On Invisible Trails

Published on: 19/11/2019

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Grey Francolin – Photograph: Gowri S

The landscape of Hampi is deceptively barren. The imposing boulders on the bone-dry plains create an illusion that life here has abandoned verve. After all, the monuments of Hampi have abandonment writ large on them. But it’s not all melancholy. All landscapes are not lush but that’s no testimony to lack of joie de vivre within. Like ears tuning to different moods when switching from a vibrant sitar rendition to a sarangi’s deep introspective timbre, we only need to look closely into the arid sparseness of this land, to appreciate its rich tones of flora and fauna.

One of the fun aspects of looking for wildlife in Hampi and the neighbouring Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is that you don’t need to search the sky or treetops. There’s much going on closer to the ground. I look forward to birdwatching in Hampi, particularly to see two birds that hide in plain sight: the Grey Francolin and the Painted Sandgrouse.

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Grey Francolin – Photograph: Gowri S

The first is a common bird, although not frequently spotted in places that offer thick vegetation as cover. Related to partridges, the Grey Francolin is an inseparable part of village life in India where monsoon mornings are filled with its relentless ‘ka-tee-tar-ka-tee-tar’ calls. A seed-eating ground bird, the Grey Francolin can run so effortlessly that it looks like a stream gliding down a slope – which is how it disappears into shrubs at the slightest suspicion of being discovered. Despite its camouflage and swiftness, humans have managed to capture this gamebird for sport, meat and hunting. Incidentally, the first ever time I saw the bird up close was outside a rustic ‘puncture shop’, where a man illegally kept a pair in a cage as pets. Perhaps it is this memory that gives me joy to see coveys of these lively birds rambling free in the open plains, relatively easy to spot but with enough space to escape if threatened.

The Painted Sandgrouse, on the other hand, is a mystery bird that keeps a low profile and its private life under wraps. Like the Grey Francolin, it feeds on seeds of grass and weeds, working its way on stony ground, keeping so low that its feathers merge with the scraggly plant growth. When spotted, it prefers to lie still or run quickly, giving false impression that it is a poor flyer. These birds tend to save energy to a great extreme. They lead quiet lives, with almost zero conflict within themselves — seed foraging isn’t worth going hammer and tongs for. Keeping peace within their own kind makes it hard for predators to notice them or use their fights against them. They care for their young with great attention, teaching them to feed themselves from the time they hatch and conform to a disciplined daily routine. This much is observed and known, including the fact that they prefer to quench their thirst after dusk. What the actual drinking ritual looks like is mostly conjecture, extrapolating from what is known about other Sandgrouse species that perform the ritual during daytime.

At dusk, the Painted Sandgrouse likely transforms into a different personality. Rising from its feeding ground, it takes to wing, perhaps calling to its kindred as it flies to the nearest watering hole. Every day, at the same time, flocks of Sandgrouse gather around the edge of a nearby pond or lake, to drink their fill after a long, hot day in the sun. Not every bird needs to hydrate every day, but it hardly matters. Every bird will nevertheless show up at the local pub to swap stories and share a few laughs, it seems. There’s unity in doing community time.

Curiously, while the females stay near the edge comparing harvest notes for the day or keeping watch, the males might wade in deeper, seemingly for a bath. What they are doing is soaking their spongy down feathers, which will hold nearly two tablespoons of water to carry back to the nest, where the young ‘suckle’ the water off. This ritual continues until the young ones are strong enough to fly themselves. The quiet, hard working ethos along with this devoted fathering reminds me of Silas Marner and his beloved Eppie.

At first glance, the Francolin and the Sandgrouse, living side by side, seem like dull birds with similar habits. But the deeper contrast between the two shows how rich and nuanced, life in arid habitats can be.


Gowri Subramanya

Gowri Subramanya is an editor and learning consultant based in Bengaluru, India. Writing and photography are her chosen tools of creative expression and the wilderness is her muse. A keen observer of the interaction between nature and culture, she loves to explore the history as well as the natural history of new places during her travels. With a soft spot for bird songs and a weakness for flowers, she indulges in a healthy dose of tree gazing every morning.

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