The excitement of birders on spotting a particular species for the very first time is unparalleled. With eyes shining and pride bursting, they exclaim, “I had a lifer today”, or “It was a lifer for me”. For the longest time, I couldn’t for the life of me fathom what all the fuss was about. I mean, at some point in their lives, even a crow or mynah would have been a lifer — seen for the very first time. So, here, I’ve done a bit of jugaad with the term and define it as a bird that you see maybe (but not necessarily) for the first time, but which has made a lasting, life-changing impact on you.
Then I recalled some of my own “lifers”. Here are the first 10 that came to mind almost immediately:
No.1 is the little coppersmith barbet. The first bird I saw through brand new, big and powerful binoculars — and it was solely responsible for my getting interested in birds. The fellow looked like a tubby little clown with hiccups and that just blew me away.
I will never forget the first time I saw grey hornbills aeons ago: over sullen grey skies in the Borivali National Park (now called Sanjay Gandhi National Park) — squealing as they flew high up across the sky. They looked as if they had just left Jurassic Park. Or, for that matter, their larger, more glamorous, cousins — Great pied hornbills. Tramping through a streambed in Kalagarh (near Corbett), we suddenly heard this rasping, whooshing, sound. Up there, in the clear blue, were six-seven huge black-and-white birds with colossal yellow beaks flying in tandem across the clear blue sky, their wings making the rasping sound.
Say “paradise flycatcher” and a birder’s eyes will begin to glint: “Where? When? Will it be there now?” are questions that will be shot out like machine-gun bullets. The first time I saw a full grown milk-white-and-glossy-black male, with its glamorous 18-inch streamer tail, was at the Sultanpur National Park in Haryana. But I remember better the flycatchers, that made me run around in a tea garden in Palampur, teasingly whistling at me from one end to the other. The nesting pair in Naukuchiatal was more accommodating except that I had to stand knee-deep in the hotel’s garbage dump to get a good view of them flitting to and fro the gully nearby. (To compensate, one actually flew nearly down to my feet to snatch up a bluebottle I had missed and left me fumbling with my outgunned bazooka telephoto.) To my delight, years ago, I saw these lovely birds on the Northern Ridge, a five-minute drive from my house. Needless to add, they have long vanished. Often, I wonder: Are they really glamour kings or merely upmarket bulbuls with too much gel in their crests?
Of course, there have been rarities: the highlight of the regular Bharatpur (the Keoladeo National Park) visits was the darshan of VIP Siberian cranes. Then they stopped coming, which was a first indication of their slow extinction — even if it was just “local” to our area. The gloriously uppity Great Indian bustards in the Karera Sanctuary (Madhya Pradesh) were another unforgettable sighting. The sheer disdain with which they flounced away from our howling, jolting jeep and took to their wings was a lesson in being put in your place. Now, not only does the sanctuary not exist anymore but those magnificent muscular birds are crashing to total extinction.
Another memorable “lifer” was the spangled drongo seen in Delhi’s Deer Park. All morning, I teased the eager group that had dragged me there on their failure to spot the bird. Just when they were about to give up, suddenly the bird called. I’ve never seen this bird since, in Delhi.
Even the relatively “common” species can give you “lifer” experiences. One foggy winter morning, across the road in Qudsia Bagh, we came across a pair of heart-faced barn owls passionately making out at their home entrance, while facing the rising sun. What a wonderful way to do the surya namaskar! Even better, three wooly chicks, stood on each others’ heads just around the tree trunk, probably unaware of what their parents were up to. This was especially wonderful in the times when the anti-Romeo squads were beating up human couples in parks.
I still remember the cunning with which a black kite, defending its babies, would launch its attack on anyone in the verandah in our Bombay flat. It would slip off its nest in the peepul tree, out of sight behind the cliff, circle around the side of the building, gaining height and then come screaming down in a Kamikaze-like dive, eyes blazing, claws out. You could feel the wind rush as it passed.
And mynahs always give lifer moments: Wrestling in a bed of fallen bougainvillea blooms in the Buddha Jayanti Park, while the audience of other mynahs strutted around like a bunch of bookies taking bets. Two pairs, beak to beak, eyes glaring, thumping down beside the swimming pool early one morning, then coolly separating with soft “good morning” chirrups. Worth the watch!