For the second time in as many months I am stepping outside my familiar territory, this time documenting and presenting this short pictorial story of a bird and its new-born babies with a quaint mixture of exhilaration and sadness. For someone whose enjoyment of nature had rarely gone beyond the inanimate till now, this has been a wonderfully new experience. The center stage for this story is my own backyard at home in Mysore, the action largely confined to a beautiful small flower plant (a variety of jasmine) and another (a variety of hibiscus) just behind it, both seen in the following picture:
Besides the bird, its new born offspring and I, the dramatis personae in this act are my wife, my elder daughter and my grandson, the last two spending part of their summer vacation with us at home. In small supporting roles are several other birds, obviously the relations and friends of mama bird. The inevitable villain in the piece doesn’t appear until the very end of the story which unfortunately was just a little over two days after it all started for us.
Discovery and Delight
It was on the afternoon of the last day of last month that my daughter excitedly rushed to me and said that she had discovered a nest inside the flower plant and thought that a bird might have hatched its eggs there. She had made the discovery when she had accidentally brushed against the plant and a bird flew out from inside threateningly at her, flapping its wings wildly and making a shrieking noise, instinctively to protect the nest and the hatchlings inside from what must surely have appeared to it as an act of external aggression. My daughter had also reacted instinctively by rushing inside the house and bolting the door. It was perhaps an instance of Newton’s third law applied to the living world in a qualitative way.
When I digested what she was trying to say, I instinctively pulled out my camera and went out with her to the backyard to see for myself. When I gingerly peered into the plant from a safe distance without upsetting anything, I did see the nest clearly, with mama bird keeping careful vigil from nearby. Here is the part of the flower plant where the bird had built its nest, obviously over a period of time before laying its eggs.
[Many of the pictures shown here are in high resolution and can be blown up to their full size by clicking on a picture and opening it in a separate window]
I had no idea as to when the nest was built, the eggs laid and later hatched. However, my wife said she had first noticed the nest building activity 2-3 weeks prior to the discovery, had actually seen two eggs in the nest several times for about a week, and had even showed it excitedly to our two small grandchildren who were visiting us at that time along with their mother. She had even seen mama bird incubating the eggs at least on one occasion and thought that they were perhaps hatched just a few hours before our discovery. Her inquisitive observations had met with considerable resentment from mama bird who even tried to attack her once. Regrettably, my wife had not shared any of this information with me earlier, assuming that my photographic interests didn’t extend to such happenings.
I could capture a picture of mama bird perched on a rope close by, shrieking to frighten away any intruders. Here is the high-zoom picture I took with a recently acquired Canon PowerShot SX40 HS super-zoom (35x optical) camera which I had been planning to use to capture the Transit of Venus (see my previous blog post) due to happen a week from then.
I was curious enough to wonder to which of the thousands of known species this particular bird belonged but had no skills of my own to find out. I have a high admiration for bird watching as a serious hobby (Dr Salim Ali, the late ‘birdman of India’, is someone I admire immensely), but never indulged in it myself. I thought of finding out the answer from a knowledgeable person. Dr Narasimhan of Virajpet, an acknowledged expert in the field, came to my help and sent me a whole dossier on this bird species after I had sent him two of the pictures I had taken.
This bird, called the red-whiskered bulbul, is a well-known member of the bulbul family found in abundance in populated areas of tropical Asia. Supposed to be easily identifiable from their distinctive appearance, they are also known to be sociable, lively, energetic, and above all, very noisy as we quickly discovered. Their nests consist of an open cup of twigs and leaves built mostly in bushes or trees.
An aura of excitement and joy enveloped our household and all of us felt honored by the avian visitation, however unexpected and uninvited it may have been, but never unwelcome. Our immediate concern was to ensure that the intruder felt comfortable and wholly at home in its new habitat. Afraid of frightening it away, we tiptoed around the flower plant, trying to get a glimpse of what was inside the nest without the slightest intrusive action. When I saw mama bird had moved away and perched itself on top of my house, I gently pushed the leaves around the nest, saw that there were two little new born baby birds inside and took a shot at the sight with my camera as close as it could reach without letting mama bird get suspicious. I succeeded in getting the following picture with one of the baby birds popping its little head up, trying perhaps to find out what I was up to. It was a wonderfully exciting moment for me. After seeing this picture I realized that my earlier picture of the nest also showed the baby’s head, but most of it hidden by a leaf. I had to wait a long time before I could capture both the babies in the nest.
Fear and Distrust
However hard we tried, there was an air of fear haunting our guest, who had by now been joined by several of its sympathetic avian friends who would often set off a coordinated audio blast if we went too close to the nest. Here is one of them I shot from a considerable distance while it indulged in its angry cacophony in support of mama bird. It may well have been the papa bird. There were several others not quite so vocal but appeared to be equally supportive.
The chorus of support continued for the rest of the evening and our efforts to pacify the guests went unheeded. At one point, with their ‘shout at sight’ policy, their cacophony was so loud that it sounded like a unilateral declaration of war on their part. For a fleeting moment I recalled a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s eerie movie, “The Birds’, and quickly took comfort in the fact that it was only fiction, however superbly conceived. Sensing their mood, we adopted a unilateral declaration of peace, deciding to leave them to themselves for the rest of the day and stayed indoors, with the backyard fully off limits. But before doing so, I took a high-zoom shot at mama bird that was hiding inside the tree and close to its nest, superbly camouflaged as the next picture shows. This camouflage effect is equally prominent in two or three of the pictures that follow later, featuring mama bird inside the nest.
Peace and Friendship
When I woke up the next morning, I went to assess the situation with camera in hand. Everything was quiet and mama bird was not on the scene. So, I walked up to the plant, gingerly pushed aside the leaves surrounding the nest, and took a real close look inside. Stealthily, I managed a series of shots one of which is reproduced below. It was my first sight of the two baby birds lying together and one over the other. Not since I had seen just-born human twins placed inside a cradle in a hospital many years ago had I seen anything so tender. No words can describe such an experience.
Mama bird returned alone and sat in the nest with the little ones under its belly. It became distinctly edgy when I tried to get close to it for a picture, but did not show any of the hostility of the previous evening. It appeared not to be looking at us as a serious threat to its survival and didn’t seem to need the intervention of its small army of friends. Indeed none of them were summoned. A truce had been implicitly agreed upon. Peace was round the corner if we persisted. It was heading towards the ‘live and let live’ situation we all wanted.
Whenever the situation allowed I was able to shoot a number of pictures of the inmates of the nest which I was able to peep into closer and closer as the morning progressed. With mama bird looking from a distance and not overtly objecting, I managed some decent shots including the following ultra-close-up showing the two little ones in supremely peaceful slumber, unmindful of my machinations.
Here is another picture taken a little later that evening when the ambient light was so poor that the camera flash had fired on its own, but without disturbing the inmates who still seemed to be asleep, though in an altered state. By this time, mama bird had actually stopped its vigil, perhaps realizing that we were really her friends.
Things were so calm and quiet that we put aside our concerns and stopped bothering about the guests altogether. We would have liked to provide them whatever they needed, but had no way of knowing what these were. Perhaps they just needed to be left to themselves.
Later, when I went to bed that night, I wondered how long the situation would last and, above all, would there be any danger to the nest and its habitants from any predators. I had no inkling of this whatever, blissfully ignorant of what could happen.
Calm before the Storm
Early next morning I looked inside the nest and found the baby birds stirring and trying to move around. Here is a picture taken while they were attempting this.
When I looked inside the nest a few hours later, an unexpected sight greeted me. Mama bird was sitting quietly inside, apparently asleep, with the babies presumably under its protective belly. My proximity didn’t seem to disturb it or bother it in any way. Here is a picture of this surreal sight.
When I looked in a little later, the scene was the same except that mama bird had woken up and moving its head around even as I approached it hesitantly. When I saw no sign whatever of any resistance, I went as close as I could without actually touching it and took the following picture. I felt I could have indeed touched it at that instant and the bird would have not minded my doing so. It looked rather forlorn and I thought at that moment it even wanted to be touched and comforted.
Around noon, I looked in again to find mama bird away, with the baby birds fully awake and in excellent shape. Considering how well they seemed to have adapted themselves to their environment, I ventured as close as physically possible and shot this heart-warming picture.
It was sometime in the afternoon that I found mama bird back in her nest and sitting rather pensively and looking all around frequently. I tried to cheer her up and went close enough even to be able to touch her on her back. She was in no mood for this and waved me away with a violent shake of her head as if to ask me if I was not being too frivolous with her. Little did I suspect at that time that this could have been due to her apprehension of danger from some lurking predator we had no knowledge about. When I tried again, she looked at me angrily with a shriek that I had not heard for over twenty four hours since the truce between us had gone into effect. I had the presence of mind to catch her in the act. Here is the result of my effort, yet another ultra-close-up picture, a tragically memorable one.
A couple of hours later I went again and saw mama bird in a much better mood, with the babies clearly visible in front and cozying up to her. For the first time, and sadly for the last time as well, I was seeing all three of them together. We took turns to peep in and see this incredibly moving sight, taking care not to produce even a whiff of disturbance. More significantly, I was able to capture this extraordinary scene with my camera. Here is the result of my effort, one of my most cherished photographs ever, arising out of an incredible photo opportunity.
Disaster and Distress
Late in the afternoon, my grandson rushed to me with forebodings of something amiss with the nest and its inhabitants. He thought they had vanished, leaving the nest in disorder. I rushed to see for myself; he could not have been more precise. Indeed there were no signs of the nest and its recent occupants and, what was terribly upsetting, the nest was in total disarray and appeared to have been ransacked. Had it not been for this disturbing sight, we would have assumed that mama bird had flown away to a safer place carrying the babies with her. But the circumstantial evidence went heavily against this possibility. Slowly, it dawned on us that our little guests had fallen prey to some unseen predator.
We soon had a plausible explanation. My wife recalled having noticed the rather noisy movements of a cat earlier in the afternoon, a frequent and unwelcome visitor, always trying to get entry into our house and rarely succeeding. Surely it must have been on the prowl and inflicted the terrible damage when it could. While mama bird might have flown away to safety when attacked, the babies certainly couldn’t have escaped from the vicious attacker. We could only surmise the outcome of this one-sided struggle.
A pall of gloom had descended on our household and we felt that part of it had been snatched away, creating a void. As the magnitude of our loss sank in, we retreated from the scene to mourn in silent sorrow and solitude, not a word having been said among us for the rest of the day. I dedicate this pictorial tribute to the memory of two ecstatic days in our lives which ended in such agony.