A bold bittern

Last Sunday, I joined Aravind A M, a birder, at a patch in Ram Nagar, Madipakkam to track the movements of a particular bird, which I will leave unnamed for the time being. This bird and its recent movements make a weighty subject, one that calls for an elaborate treatment, and so I put it aside for another day. I would instead draw attention to a sideshow.

In the middle of of an avian small talk beside a water-filled vacant ground overrun with bulrushes, Aravind cried, “Look!” A flustered yellow bittern crashed into the reed bed, flying awkwardly. A yellow bittern is a Mr Bean in flight. It’s clumsy with its movements, especially when it has noticed that it is being watched, and its wings automatically flail about helplessly as it makes a panic-stricken landing in the reeds.

With the bird having concealed itself, there wasn’t much to look at, and we returned to our discussion. And then, we noticed it: The presence of another yellow bittern, this one much closer to where we stood.

As encounters with yellow bitterns go, this one was odd. Because, the bird looked us in the eye, and stuck to its “pedestal” on the reed bed, and did not seem the least bit inclined to scurry into the bulrushes.

It resembled a celebrity on the red carpet at Cannes, obliging photographers patiently. Aravind and I kept clicking away with our cameras, and I stopped only when it struck me that I would run out of storage space.

A yellow bittern that would not turn away from the attention showered on it generously from close quarters, had made the the day more remarkable than it would have been otherwise. Aravind acknowledged it. “Thanks yellow bittern, for making our day!”

Following this encounter, Aravind recalled a time, nearly a year ago, when he and his father would go bird-watching around the same patch, and a yellow bittern would show up nearly every day, and would be hunting for prey. “Once the bird was so close that it was within the minimal focus distance of my camera lens,” said Arvind, adding that he had taken photos and videos of that bird, which would shuttle between three reed beds in the area.

“Going by the video I had taken of that bird nearly one year ago, this bird is likely the same one,” smiled Aravind.

I have been returning to the patch every morning since that Sunday, and have been watching other yellow bitterns that, true to form, camouflage themselves skillfully against the bulrushes, some of them dry and therefore helping the deception look real.

Of course, these birds with their furtiveness are a treat to watch. This patch, not too far from the Pallikaranai marsh, is a residential locality interspersed with vacant plots that are swampy and overrun with bulrushes. Between the tall leaves of these plants, one is likely to see a yellow bittern, looking for prey in the water, and at the same time, ensuring it stays concealed while rubber-necking to grab its victim.

If one is lucky, they may get to lock eyes with the yellow bittern that displayed rare boldness that Sunday. Who knows, the bird may even strike a pose for them.

This is a weekly column on the birds of Chennai

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