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A flight of conscience

 

PRASHANTO BANERJI, FEATURES EDITOR, THE SUNDAY INDIAN | Issue Dated: September 8, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Yamuna expressway | Keoladeo Ghana National Park | Sarus |
 

Another fifteen minutes and the sun would set. Did I travel all these hundred miles and more for this; did I drag myself through mud and thorn bush for this; did I crawl on my hands my knees and stay stock still for the better part of  90 minutes for this… for nothing? I would know soon enough, but my mind was racing to gather the lessons if there were any… there always are is what I had come to believe, deep down in the depths of every failure.. and reached down and scoured the depths of this day to salvage what I could even as I waited in hope…

The day had begun early enough in Delhi and as I drove along the seductive grey expanse of the Yamuna expressway that ran from Greater Noida to Agra, images of the imperious Sarus Crane, the greatest of all birds that take wing, danced in my head.

A few weeks ago, I had called upon an old friend, Prakash who was a naturalist at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park and a keen birder. I  had asked him if he could help me photograph a pair of Sarus cranes in the area. Incidentally, the Sarus is a beautiful bird, nearly six feet tall, and graceful as a ballerina. Known to mate for life, these romantic cranes are known for their version of avian salsa. Prakash assured me that he would let me know as soon as he had located a breeding pair within camera range.

Two days, Prakash called, his voice shrill with restrained excitement. He had located a breeding pair and a nest in a marsh near a farmland in Mathura and wanted me to drive up as soon as I could. My biggest lens was a 500 mm zoomer. Yes, yes, I know static lenses are far better and 500 mm is not nearly enough for many birders, but  ladies and gentlemen of the flock and the feather, not all can indulge their ideals the way well heeled folk like you can. Many of us just have to get by with what we have and a 200-500 was all I had. So I checked with Prakash if the nest was within range of my modest equipment and the birder assured me that it was so.

So with one bag stuffed with equipment and another with lunch for may day out in the field, I set out for the marsh where the great birds cried…

‘Kurr’ is what the local village lads in the area call the sarus, for that is the call of the crane. Kurr-kurr, the crane would call, shredding the quiet of the open fields when seized by the mood for love or when intruded upon, and then all would be quiet once again as they fed on till again the pair was infatuated or alarmed by shadow, light or sight.

I met up with Prakash and one of his associates by the park gate and then we drove back to this ‘secret’ location where the birds had chosen to rear their brood. It was almost afternoon and we were chasing the light and so made as quickly as I could for the marshes. By the time we got there the sun had only begun its slow slide off the sky and there was enough light yet for me to catch the birds as they danced in the golden light of an autumnal dusk. Or at least so I thought.

Off the highway and on to a broken trail, through a narrow rut and a ploughed field, by the tracks of trains that screamed through hell, we finally reached the marsh where the cranes had built nest, in the middle of a lake, hidden from view by reeds for a shield.

But what was this! The ‘secret’ location had been revealed. The nest had flocks in neither feather nor fur but wrapped in Cannons and Nikons and some other sorts, prying like a gaggle of voyeurs I thought. The cranes had been driven off their nest and the eggs lay bare to the sun and rain and beyond the reeds roamed the frightened birds, craning their necks to steal a glance to see if the intruders had left them their peace.

I didn’t like those photographers for being there. They had taken away my ‘secret’, and from the birds their lair. But then an upstart thought raised its head. Was I any better, were my rights any greater, than those who were here, those who had come ahead? Nay, not for the cranes at least, nay they couldn’t care less.

As for me, I joined the jostling and found a spot that I thought was best. I inched a little closer from the rest. Meanwhile the cranes would return every now and then to check on their eggs and to see if we’d left. But every return would be met by the whirring of cameras, the excited gaggle of voices and push the poor birds back behind the grassy crest.

By now, the sun was sliding down a slippery slope. From above my head it had now come to rest over my left shoulder and I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold it there for long. One by one, the others left. I was determined to wait, to become a ghost that the birds wouldn’t see, and so I crept through the reeds and mud, and right to the edge of the lake brush. From there I had the clearest shot, of egg and nest, and hopefully the birds too soon as they’d return. But the sun didn’t want to wait for the birds any longer. I pleaded with the orb to wait some more but it had had enough, it had other skies to brighten, through other worlds to wander. And so I turned to the birds and pleaded stronger, for them to return before the sky grew any darker. They seemed to yield and began to wade, through the water for their roost, I had frozen in wait but must have moved, for the birds sensed that there was one waiting still, adamant and unmoved.
The birds hesitated and then turned away again, from me and the nest and my hopes of a frame of the pair, in love and at rest. The light was fading fast. And hope had receded with the light. A day spent in the heat and dust and mud and muck, but not a photo to show for all that was spent, it wasn’t fair, it didn’t feel right.

In that moment I felt the earth shake and behind me screeched an iron demon, hurtling along the rails, screaming to all to keep their distance. As train hollered by, I saw the cranes raise their heads and see it go by, just as the last light dropped out of the sky.

So I had failed for the first in my short photographic career, to take the frame I had planned, and I wondered why the birds turned me away. In the fading light as I trudged back to my car, I scoured the bottom of the day for something to hold in my hand or heart and say, that the day taught me even if it didn’t bless me. Prakash’s tale while on a bicycle ride through the Bharatpur wetlands came back to haunt me. He had told me of a time from a few years ago when a pair of cranes built a nest pretty close to  a trail and photographers would line up all day to take pictures of the birds and the nest.

Usually the eggs hatch within 30 days but so disturbed was the pair by photographers that they couldn’t even after 40 days. The pair might have persisted and tried even longer but it was already late in the season and the waters from a nearby  canal couldn’t wait any longer as they flowed into the park washed the nest away. He told me other tales of how the presence of people would disturb these birds from their nest and while the parents were away, crows and kites would sneak up to the nest and peck at the eggs. Thus would those that love the bird contribute to its destruction. And I wondered, ‘had I yet again contributed my bit to the destruction of a species that I love and respect, both for its magnificence as much for its courage and character?

In 20 days or so, if we allow nature to take its wise course, the eggs should have hatched and yet another little  sarus or two would have emerged to bolster the dwindling numbers of this crane which almost became our national bird. But what about us, photographers, both hobbyists and professionals? Of course, we love nature and our subjects who we obsessively chase with our lenses. But while we mean no harm do we end up causing more harm than we realize? As nature lovers, all of us who swear by our cameras would want to believe that we are custodians and guardians of our natural wonders as much as any NGO or conservationist. But do we at times become the problem instead of the solution we like to believe we are? These are questions I will try and answer for my own conscience as much as my tribe of the tripod… and until then tread in the wilds with scruples as  sharp as your images.                                                                     

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017