Saving the world while you wait

Encounter – Yellow-throated Bulbul at Rishi Valley

Yellow-throated Bulbul

Before a coveted bird reveals itself, the birdwatcher can be pardoned for seeing it everywhere. It is an apparition, an imagined presence, a haunting spectre that possesses every waking thought and torments the sleeping birder with restive nightmares. Such has been my relationship with the Yellow-throated Bulbul.

The first time I went looking for it was in October 2006. With Arun and Sahastra, I combed the wooded slopes of Horsley Hills looking hard for our quarry. Opposed to playback birding (the practice of playing bird calls on an electronic device to attract birds), we were left to our manual and highly unproductive methods. With just a field guide illustration to stare at and sans a clear idea of our target’s calls or field habits, we were led on a proverbial wild-bulbul chase by the cousins of the Yellow-throated Bulbul. Every other vulgar bulbul that we treated with disdain — Red-vented, Red-whiskered and especially the White-browed Bulbul — suddenly became very interesting to us, albeit fleetingly.

Horsley Hills - Yellow-throated Bulbul Habitat
A view of the valley from the summit of Horsley Hills. In five visits here, I have seen the Yellow-throated Bulbul twice. but the glimpses were fleeting
Horsley Hills - Yellow-throated Bulbul Habitat
Sunset on Horsley Hills, looking out towards Rishi Valley in the distance

Of the last three we saw plenty. It was the White-browed Bulbul that we peered at most curiously. Being crestless and generally fulvous in appearance like its rarer cousin and emitting a somewhat similar call, it got the most eyeballs. And I think we set off some kind of rumour among the bird population that we were on a bulbul survey, because we had a surfeit of unrewarding encounters with these riff-raff. Not to mention a few stellar ones as well — a Painted Spurfowl slipping behind a rock, a White-rumped Shama pouring out hypnotic song, an Indian Black Eagle circling the cliffs…

But no Yellow-throated Bulbul.

Cave Rock - Rishi Valley - Yellow-throated Bulbul Habitat
The legendary Cave Rock in Rishi Valley is a trekking trail popular with the students

A fleeting, forgettable glimpse of the Yellow-throated Bulbul

On the afternoon of our second day, we were joined by Suresh Jones, who has worked alongside Dr V Santharam, faculty at Rishi Valley School and head of the Rishi Valley Institute of Bird Studies & Natural History, which offers a comprehensive home study course in ornithology. Our friend, the wildlife biologist Dr Gopi Sundar, had requested this favour on our behalf from Dr Santharam. Suresh turned out to be a great conversationalist and a trove of stories about the wildlife and the local folklore. Hours passed as we stalked the hillside in the hope of scoring a lifer. It was in his presence that the Shama showed up. But no Yellow-throated Bulbul.

October blows the retreating monsoon over the parched rocky terrain of Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh. The skies were darkening over Horsley Hills and so were our hopes of seeing the Yellow-throated Bulbul. As if on cue, Suresh paused upon hearing a call similar to that of the White-browed Bulbul, but more relaxed and blithe. He scanned the treetops and then beamed with joy. There, it was, a distant silhouette against the cruddy sun. And just as soon as it appeared, it vanished. And then the rain began to patter and pulled the curtains down on our birding trip.

In April 2016, I made another short foray into Horsley Hills, this time with Arun and Andy. The Yellow-throated Bulbul eluded us, though we were blessed with fine sightings of the White-rumped Shama on the way up, and a Blue Rock Thrush near the Governor’s Bungalow. That evening, we descended to Rishi Valley School, where we spent the night as guests of a schoolteacher who was related to Arun and me.

We had hoped to join Dr Santharam on his Sunday birding walk, but he happened to be away. Swallowing our disappointment, we made do and explored the campus. It turned out very rewarding. We hiked up to a cluster of boulders that the students have christened Cave Rock. And up on the ridge we stood in thrall of a Short-toed Snake-eagle surveying its domain. We had heard that the Yellow-throated Bulbul inhabited these slopes, but of this particular bird there was no address.

For me, that brief visit sparked a different kind of love affair, one that has deepened my relationship with the school. After my daughter was admitted to Rishi Valley School in June this year, I’ve had plenty of reason to go back.

Grey-Breasted Prinia in Yellow-throated BUlbul habitat
Grey-breasted Prinia in full-throated song at Rishi Valley

Reacquainted with the Yellow-throated Bulbul

In March 2017, when we spent a day at Horsley Hills ahead of my daughter’s entrance test, I caught a quick glimpse of a Yellow-throated Bulbul, too fleeting for a photograph.

On a day visit in July, I was introduced to Dr Santharam and, subsequently, on my term visit in August this year, I joined him on a birding walk along the Cave Rock trail one Sunday morning.

Dr Santharam led a group of determined little birders, stoking their curiosity and urging them to study field characteristics before jumping to conclusions. We watched the mouth of the eponymous cave at Cave Rock darken with house swifts and crag martins. A circling Tawny Eagle, Grey-breasted Prinia and Yellow-eyed Babbler were the highlights of the walk, made more enjoyable by the questions that arose from our young initiates. It was a productive morning and I kept my hopes up, trying my utmost not to look and sound like a twitcher but feeling every bit as restless and desperate as one.

Yellow-throated Bulbul pair in Rishi Valley
A pair of Yellow-throated Bulbuls in Rishi Valley

The moment

Dr Santharam, in his smiling, soft-spoken way, seemed rather casual about our chances of running into the Yellow-throated Bulbul. “Its presence is known but it is uncommon,” he said in the manner of a hesitant tour guide warning his guests not to get too hopeful. For some reason, I found myself pinning all my hopes on this trip. I was possessed by a happy prickling of anticipation, a foreboding.

It grew stronger when a gurgling song announced itself in a cluster of vegetation close to us. “That is the call of the Yellow-throated Bulbul,” Dr Santharam announced. “If we are lucky, we might see it.” Every pair of binoculars was trained on the presence.

Yellow-throated Bulbul at Rishi Valley
A quick, lucky glimpse of the Yellow-throated Bulbul

The calls moved closer to us. Presently, they sounded from a copse just about 20 metres away. Hushed whispers and surreptitious finger-pointing spread like an epidemic among the group. Soon, binoculars glued to our eyes, we were staring jubilantly at a pair of Yellow-throated Bulbuls.

We crested the hill, enjoying the courtship displays of an Indian Robin. A Grey-breasted Prinia sang, balancing on a grass stalk like a funambulist. The calls of Indian Peafowl and Grey Francolins rent the air. A flock of Yellow-eyed Babblers played hide-and-seek among the boulders. As we were distracted, a pair of olivaceous birds settled on a shrub barely 10 metres away.

Yellow-throated Bulbul! A pair of them, feeding in a thorn bush just a few metres ahead. I trained my camera on the birds nervously, clicking in excitement. It was a twitcher’s moment of elation!


Other bulbuls of interest to the newbie birder: 

Himalayan BulbulWhite-browed Bulbul