On nature's trail

On nature's trail

A sharp whistle brings our jeep to a sudden halt as we stop right in the middle of the Bhadra forest. The silence is deafening. We look around and see clumps of elephant dung on the tracks. “It is not fresh,’’ explains our naturalist, Sadvi as she unperturbedly takes a look at it.  The elephant must have come this way in the morning,  we are told. But this is not the reason why she whistled.  A monitor lizard had just darted into the bushes. We resume our bumpy ride, only to be interrupted by  another sharp whistle from her and we spot a pair of Malabar pied hornbills. “Look behind you and you can see the blue wings of the Malabar parakeet,” she whispers .

A montage of green and yellow trees whiz past us as Sadvi instructs the driver to take us to the backwaters of the Lakkavalli range. We pick our binoculars to scan the forests for wildlife, but her sharp eyes have already spotted  a dancing peacock.
She turns down the binoculars and points to a dot on the opposite bank. We see a wild boar. I am amazed at her alertness in reading the jungle and she laughs. “I’ve been living in the forests since I was a kid. As a child, I used to wander around them , near my grandmother’s house in Teerthahalli side and that is when I learnt about birds,” she adds.

She is indeed passionate about birds. A crested serpent eagle catches her attention and it flies away even before we pick our cameras.

Back in the resort, I am lost gazing at the blue green waters of the Bhadra, sipping a hot cup of tea. Sadvi joins me and we discuss birds. “ When we used to roam as children in the forests, we used to observe them and I knew only their local names. We used to call the river tern island here as hakki gudda. Now, I am  learning all their English names after becoming a naturalist..” We walk around the dense wilderness looking for owls as I ask Sadvi why she  chose to be a naturalist. She smiles and says, “The forests!”
I tell her she is the first woman naturalist I’ve met and she just shrugs. A post graduate in tourism, Sadvi lives here alone near the Lakkavalli dam, where the Bhadra forms the backwaters, while her parents live close by in a village near Bhadravathi. “Its just 50 kms away. I visit them every month though,” she replies and then the conversation veers back to more exploration. “Get ready by six am tomorrow..we will go to the river tern island,” she adds and then turns her attention to a group of tourists who have just arrived. 

The sun sets leaving behind a golden pattern on the sky and  I am lost in the world of twilight clouds as the waters lash against the shore.
Morning dawns and we set sail to the sandy island on the backwaters  to see the river terns with their chicks. Before we know it, thousands of winged creatures fill our eyes and camera lenses as we watch in silent fascination. The winds blow the boat away as it slowly meanders over the waters. Sadvi explains that more than 10000  birds visit here in January to breed and the season lasts till monsoon when the chicks fly away as well. “When they return after the monsoons, parts of this island will be under water and the river terns will search for their land. It is like home to them.”
It is feeding time and the entire backwaters echoes with the cries of the birds. We see some pratincoles as well along with spot billed ducks.

But the island belongs to the river terns. Some of them are bringing back food for their chicks and their nesting spouses. “That’s the local fish or bilchi,” she points to the small fish the river terns are holding in their mouths. An hour passes and Sadvi gets restless. We are disturbing  the chicks or else they would be  waiting at the edge of the island for the food. She instructs the boatman to leave as he veers away. I ask her if many tourists come here to see the river terns? Not many,  I learn.  Most are keen on seeing elephants and tigers. “But we bring them here and I brief them for at least a few minutes,” informs Sadvi.

We return to the island and Sadvi and I go on a nature trail. We chat about poaching,  conservation and her life as a naturalist. She informs that earlier the villagers used to sell  the eggs of the river terns in the market, but now it is not allowed. A heartening step indeed towards preserving creatures that depend so much upon us for survival.
Our conversation is interrupted by her enthusiasm to point out  caterpillars and insects.  Meanwhile its getting windy and the river terns are just waking up after their afternoon siesta. We take the boat again and a herd of elephants awaits us at the banks, while we see a lone tusker on the opposite side. And then we move on to see gaurs and wild boars as well.

The sun sets as the winds toss the boat gently. Returning to the shore, Sadvi completes her briefing and then calls it a day. As she gets on to her bike, she whistles sharply. I turn around, but the owl that she had spotted has just flown away.
Nature is a step ahead as always.

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