Friday, August 15, 2014

Eureka! Tailorbird, the little rascal

This little bird is already known for teasing me with not posing for my photo-shoot.  I don't know how it senses, but every time I try to click, it shies deep into the foliage of the various plants we have at home, with the net result that though I have been hearing this bird for several years, I have not been successful in getting one good, bright, decent shot of this cute angel.

However, it is very good at arousing my curiosity.  Though small by size, its call is by no means proportionate.  It makes a loud but sweet chee-o, chee-o like tweets, and I usually get up and follow the bird at the first call I hear.  A few weeks back, I saw some unusual fiber-like attachments to the leaves of the night jasmine plant we have at home.  Initially, I thought it was a pest infection, like what happens to the hibiscus plant.  On closer scrutiny, I found two leaves brought a little closer to each other from their original position, tied up with some kind of fiber. But the leaves' surface was still facing outwards as is normal.  Going further close, I found quite a lot of activity on those leaves.  Not only were they sort of stitched, but some kind of foam and cushion material was neatly built inside, forming a beautiful, smooth bed-like cavity.

Having been familiar with the tailorbird's visits to this plant, the thought struck me that it could be the nest of a tailorbird.  I quickly googled and voila!, it was, indeed, a nest-in-the-making of a tailorbird.  My joy knew no bounds, at the thought of prospective opportunities for photo-shoots, and to witness the birth of a new generation of tailorbirds in my own garden.

It was not to be.  No, nothing untoward happened for the bird or the nest.  It seems the bird has been watching my action from a distance, and within a day, slightly shifted the 'entrance' of the nest completely away from the easy view it had given earlier.  As days passed, I saw how well the little lady had reinforced her fortress with further stitches and foam.  I had no way but to yield to its sense of security, and decided not to interfere with its nest.

Again, it was not to be.  Looks like mother nature, taking pity on me, wanted to give me some relief.  For, on a fine morning when I woke up and went to see the nest as I usually do everyday nowadays, I was shattered to find it missing.  It was a devastating feeling.  Going near for a close inspection, I found that the previous night's heavy rains had caused the cushion material to absorb plenty of water.  Unable to bear the weight, the little branch on which the nest was built had completely bent down, almost touching the ground.  Fortunately, the branch had not snapped.

Immediately, I sprang to action.  Taking a small length of strong twine from home, I raised the branch in order to tie it to a firm, nearby branch of the same plant.  As I was lifting the plant, I stole a peek to see if anything new was there.  Thank you, mother nature, there was!  Rather, there were!  A clutch of three beautiful, small, light blue eggs neatly tucked in the bottom of the nest!  It was like a jackpot for me.  On touching the outer of the nest, I could feel accumulated water slowly seeping  and emptying out of the nest.  With great joy and with great care, I tied the branch securely as it was before.

Over the next few days, with an incessant worry back in my mind whether the  mother bird had accepted my help, I kept a watch both in the morning and in the evening, before I left for work and after I returned from work.  No signs of life  I had to wait till the week end to extend the watch to day time.  I was careful to keep a good distance from the nest.  There was only a very small window between the usually thick foliage of this plant though which I was able to steal a glance.

At one of my several attempts on that Sunday, I could spot a small beak jutting out of the top of the nest.  Was it the tailorbird?  I was not sure.  Another glance, the bird was not there!  Unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I excused myself for what I was going to do.  I crept to the nest and tapped - no, touched it ever so lightly, just to see if there was any reaction.  The moment I touched the nest, the mother bird flew out of the nest, whizzing fast in the opposite direction!  Feeling both guilty at having disturbed her, but happy in learning she was continuing to live there incubating her eggs, I decided to leave it undisturbed.

This was about five or six days ago.  I very strongly believe in the old adage that man is an addict of habits.  The human mind is so weak that most of us cannot keep the promise we make to ourselves, and curiosity and anxiety, either alone or coupled, take the better of us.  So it happened today, being at home on holiday in view of Independence Day, my brain pulled my legs to the direction of the nest, not once but several times.  I could not spot the mother.  Just to check if the nest was otherwise safe, I went near the nest again and touched it from the outside.

Was it real, or was my mind playing tricks?  I thought I felt the nest shake a little, very minutely.  I touched it again, and yes, there was some movement inside!  There was no way of peeping inside, because I myself had tied it so securely.  Either I had to untie the knot, or I had to use a stool to climb and, the bad part, twist the branch to sneak a peek.  Wondering what to do, I scratched my head, and a bulb did glow.  I hit upon the idea of using the small mirror in my wife's make up kit.  Elated, I made a quick dash into the house and out with the mirror.

The story ends with a very happy note, but with some suspense.  The nest is very small, and its opening is even smaller.  It is at a height, and so cleverly camouflaged and covered with other leaves that there is only a very small gap through which you can take a look.  On extending the mirror, some portion of my hand happened to touch the nest, and at the slightest shake this had caused, I could clearly see TWO small beaks opening wide to expose the pink throat and inside of the chicks' mouth!  Poor kids, they thought their mother had come to feed them!

I had seen three eggs earlier.  So, was there another chick?  When did these hatch?  Why are they not making any noise?  Are they so young that their cry is not loud enough yet?  Or had their mother taught them not to make noise?  (earlier, I have seen in a video of a tailorbird nest in which the chicks made such a noise!)  Questions only mother nature should be kind enough to provide me answers.  Obviously, the mother must still be visiting the nest and feeding her babies, but it is quite long since I saw her.  I hoped and prayed she should be doing fine.

As I was sitting on the bench reading the newspaper this evening, I felt some movement on the branch. Turning back to have a look at the nest, I could see the mother bird sitting on the brim of her nest, holding something in her beak  At the sight my seeing her, she also saw me and immediately flew away!  I smiled, feeling glad that the bird is continuing to play the teasing game!

I have taken a resolve not to disturb the nest at all, at least for another ten days.  Will my resolve prevail?  Watch this space after two weeks!

--updated on 23 Aug 2014--

Well, like a drunkard or smoker giving up the habit several times, I kept my resolve till the day before yesterday, and decided to have peek again into the nest.  Using the same mirror technique, this time I saw a beautiful, well grown chick, eyes closed but with a sharp needle-like beak, sleeping at the edge of the nest.  Within a few minutes of my activity near the nest, the mother flew in from somewhere and hovered close to my hand holding the mirror.  I backed off, giving her the space she was protecting.

Yesterday evening, on return from work, my mother told me she saw a small tailorbird alongside a normal one.  Immediately I knew it must be the one I saw in the nest.  She told me that the mother was teaching the chick to hop and fly.  I cursed my luck at not being able to witness this, and went to to the nest, only to see it lifeless.  I still wanted to give it some time before prying near it again.

This morning, the motionless nest assured me that the bird and the chick(s) were not there. I went near the nest, loosened the knot I had tied to hold the branch and peeped in, tilting it to have a better view.  The was indeed empty, but for an unhatched egg still lying at the bottom.  Remember, I had seen three eggs, but had seen only two chicks opening their mouth?  Looks like they both have grown up and flown away, making me both happy that my home provided them a birthplace, and sad that I was not able to witness their growth and record photographs.


With a heavy heart, I clicked a few pictures of the empty nest and the unhatched egg.  I hope the little one will come hopping again.  Hats off to the mother bird and mother nature for the new window of life they opened for me.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mountain rail

Mettupalayam station

How do you describe the sound of elephants trumpeting? Never mind, that was what we heard, quite close by, as the train was puffing and chugging with jolts up the track, from Mettupalayam to Ooty.  All eyes turned towards the windows.  Those who were sitting in the first coach, on the right, were lucky. They had seen this small family – a father, mother and baby elephant – coming very close to the track in an attempt to cross, but seeing the approaching train, they backed off and hurried their way back, trumpeting loudly.  I, sitting in the last segment of the first coach, and on the wrong side, could only get a glimpse of their brown backs as they were running into the .. not a forest exactly, but thick woods would be appropriate word.  The entire train load of passengers would only talk about this for the next 10 minutes.

I was not that unlucky either.  On my side of the window, as the train was climbing up and the level ground on the side was getting down and down, I saw something attractive perched on a fence post of a recently built house.  Straining my eyes a little, I found it to be a peacock sitting comfortably and watching its surroundings, its neck popped up and the head swaying right and left majestically.  I wondered how lucky these people living here are, having peacocks flying around!

At a halt in one of the stations, there was a tree full of ripe grapefruit hanging all through its foliage.  A couple of daring youth didn’t let go of this opportunity and stealthily climbed up plucked two fruits, before the watchman noticed and yelled at them.  Having last seen and tasted this fruit decades back, I could only feel envious at them!

My granddaughter Jeevthi, soon after the excitement of train ride was over, started playing with her dolls (small ones attached to key-chains).  She would stand on her seat looking at the backrest and play with two dolls, often dropping them on the other side.  The family on the other side, initially obliging with looking for and taking out the fallen dolls on their side, refused to oblige after the third time and said they couldn’t find the doll.  Jeevthi had no choice but to start watching the scenery again.  When the train reached the destination Ooty, that family promptly returned her dolls!  They just didn’t have the patience to bear the repeated intrusion into their side, or were smart to thwart the potential repetitiive annoyance  in the beginning itself, depending on your view of the event!


Back at Mettupalayam, after arrival from Chennai and before boarding the train for Ooty, in the short time available, we had to brush, take our morning beverage and if possible finish breakfast too, as we were told breakfast would not be available on the way.  A few dogs which were there on the platform kept my granddaughter entertained.  I bought hot idlis that were on sale in limited number, and a slice of fruit-bun for the baby.  Later on we found that this was not necessary at all, because every station en route had a stall where tea, coffee and snacks were available fresh and aplenty.


The journey is long, timewise and slow, speedwise. The train goes at good speed until the first station, which is almost level ground.  After that, the gradient starts, and the pinion-wheel for grip is engaged.  As the train pushes, we could feel the coaches jolted forward in uniform, short intervals, making the passengers move awkwardly and giggle at the fun provided in doing so.  The train stops for reasonable breaks in all stations, giving plenty of time for the passengers to get down, stretch, have a tea, or even visit the toilet if need be.  At Coonoor, however, the engine is changed.  The steam engine is relieved and a diesel engine is attached for the rest of the journey up to Ooty.

On the way, you can encounter several bridges and tunnels.  You can safely reach your hand wide out to take snaps of the train from outside your window.  At some places, the scenery is breathtaking, giving beautiful views of mountains, valleys, streams, u-bends on the road below, etc.  If you are lucky, you may even spot animals like deer and monkeys, and rare birds that you don’t get to see in metros.

Overall, it is a journey that one must take at least once in the lifetime.  That is what an old man did in our compartment.  Looks like had a long, very long wish to travel on this train.  Unfortunately he could not accomplish this in his younger days.  Now his wife is old and not fit enough to take this journey. So she had asked him to make a trip just to fulfil his wish.  He was travelling from Mettupalayam to Ooty with us, and while we got down at Ooty for our stay there, he was just returning in the same train back to Mettupalayam!  I felt happy for him.  At last, he saw light at the end of the tunnel!

Just one more line. The staff members all through this railway are extremely nice and polite, answering most of your queries and going out of their way to help passengers in case of need.