Lifer - just one is enough

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Ultimate joy in birding – Adding more to species count, one at a time 

Hitherto not sighted, new species that gets added to a birders list is a Lifer for him/her.  As one starts the birding journey everything is a lifer, but as you progress, Lifers becomes rare and getting one is a big achievement.  Almost all of us at the start of the birdwatching journey, learn identification of birds from voluminous books with thousands of sketches in them. Because one gets to see these bird species in them so frequently, some species imprints in your memory and refuses to fade away.  Deep inside this one bird species keeps coming back to your mind every time you open the book or hit the field.  For me it’s Greater Hoopoe Lark.  I am unable to explain why this species of the many in the bird list kept me enthralled for all of 10 years. There are quite a few unique aspects about this species – name – a combination of two species the Hoopoe and the Lark, it’s uniquely shaped beak and the tough terrain in which you see them.  I feel apart from the above-mentioned uniqueness of the Hoopoe Lark there was this un-explainable bonding that connected me to this particular species.

The habitats one gets to see these species is quite restricted in India but luckily, we had been to all those habitats multiple number of times.  In decade long birding journey we had been to – Little Rann of Kutch (LRK), Greater Rann of Kutch (GRK) and Desert National Park (DNP) Jaisalmer, combined about 10 times and had never come anywhere close to seeing this bird.  Endless amount of time burning diesel in the large expanse of desert and not even a trace of it, so one can safely say it was never a near miss.  Hoopoe Lark never even gave me a chance.

So, in our bird list preparation for our Desert National Park (DNP) visit in Feb 2019, Hoopoe Lark found its place but my conviction on seeing it was low.  Even in my conversations with Musa Khan our guide to be, there was a mention of all the other species but only a reluctant mention of Hoopoe Lark.  I don’t even recall Musa’s reaction to the possibility of seeing this special bird because my mind was conditioned to not listening to any affirmatives on this particular species.

In our 4-day plan in DNP only a morning session was slotted for Hoopoe Lark.  In comparison to all the other earlier trips, this has been the lowest time that I have ever kept aside in pursuit of this species.  Day 1 at DNP was essentially spent on the highlight species there, Great Indian Bustard and Day 2 went off chasing the other important species. Both these days went off very well with some wonderful wildlife photos in divine light with Musa Khan skill-fully setting up every single encounter.  We were on a high with all our exploits in DNP till then and as we retired on the second day, we carried hope but were open to be disappointed again.

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Great Indian Bustard
Trumpeter Finch

Since drive to the spot for Hoopoe Lark is 30-40kms from our resort, we had to leave early to catch the golden light.  Cold morning in an open jeep, my mind kept seeing Hoopoe Lark pictures.  The confidence in Musa Khan was high with regards to this species, I was excited but this time quite muted.  On a normal day I would have been chatting up incessantly with my guide enquiring about the sightings of Hoppoe Lark and the kind of opportunities it had presented to other wildlife photographers.

The long drive on well laid out roads was very comfortable and just as Musa, veered off the road un-announced the sun had come out in full glory bathing the ground golden.  Almost immediately after getting off-road we were directed to a small mound on which sat the majestic Hoopoe Lark.  It took me quite some time to come to terms with myself and I almost forgot that I have to start preparing to photograph.  I wanted to enjoy this moment and actually didn’t want the camera to come between us for some time.  We let the Hoopoe Lark bathe in the early morning sun and watched him from a distance. In the bargain also wanted him to get comfortable with us being around.

From the last two days of field work with Musa Khan, we realised the skill he possesses in not only getting closer to the target but also knowing when to let us get started with our photography.  So, even though my excitement was running sky high in picturing Hoopoe Lark, Uma kept me in check not to mess it up.  Musa was in charge and he moved his vehicle with utmost care to make sure that we don’t miss the opportunity.  Finally, he brings the vehicle to halt and let us have a go.

Getting to see Hoopoe Lark through my viewfinder in golden light was godsend and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and my fingers were frozen not in cold but with the excitement I was going through.  I get my first few shots and there is a huge sense of relief in me.

As with nature photography, expect the un-expected, this Hoppoe Lark lets us not only close to it but allows us to crawl even closer, as he kept looking for food on the ground. So off we went on the ground unmindful of the stones on it and we come back with handful of keeps of this special one.

Because of the emotion attached to Hoopoe Lark, Day 3 had dwarfed a much bigger sighting of Finch’s Wheatear (new record in India) on Day 2.  Having sighted and photographed, contended I left my special Lifer to continue with its feeding.  A 10-year long emotional wait for us ended in dramatic settings of golden hour.