man takes his leashed dog and walks off into the lightening mist. Sun rays are now piercing the mist as the morning begins in earnest. It is a peaceful scene but somehow, the graveyard of tree bodies imparts a sombre note. This mood is harmonised with by the call of the owlet. Where is my mate? Come and find me and let’s make music together.

Jungle owlets courting

We move to seek a better view of the little bird. It flies off, a round ball without legs and seemingly without wings, its round body packed tightly with its protective cloak of feathers. It finds a likely spot in a new tree and we follow along to observe what happens next. Then, success! A female owlet arrives and joins him on their branch high above us. Then follows a courting dance, where he approaches her, she turns her back on him and moves to the end of the branch. He persists and eventually she turns to face him. He pecks lightly at her face, tenderly poking at her and even removing a few small feathers as he tenderly preens her in those awkward, hard to reach spots. They are a pair, looking out for each other and getting ready to have a family.

We move on to see many other birds. Our hearts are full at the life we have seen but soon our tummies begin to rumble louder and more insistently playing the bass notes of our morning symphony. We are reluctant to leave but breakfast and the staff of the camp are waiting for our return so leave we must.

It is interesting to see how much life has awoken as we return along the same road. We see a school with many children lined up at assembly, singing their songs. There are shopkeepers opening their shops, small carts with fast food, many cars and trucks and motor bikes on their way. Life is happening here in this small rural town. The same way it does every day.

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