I sense a sudden rustle in the leaves behind me. A huge bird whizzes above my head. I grab my binoculars, almost losing my balance as I fumble for them.

As I scan the branches of the trees in front of me, my birding guide Sudha taps me gently on the shoulder. She whispers, “12 o’clock."

Panoramic view of Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala

The crested goshawk is a medium-sized bird of prey, with brown stripes on its belly. I quell my excitement, still my shaking fingers, and zoom in with my Nikon 70-300mm.

panoramic

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The crested goshawk

I’ve been a birdwatcher for five years, addicted to the brilliant colours and songs of birds. I’ve travelled to sanctuaries in the Western Ghats and the Himalayas, and to Chilika (Odisha) and Pulicat (Tamil Nadu) lakes in search of birds. I have sought out birds that I’ve only read or heard about, much like a mad collector zealously hoards antiques and visits strange lands to dig for artefacts that only rumour has told her about.

When I first read about Thattekad, I immediately knew it was a birding goldmine that I simply had to visit. With so many birds that are endemic and found in few other places, I couldn’t wait to take a shot at seeing some that few birders had ever had the fortune to see.

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The black-napped oriole

He is pointing out a pair of Malabar grey hornbills on a tree to two other birdwatchers. I silently follow his directions, for this is one of my closest sightings of the rare Malabar grey hornbills.

I have my fill of these rare birds and lower my binoculars. The small clearing in the forest comes alive with bird calls and colour. Birds of every hue fly past us.

A loten’s sunbird

I cannot help but think that even a non-birdwatcher would love this riot of colour and unceasing chirps, whistles and melodies of these birds. This tiny patch of forest around me is birdwatching heaven.

Yet, even though I spot the fiery red, grey and black of the Malabar trogon’s body, I realize my ultimate goal has still eluded me. The one bird I really want to spot here is the Sri Lankan Frogmouth, the elusive, nocturnal, owl-like bird with plumage like dried leaves that is found only in the Western Ghats.

I have seen owls and nightjars before, but the Sri Lankan Frogmouth has always been a challenge. Because it is nocturnal, and because of its excellent camouflaging skills, it is one of the hardest birds to spot, even for experienced birders. I’m determined to spot it this time—but how?

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A pair of Malabar grey hornbills

A half-hour bumpy autorickshaw-ride later, I am standing amid the boulders on the Periyar river’s bed at the Bhoothathankettu dam. The trees cast shadows around us as twilight nears. I wonder if ghosts will choose today to make their appearance.

I stare harder, trying to will the seeming nothingness in front of me to part and yield the secret shapes of birds that it conceals. My experience has taught me that the key to being a great birdwatcher is to observe well and see that which isn’t obvious at first sight. I bide my time.

My eyes are beginning to tire. I wish I had some coffee with me. But suddenly, my eyes meet another eye in the distance that winks at me, like the twinkle of a firefly in the dark. I see another blink in the grey darkness. As I slowly register the patterns in front of me, I see a pair of birds’ eyes gawking down from the branch at me, perhaps wondering what I am doing there.

I do not want this moment to pass. I think that if I move even a tiny bit, or even if a single leaf around me flutters, this one moment will shatter into pieces and I’ll wake from a wonderful dream. I stand riveted. Almost as if we have read each other’s minds, Gireesh and I lower our torches and in unison, switch them off.

My hands tremble as I reach out for my camera. As the moon slowly peeps from behind the branches, I gaze into the lens, and zero in on these elusive birds.

The noiseless click of the camera feels like it has ricocheted through the forest. I am terrified the two birds will fly away, but they hardly seem to have noticed. They are engrossed in their world, just as I am engrossed in theirs.

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