Finding a needle in a haystack

Legend goes that centuries ago the great yogi Dharamnath – in a state of repentance after destroying the city of Mandvi – decided to do tapasya (meditation) on a lonely hill. First he climbed the highest hill that he could see in the north, but ‘weighed down’ by the immensity of his sins, it shrank becoming “Nanao” (small). The second hill he climbed too couldn’t bear the burden of his guilt and collapsed coming to be known as “Jhurio” or ‘broken down’. Finally he found a sturdy mountain – the ‘patient bearer’ Dhinodhar – on which he stood upside-down on a betel-nut for 12 long years of intense meditation. He was served by a Charan, a cow-hearsing woman, who would bring him milk all these years, The gods grew alarmed with the power of his penance and asked him to stop. He warned them that when he opens his eyes his gaze will burn whatever comes in front of it. So they turned him to face the sea. The blaze from his open eyes scorched the sea, leaving a lush grassland in its wake – called Banni. (This legend is courtesy the ‘Living Lightly: Journeys with Pastoralists’ exhibition that I went to last week)

Imagine – a land born out of the power of meditation. Now imagine standing in the middle of this vast expanse. The view in front of you is simply stunning. No big features by which you can anchor yourself. A horizon the likes of which you have never encountered – at infinity, straight, unbroken and all around you.

A panoramic view of eastern Banni – an iPhone image

Now imagine that in the middle of this vast expanse, the task is to look for a bird. Slightly bigger than the size of your hand. Usually solitary or in pairs. And the bird is the colour of the the land, sandy grey-brown basically. If you are a normal person, you are definitely going to be wondering about the futility of it all and thinking ‘this is like finding an ATM that dispenses cash these days’ or ‘ah! I might have better luck standing in the withdrawal queue in a bank’.

An iPhone pic of the eastern side of the Banni Grasslands

Some of us, though, are made of sterner stuff and plunge right ahead loving the challenge of this chase – it helps to have the right folks with you who know the lay of the land and have an idea of which square kilometre of this vastness that should be the focus of our scrutiny. Oftentimes, despite all this help, one does have to be prepared for disappointments.

This has happened to me quite a few times in the past while looking for the Greater Hoopoe Lark and this time was not promising to be any better for the first 45 mins to an hour. We seemed to be driving around aimlessly and didn’t come across any living creature. With the evening sun going down quite rapidly, we couldn’t afford to spend too long as well. We had all but given up when, out of the blue, the the bird was spotted.

A few quick record pics were reeled off and we realised that this one is not going to send us an invite and pose for our pics. For a tiny little bird, the Greater Hoopoe Lark is quite a fast runner. And he didn’t really let our vehicle get any closer that we were. Hoping that an approach on foot might be less threatening for the bird and might result in better results, I got off and tried to cut the distance

That met with partial success but the lark was super active and kept moving away. The advantage of being on foot is that one can get some ground-level (or eye level) perspectives of the subject – and there is something about this perspective that I just love. The big down-side is that when you are on the ground and crawling with a heavy 600mm lens and a bean-bag, you crawl (and you huff and puff and pant!!). Thankfully for me, the lark was maintaining its distance from me and not sprinting away. Somewhere towards the end of my 20 min crawl-chase the lark got comfortable enough to spend sometime preening himself.

Greater Hoopoe Lark, Nikon D500 | 600 f/4 + 1.4TCIII | f/8 | ISO 800 | EV -1/3 | 1/640
Kept walking up these grassy mounds all through the time
A different view of the Greater Hoopoe Lark showing the prominent white supercilium, black eye-stripe and moustachial stripe and the black-spotted breast
Just after he had finished preening, the closest he let me approach and the cleanest shot I could make

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