Ah, interesting. Who's this? First sighting of the bird, with its back to us. The mien, and the shape of the tail were significant and telltale. (Or so we thought)

Birding Nirvana – Still stupid after all these years

Every now and then, even a seasoned birder must kick himself (or herself – let’s keep this politically correct at the least) for over-enthusiasm, blame failing eyesight and generally make all kinds of apologetic noises to conceal the mushroom cloud of embarrassment.

Spot-billed Pelicans at roost on Madivala Lake
Spot-billed Pelicans at roost on Madivala Lake
More Spot-billed Pelicans
More Spot-billed Pelicans

The day after Christmas I was out boating on Madiwala Lake with my sister and our respective kids. We took a pedal-boat and burned a few calories getting to the centre, where the trees of an artificial island made for a favoured roost for Spot-billed Pelicans, herons, cormorants and other waterbirds. As we watched the pelicans swoop in magnificently to roost, my eye wandered to the edge of the copse, where the shape of a raptor was discernible. My eyes are no good these days — and this isn’t an excuse, though it may sound convincingly like one — and I had no binoculars on me. So I borrowed my sister’s camera — a Canon PowerShot model with 35x zoom — and looked at the bird through the viewfinder. For the most part it remained discourteously aloof, turning its back to this boatful of gawking humans. I must have age-regressed rapidly, for I was suddenly possessed of a spineshot of enthusiasm.

“Hold on, stop pedalling,” I panted. “I want to take a better look at this bird.”

Ah, interesting. Who's this? First sighting of the bird, with its back to us. The mien, and the shape of the tail were significant and telltale. (Or so we thought)
Ah, interesting. Who’s this? First sighting of the bird, with its back to us. The mien, and the shape of the tail were significant and telltale. (Or so we thought)

And so I watched this brown raptor even as the others on the boat marvelled at the blues on a White-throated Kingfisher’s plumage, or the way a foraging White-breasted Waterhen twitched its rusty rump, or admired the silhouette of a pelican fishing on the sunlit side of the lake.

“This is interesting,” I muttered. “Hmmm…”

See the hooked bill, and the visage of the sharply hooked bill in profile. Also the greyish shading of the face. The back of the head should have been much greyer, but this could be an immature or juvenile (How majestic a subadult Brahminy Kite can look. And how misleading)
See the hooked bill, and the visage of the sharply hooked bill in profile. Also the greyish shading of the face. The back of the head should have been much greyer, but this could be an immature or juvenile
(How majestic a subadult Brahminy Kite can look. And how misleading)

“That’s an eagle,” my nephew, not yet seven, ventured.

“No, it’s a kite,” my daughter, his senior by a month, corrected him.

“Hmm,” I said, “Hmm…. looks like we’re in luck!”

I observed the bird’s hulking posture, its rounded tail and its finely down-curved aquiline bill.

“This could be that,” I said, “A Lesser Fish Eagle.”

“Eagle?” my daughter said. “It’s a kite, Achaa. You told me it’s a kite.”

“No, that one up there is a kite,” I said, pointing at a handsome adult Brahminy Kite circling over the lake’s surface. “This one looks different.”

Closer crop of a similar picture. Apologies for the grainy quality -- and the false alarm!
Closer crop of a similar picture. Apologies for the grainy quality — and the false alarm!

I deferred judgement, though I was convinced this was a Lesser Fish Eagle. Why, just two weeks ago I’d spent a beautiful weekend at Kabini watching Ospreys, Grey-headed Fish Eagles and Lesser Spotted Eagles. Then, two weeks later, I’d traipsed through Jaisalmer, taking in Common Buzzards, Cinerous Vultures and Short-toed Snake Eagles. Why, this must be the year of great raptor sightings! Why can’t this bird be what I hoped it was?

Heart thumping, I got home, posted the pictures on The Green Ogre’s Facebook wall, and wrote an atmospheric note on this awesome raptor sighting. Luckily, I thought it fit to check with birders of authority about this sighting.

‘Can you confirm,’ I wrote tagging Praveen Jayadevan and George Tom (with certainty, not for a moment hesitant about the veracity of my catch), ‘if this is a Lesser Fish Eagle?’

Praveen is a respected birder and one of the editors of the brilliant quarterly journal Indian Birds. George is with the Kenneth Anderson Nature Society. Praveen, rather laconically, commented: ‘Sub-ad Brahminy.’

What?! Nooooooo!

For good reason, perhaps, George didn’t respond (he probably will when he is finished laughing).

I’ve been birding since childhood, but I can’t believe I’m still stupid after all these years. Excuse me while I dig a hole in the ground and hide away from the world!

Here’s to growing up in 2015!

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