The Little King

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So yesterday I gave a TED talk. But that isn’t what I’m talking about now. Wait till Sunday.

What I’m going to talk about now is something completely unrelated: kingfishers.

It’s probably pretty obvious by now I freaking love them. Big ones. Ones that don’t fit the standard definition (or color range). Heck, even watching them is enough for me.

So when a flash of blue appeared in front of us in an isolated islet in Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, I was… a little bit disbelieving. Especially considering the white-throated kingfisher that had just made an appearance literally fifteen meters away. This was… too good to be true.

But it was true. True enough that the lighting was so bad + my hands shaking so much from the excitement only one photograph actually turned out semidecent, with its head actually facing us. One word: gem. Seriously, is it even legal for birds to be that beautiful?

No. No is the answer. And considering how it manages to be so pretty while simultaneously being so awesome (fish. RIVERS. BEAKS.), I think it’s pretty deserving of the title ‘king’. (Though queen would have worked too. Ah well.)

Pied Detective

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Pied kingfishers, while not as sexually dimorphic as the butterfly I posted day before yesterday, are nevertheless distinugishable. While the color scheme – done in the creative shades of black, black, white, and white – does not offer any clue, looking at their chests is the vital key. Males have an unbroken double black band covering their manly breast, whereas females – as you can see above – are unbroken.

We spotted this kingfisher in Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Karnataka. It was my mother’s goal: after seeing its picture in the bird guides provided, she had set her heart on it. While I had seen one previously in Kenya, it had been a brief sighting. The boatman was fairly confident he could find it. I was skeptical. Every time we asked where it was, he said, “Just around the corner! Behind, behind!”

We smiled and nodded. Of course. How could we have been so stupid.

Finally, ‘just around the corner’ arrived and there was no kingfisher. We made a pass along the bank, and were just turning away when a black-and-white chattering object flew out of a small dip in the bushes. We all groaned and cursed ourselves: how could we have been so stupid, we asked. How.

It had settled itself neatly on a branch. Quite fine, only the branch was almost three quarters of a kilometer away. We started to paddle away, disappointed.

And then it came back.

Birds always surprise.

King

Those patient enough and knowledgeable enough to sustain a conversation on birding with me will have noticed my very slight obsession with kingfishers. Despite a firm belief we pay too much attention to the bright, flashy birds, the blues of halcyons hold a special place in my heart. The water was my first love, and kingfishers are the ultimate blend of the sea’s hues and the forest’s beauty.

So on any trip anywhere, my first avenue of research is kingfishers. Kenya I was delighted with three different species, each equally stunning. In Singapore, I only have two species left to have seen all of them.

The Himalayas, however, being more to the north, are slightly lacking in representatives. But because the Himalayas are just awesome overall, the representatives they have more than make up for the dearth of diversity.

They only have the biggest kingfisher in the entire Indian subcontinent.

Having done my research before, I came to Kullu with three birding goals in mind, ordered from the possible, the near-impossible, and the never-possible-in-a-million-years: the Crested Kingfisher, the Himalayan Monal, and the Western Tragopan (i.e. the holy grail of birding in the Himalayas). The unique situation of our guesthouse on the banks of the Tirthan river opened up an avenue for the first; examination of their Facebook page and the presence of a picture of the aforementioned kingfisher solidified hope. (I pretty much gave up on the Monal and Tragopan from the moment I decided I wanted to see them. Realistically, there was no hope.)

When we first met the proprietor of the guesthouse on our first evening, it took a scarce five minutes for me to ask if any kingfishers visited ever. I readied myself for a ‘no’, and was surprised by a very positive yes. “They steal all the fish…” he said wryly. “Sitting on the wire. Best eyesight of any bird on the river. You see them in the evening time, like around now.”

The speed at which I consolidated camera, binoculars, and notebook, and got down to the river would have been a record. Finding a nice rock, I sat and I waited. And I waited. And I waited.

Five new species of birds later, it was dark and there was no kingfisher and there was a campfire (WITH POPCORN) burning merrily. Which meant I was leaving, sans kingfisher.

(The popcorn was good, by the way.)

The next morning, I got up fairly early and lay, revelling in the feeling of warm blankets and cold surrounding air, considering my options. I could continue lying in bed and catch up on sleep, or I could go down to the river and keep vigil for birds. We were some one thousand metres above sea level and I was certain the morning air would be as cold as the blankets were not.

I got out of bed.

Later, when my fingers were so numb I could scarcely grasp my camera, I reflected that staying in bed might have been the better option. The birds were few and far between and all species I’d seen the day before: Plumbeous Redstarts, Little Forktails, White-capped Redstarts, and Brown Dippers. The light was almost too low for any decent photographs. But the air was bracing, the river beautiful, and, I thought, listening to the soft hiss of the wind, I would likely never come back to this place again.

Just then, two black-and-white birds flew past with a chew-chew call. Despite their superficial similarity to Little Forktails, their larger size and vocalization hinted at the possibility of perhaps, perhaps, perhaps –

That was all that was needed to break me out of my contemplative stupor and send me rushing over the water-wearied stones, in pursuit of a better view of the wire their flight seemed to have indicated they were about to land on. The river, however, bent at that area, and I couldn’t see where they were to confirm their tentative identity for a fifty torturous meters. I was very well certain they could fly away any moment, leaving me with nothing more than hope they had been, maybe, maybe, maybe –

Finally I reached a position where I could see them: not one, but two Crested Kingfishers, majestic on the telephone wire. I raised my camera and clicked: a record of what now I understood was indisbutably a kingfisher.

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