Sálim Ali didn’t call it the Idle Schoolboy for nothing. If, uninitiated, you hear its song in a damp nook of the forest, you may be pardoned for suspecting the presence of spirits, or maybe goat-hoofed Pan playing his merry pipes. The call is eerily like human whistling, so much that it wanders up and down the scale and has a deep, penetrating quality that carries it afar.
That said, the Malabar Whistling Thrush (Myophonus horsfieldii) is more often heard than seen. To say it is shy would be an understatement. Most first-time birders are content to catch a glimpse of a dark, crow-like bird in quick, darting flight. Or perhaps skulking away into the undergrowth.
But then, Luck sometimes knows how to gift-wrap a Whistling Thrush.
I saw my first individual in the Nilgiris. It was perched on a low tree overhanging a stream, and pouring out its song. I have heard it several times since, most memorably one moonlit dawn in Muthodi. And then, once, we saw it briefly in BR Hills.
But the best sighting of all produced this picture. Sahastra, Sunita, Sandy and I were driving through BR Hills. I was at the wheel, and we were approaching K Gudi when Sahastra hissed ‘Dark bird, dark bird’ from the back seat and asked me to stop. Sandy had already got his lens lined up. I switched off the engine and we coasted slowly around the bend. I braked, and the bird emerged from the shrubbery. The bird was closer than any of us have ever seen a Malabar Whistling Thrush. The blue-black spectacle was breathtaking, and behind my head I could hear Sandy clicking away.
When we resumed breathing, the bird opened its pink mouth to screech, then scuttled back into the undergrowth. It wasn’t a lifer for any of us, yet it was the sighting of a lifetime.
Photo: © Sandeep Somasekharan. Used with permission