What drives birders



A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Decades ago this was the topic for a school essay. It required the utmost imagination and sleight of hand to cobble together a few paragraphs.

If one were to write on the same topic, words would flow better.  Beholding flora, fauna and mother nature up close and personal — isn’t that what eternal beauty is made up of?

Birders are that rare species who spend practically all their vacation time (and then some) on birding trips. You probably see beautiful pictures of exotic birds on your Facebook timeline after they return from their expeditions.

Against the backdrop of a media loaded timeline, words still manage to be more evocative (to me i.e.) A birder friend returned from a trip to the Nicobar Islands and shared the below on Facebook.

And I finally got what it is to be a birder. The money paragraph is the 4th one (in italics).

Back from an unforgettable trip to Nicobars. I’ve left the island but the islands refuse to leave me…

garima_birdpic_nicobar_jungle_flycatcherWe spent 12 days between Great Nicobar and Central Nicobar enjoying the pristine, untouched beauty of the islands (a selfish thank you to Govt of India for not allowing tourists into this paradise). Amazing birding with many new birds (18 for me), great birding company, beautiful forests and beaches (mostly inaccessible with hardly any roads).

Camped out in the forest for 3 nights – 9 of us sleeping like sardines on a hard undulating wooden platform (tip: ear plugs and sleeping pills are useful!), got bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes and sand flies (not to mention a leech bite that left a large red patch on my leg for several days), hiked up and down slippery slopes to finally see a Nicobar Megapode at its nest while sitting in a hide drenched from head to toe in pouring rain (3rd attempt for me – a total of 10 hours of waiting), got lashed by a choppy sea while attempting to navigate around a rocky outcrop to board our dunghi (as a result of which my camera took a salt water bath and stopped working). Whoever said birding was easy?!

It was all worth it in the end though, but more than the birds, the high point of the trip for me was the sighting of 3 leatherback turtles (+ 1 green turtle) that landed at Galatyea beach (Great Nicobar) in the middle of the night to lay their eggs. We were woken by the forest guards who were patrolling the beach (kudos to them!) and rushed there to spend 2 hours watching the turtles go through the herculean effort to crawl through the sand, dig holes to lay eggs, cover up the eggs, make fake tracks (to confuse predators) and crawl back to return to their ocean home. The experience left us humbled, awed and weak in the knees, and am not ashamed to say that I just sat down on the beach and cried copiously, it was such an intensely emotional moment.

garima_birdpic_nicobar_crimson_sunbirdThe only regret – I forgot my trusty filter bottle in Delhi and had to drink bottled water while camping out. Managed to crush and carry back around 30 bottles back with me (which I disposed off at Chennai airport where it will hopefully be recycled) but had to leave some in the forest at Galatyea to be burnt. Have made a New Year’s resolution to myself already – I will not drink any beverage that comes out of a disposable plastic or tetrapak container (water, soda, juice). I wish more people would think about the impact of their actions on this one and only planet we call home, or else be prepared to be haunted by the sight of plastic trash washed up on uninhabited pristine beaches (we found bottles from Thailand and Malaysia at Galatyea beach) and studies like the one shown in http://midwayfilm.com/.


Jan 10 (Shashank Dalvi)

garima_birdpic_nicobar_blacknaped_monarchObserving Flying Fish do their usual business is a spectacular phenomenon. You just have to position yourself at the front of a boat and wait for them to jump out of water and glide effortlessly in front of the boat. They can glide from 50-400 meters in one stretch with speeds matching up to 70km/hr. Then you marvel – how do they do it?

How they manage something as spectacular as this can only be explained by the millions of years of evolution to outsmart their predators underwater (With the result that Tropicbirds have specialized in feeding on them). So how do they do it? They have fully broadened neural arches (Vertebral column within which is the spinal cord), which acts as the perfect base for muscles and ligaments through connective tissues. Due to this they can make their body rigid during flight. They also have a caudal fin which is much stronger than most of the other species of fishes. They can also open and close their pectoral fin when they exit and re-enter the water. Added to this, the tail helps modify their flight paths.

Watching these tiny beauties in flight was exciting but easy. However photographing them with a 400 mm lens was a different game all together. These fishes can jump out of water anytime, anywhere, and without warning. We had to follow them up with the lens (with all the twist and turn they muster) and then focus on their backs – and eventually click.

(Closing note: The 3 pictures in this post are all from her Nicobar trip though they don’t match with the above narrative).

Bangalore to Hubli: from agony to ecstasy

Shriram Revankar (the adventurer with his mom at the end of his journey)

Shriram Revankar (the adventurer with his mom at the end of his journey)

[Editor’s Note: My good friend and ex-colleague Shriram undertook an amazing trip last year. Shriram is a cyclist and a runner. He belittles his running but he’s blessed with natural abilities. With no training plan and just two long 30k runs under his belt, he knocked off a full marathon (Auroville 2011) in 3:55. But this post isn’t about his running abilities.. nor is it about his cycling abilities (of which he has plenty to boast about too). This is about his pain enduring abilities, sheer grit and stubbornness. His entire account is eminently worth a read – I’ve cherry picked the bits that serve as a “portrait of pain”.]

An 8 year old’s humble beginnings with a bicycle..

When I was an 8 year old child in Ankola, a quaint little coastal town in Karnataka, I had learnt bicycling the hard way. My father, in his late forties was my coach. The bicycle was about the same height as me, but probably weighed double my body-weight. My riding style was quite awkward. The left hand controlled the handle and the right hand tightly wrapped around the seat. My little painfully-thin and knotty frame bobbed up-and-down as I peddled in-and-out through the frame of the bicycle.  Manoeuvring the bicycle was not easy. I do remember suffering from persistent open wounds on my knees, shins, palms and elbows for a period of nearly a year or may be more. The poor bicycle did not fare much better either. It was a miracle that the bicycle survived my vigorous ‘half peddling’ through the monsoon hammered streets of Ankola.

Gentle beginnings with pain..

The primary issue was the pain at the buttocks. 

When the pain could no longer be ignored..

I kept on riding while my shoulders and butt kept on howling in pain. By around 12:15 PM more than seven hours after I left home, I crossed the midway point of that day’s ride… That stop was a big relief from persistent pain. Interestingly the most prominent pain, the butt pain, would cease as soon as I got off the bike. However shoulder pain would not go down by much.

The pain and the brain

It had been nearly 9 hours since I started my ride. Sun was hot and bright – but I did not notice either the sun or the heat. I had other things distracting me. How many ways can I talk about pain?! There are not enough ways. As my butt felt like it was in a blender, (sorry for being so graphic) I started supporting my weight on my legs and shoulders. Although my knees and thighs were up to the task, my shoulders were not holding up well.  Slowly the intensity of pain at the butt and the shoulders overwhelmed all my thoughts. The blunt pain just below the neck, underneath and around the shoulder blades was constant and excruciatingly gnawing.  It felt as if a heavy dumbbell got buried into my back and stayed-put and did not move even an iota no matter what I did. I pulled the shoulders in, pulled them down; pulled the chest in and hunched back. Nothing worked. It was a constant struggle.

I started frequent walks just to relieve me of the pain. The shoulders were getting increasingly worse because walking or resting made no difference to them.

After every break, getting going again became highly unpalatable. It took immense effort to climb back on the bicycle and continue the ride. I started noticing that the rest-breaks no longer helped me to get a break from pain. It felt like every riding episode started and ended with the same intensity of pain. It was as if I took no break. The breaks were of no help at all. My younger brother had already reached Hubli and was willing to come and rescue me if I asked for it. That put further dent in my resolve to bear the pain and continue. I was still quite far from my first day’s destination – Chitradurga. By that time I had completely forgotten my over enthusiastic early eagerness to go an additional sixty kilo-metres past Chitradurga, to Davanagere.

If you thought he was done talking about his pain on day #1, think again..

Other than a Google search of a few hotels in Chitradurga, I had not made any arrangements for the night’s stay. I wanted to reach there early while there was still sunlight. I thought that it would give me an opportunity to evaluate more than one hotels option. However the pain was unrelenting, brute-force speeding up was out of the question. I decided not to take breaks anymore – they were not helping. I started walking and bicycling. Every time I bicycled, I had to get down and walk again within a couple of kilometres. I really tried to extend my riding time to walking time ratio. The idea was to match the walking time with the up-hill stretches and the riding time with the flat or downhill stretches. The up-hills were not particularly harsh. It was just that on the up-hills I had to pedal relatively more compared to the downhill or the flat stretches. Not a deep revelation, but the “butt” equation was forcing me to minimize the number of ‘pedalling-s per kilo metre’. I could barely tolerate resting my butt on the seat; any further movement was sadistically cruel. I also rationalized that the ratio of walking speed to riding speed is the highest during an uphill anyway.

Did you know that the brain is the biggest muscle in the human body?

My democratic body was on complete non-cooperation movement, but my dictatorial brain was taking none of it. It was not letting any of these revolting body parts to make their own decision. At this stage I was ready to take any and all moral victories with great relish. If I could get a few more rolls while not pedalling, that was a win. If there was a stretch of shade that I could get under, it was a win. If I avoided a bump on the road, that was a win. It was getting pathetic and what made the situation ridiculous was the headwind. My whole strategy of uphill-walk; down-hill-ride had to be thrown out. There was a stretch where I was going downhill and I had to pedal as if I was going uphill. Given the state of pain I was in, this made it a real torture. Wikipedia says “it is a practice or act of deliberately inflicting severe physical pain and possibly injury” I think that description of torture matched my situation very well. J It is during this stretch of ‘not-reaching-Chitradurga-yet’, it became clear to me that my brain was the biggest “muscle” that was driving the ride and the rest of the muscles were but secondary.

Pain, music and Ibuprofen

During early hours of riding, I used to sit on the bike-seat and ride for a stretch of five to ten minutes. By the time I crossed Davanagere, I could bear to sit on my seat and ride only for two three minutes at a stretch and then I had to switch position. This was putting a lot of stress on legs and thighs.  My legs had been rock solid till then. They were supporting without complaint and helped in alleviating my butt, shoulder and upper back pain. However as I rode past Harihar, legs started cramping. I longed for some shelter by the road side where I can just lie down for a few minutes in the shade. There was no such luck!

From then on I had to stop favouring my butt, shoulder and back. The piercing pain was getting increasingly unbearable, but I had no choice. Slowly the legs stopped cramping. The riding speed or effort no longer had any bearing on pain or tiredness. So I started riding quite hard and fast for a few kilo metres and then walked for a 100-200 metres.  It was much better now. Soon I found out that no matter how short or long a break I took, it hurt with the same intensity as soon as I started riding. So I made the breaks very short, just enough to remove the edge of the pain and then ride again. I had taken with me some Ibuprophen (pain killer, fever reducer) tablets, but taking two of them had no effect even an hour after taking them. So I did not take them for the rest of the trip.

Uphills, downhills and headwinds

I left the shelter and continued my bicycling by 2:00 PM and immediately the pain returned with all its glory. My dictatorial brain made a special note of the fact that the pain paid no respect for all that heavenly rest! So it ordered me to take no breaks for the rest of the way. I started walking for a few minutes and riding bike for a few minutes. Uphill or downhill rides did not matter anymore. It all felt like uphill all the time. I attributed the lack of speed to severe headwind. Just as I was about to dismiss the headwind theory as a concoction of my tired mind, huge plume of some kind of a husk started pummelling my face and body. There was headwind after all!  

Victory at last!

still had about 10 kilo metres to go. The next half hour of ride through the streets of Hubli was uneventful, although I over stretched myself trying to follow my brother and mother, who were on a scooter. I did not know that they were trying to go well ahead of me because my mother wanted to prepare some ritualistic welcome for me into the house. Over exuberant me reached there along with them and then waited at the gate for my mother to get ready for the welcome. That gave my younger brother some more time to snap a few final pictures of the trip.

Amazingly the butt pain went away without any vestigial effects after the first night’s sleep. I had hurt my left knee while chasing my brother’s scooter during the last stretch. The knee healed in a couple of days. However the upper back and shoulder pain lingered for a few more days. I rested in Hubli for two days before heading back to Bangalore ……….by train.

The victorious protagonist with his mother and brother

The victorious protagonist with his mother and brother