The years 2020 and 2021 have forced us to rethink how we live our lives, how we have treated the planet, and most importantly, what we need to change henceforth. The following tale recounts my personal story as a birder and expedition leader in 2021 India, when I found myself in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those of you who live in India and anyone who is following the news knows that this country is going through very hard times in trying to control the pandemic of 2020-21. The number of cases, deaths, and lockdowns have changed the mindset as well as the day-to-day lives of most Indians. As a wilderness guide, being on the move, exploring, meeting new people, and talking about the amazing wildlife of the subcontinent used to be something I was looking forward to every single day. More than a year had passed since I last enjoyed a day like that. But I knew that we shouldn’t be complaining! We were very lucky that the virus hadn’t hit us. We were leading a comfortable life. However, the new mutations of the virus and the high number of cases around us had to affect us at some point… and so it did.
My partner and I spent a brief yet very worrying time in the hospital with oxygen, antibiotics, and steroids before we could leave in our weakened state to recover in quarantine by ourselves. There was going to be no physical contact with the outside world for a while. Thankfully, we were able to move into a friend’s stone cabin, an isolated structure located in a beautiful valley at the edge of the Nilgiri Hills, a sub-range of the Western Ghats of South India.
We moved in, car stocked up with supplies for a few weeks and our hearts brimming with uncertainty. The house was a simple structure with a large veranda that faced a forested slope merging with the Sigur Plateau and the rift valley of the Moyar River, a grassy hill slope dotted with shola forests to the left and a steep rocky cliff to the right. As we sat there with our coffee, planning life in this new environment, a dark shadow flew past us - a soaring adult Black Eagle, just a few meters from where we were sitting. A Black-throated Munia peeked out of its nest hole to take a look at the eagle, revealing its location to us. We immediately set up our scope to observe the adult Munias moving in and out of the area with nesting material. Maybe this wasn’t going to be such a bad thing after all.
We couldn’t take more than a few steps due to the damage our lungs had suffered, but we could watch a whole new world from our porch. We watched closely thanks to the scope and binoculars. We spent mornings with Gaur and deer on the grassy slopes, middays with soaring black eagles and hovering short-toed snake eagles, and evenings listening to warning calls from the forest as the resident tiger moved around. The nesting Munias filled in when all else was quiet. We even had a stunning little Chrysilla spider take residence at our dining table.
Two weeks into this, we could slowly walk the trails around the cabin. It was tiring at first but the chance of taking in more kept us trying to go further each day. There was a whole new world hidden under the canopy. Endemics like the Black and Orange Flycatcher were everywhere, a bird we did not expect to see at this altitude, surely not in such numbers. Nilgiri Chilappans, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, Painted Bush Quails, Nilgiri Wood Pigeons and Hill Swallows were highly active at different stages of their breeding processes. A familiar song alerted us to the presence of a Large-billed Leaf Warbler, maybe a straggler who was yet to head north. We were even lucky to stumble upon the nest of a Bronzed Drongo, one that was located in the open to our surprise
While walking multiple trails, the movements of the resident tigers, bears and a pair of elusive Nilgiri Martens became familiar to us. We even managed to track them down for short glimpses on a few occasions. On one cloudy evening, a beautiful tigress walked down the rocky ledge a few hundred meters from us, giving us ample time to shoot a digiscoped video from our balcony. It was our first great view of the big cat in months, something we never thought we’d say given the fact that we were usually on tiger safaris almost all year round. As our lives slowed down, we learnt to take the time to observe every little denizen of our neighborhood wilderness.
There is a particular hike that took us to a high rock above the cliff, one with a view of the nearby villages, towns and even far away cities. We would walk there often to watch the South-west Monsoon winds rolling in the dark clouds, dancing below us as they cloaked the forests of our valley. Sitting here, watching the world out there, we knew we were the lucky few who managed to get the adequate medical attention and a beautiful corner to isolate ourselves and recover in. But out there, beyond the edge of our valley, there is still chaos and fear. Every day, we hope and pray, that our friends are safe, and that this depressing phase in our history as a country, and as a species, comes to an end soon.
Surya originally trained to be an engineer, today pursues his passion for wildlife full-time. His jungle journey began in the forests of Satpura. The need to guide people encouraged him to write a book and thereby successfully authored ‘Photo Field Guide to Central India’ and the ‘Photo Guide to South India’ which covers 850 and 1,960 species respectively of each region. During the Monsoon period he leads his own tours to Africa, the red pandas of Nepal and Western Ghats wilderness. Surya’s zeal and vigor never fail to captivate guests. His inquisitiveness and enthusiasm are sure to inspire the visitors and his team. With his stories, Surya brings wilderness to life.