Book Extract: Valmik Thapar’s “Winged Fire” is Not Your Typical Bird Book

Includes accounts of hunting with trained falcons and Ruskin Bond’s description of the noisy barbet.  
The Malabar trogon of the Western Ghats (left); The great Indian hornbill thrives in the Anamalais. Photo: Kiran Poonacha (trogon), Shefiq Basheer Ahammed (hornbill)
The Malabar trogon of the Western Ghats (left); The great Indian hornbill thrives in the Anamalais. Photo: Kiran Poonacha (trogon), Shefiq Basheer Ahammed (hornbill)

“This is not a typical bird book,” begins Valmik Thapar’s note in Winged Fire: A Celebration of Indian Birds, the final volume in his trilogy about India’s wildlife. And it isn’t. Instead of listing Indian birds and species, the book contains a selection of writings and photographs from various encounters with birds. They take the reader on a journey through the country and through several centuries. Starting with Akbar’s vizier, Abu’l-Fazl’s account of birds being hunted in Kashmir with trained falcons, right up to Ruskin Bond’s description of the noisy barbet, more heard than seen in the hills around his home in Landour. Setting the reader off on the path to exploring birds, Thapar’s introduction describes how he went into India’s jungles looking for the tiger, but birds slipped into his consciousness.

In the first section, well-known bird photographer Ramki Sreenivasan writes not just about his favourite birding haunts, but also about the real rewards—the unexpected journeys it has led him to. An excerpt:

A heavy and humid tropical air and a mid-morning silence welcomed us into the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park. As we crossed the forest checkpost at Sethumadai, the base of the Anamalais, there was an abrupt change in the landscape from vast coconut plantations to dense jungle.

A painted stork walks off with a tiny crocodile from one of Ranthambore’s lakes. Photo: Rahul Rao

A painted stork walks off with a tiny crocodile from one of Ranthambore’s lakes. Photo: Rahul Rao

Aptly named for its large population of elephants, the Anamalais are home to an amazing diversity of plants and animals. A lot of these species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.

There are over 250 species of birds here and they were our focus.

The magical Karian Shola is a tract of wet evergreen jungle with a trail leading to a dilapidated watchtower overlooking a clearing and a small check dam. This trail is very rewarding for birds, though one should keep a sharp lookout for elephants that frequently wander into the shola. On several occasions we experienced tense moments with elephants, especially lone tuskers with bad tempers.

The trek to the famed watchtower which is one of the finest birding trails in all of the Western Ghats is a couple of kilometres long. Interesting endemics are easy to spot here—white cheeked barbets, Malabar trogons, dark-fronted babblers, flame-throated bulbuls, Malabar parakeets, fairy-bluebirds, white-bellied treepies, Malabar grey hornbills, orange minivets, paradise flycatchers and greater racket-tailed drongos. Trickier ones like the white-bellied blue flycatcher and black-throated munia require more time.

Indian skimmers

A flock of Indian skimmers fly over a basking crocodile. These birds, with their distinct orange beaks, can be spotted around the Western Ghats Photo: Ansar and Chhotu Khan

A speciality of Karian Shola is the Sri Lanka frogmouth. This is a fascinating nocturnal bird related to nightjars. With plumage like dried leaves, spotting one in the evergreen jungle undergrowth is next to impossible. Its superb camouflage and stillness help it merge with the wet, green-brown background of the jungle. Our Kadar (an endemic tribe of these ranges) guide, Arumugam, with his keen and experienced eye, was quick to show us a pair in the undergrowth.

Topslip is one of the very few places in the world where you can see another curious bird—the Wayanad laughingthrush. A skulker in thick bamboo, this bird always gives us a good run for our money. Gregarious and noisy, these birds live in flocks of about twenty and the Topslip area is known to have a few resident flocks. We were very lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of them but had to wait for another time and place to photograph them.

The great pied hornbill, the largest hornbill in India, is a rare bird but widespread in the Anamalais. These giant birds stand over a metre tall and are the primary seed dispersers of the gigantic trees on which they feed. These birds are in danger of extinction due to habitat loss and poaching. Topslip is a great place to see them and one typically hears them long before spotting them. We were lucky to hear several of them fly above us, with the characteristic ‘helicopter’ sound of their flapping wings. These hornbills fly with heavy wing beats, a few flaps and a long glide. The call is a loud reverberating kok-kok, often made by a pair together, which can be heard up to a kilometre away.

Winged Fire: A Celebration of Indian Birds (Aleph Book Company, 2016, ₹ 2,995)

Winged Fire: A Celebration of Indian Birds (Aleph Book Company, 2016, ₹2,995)

Blood Pheasant

The blood pheasant of the Eastern Himalayas. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee


The giant trees of Karian Shola have made it a traditional breeding ground for hornbills. It is not uncommon to see two adult hornbills sitting with a juvenile and making guttural sounds whilst hidden in the shola canopy. The male and female can be told apart by their eye colour. Males have red eyes with black skin around the eyes and females have white eyes with red skin around them. While hornbill eyes are fairly small (even though the bird is large), it is fairly easy to pick out (with binoculars) the telling eye colours from a distance. The yellow beak is topped by a casque. The male has a flat casque forked in front and edged with black; the female’s casque is smaller with no black. The white plumage on the head, neck, wing coverts and tail base are often stained yellow with oil from the preen gland.

As we were wrapping up another productive Anamalais trip in the Top Slip area, we couldn’t help but remember one of Edward Abbey’s popular sayings: ‘The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.’ It is time that we rise to be the defenders of some the last few wilderness tracts in our country, such as the Anamalais.

Appeared in the April 2016 issue as “Winged Fire”.

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