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Indian Woodland Birdsong

Deciduous woodlands are found across the Deccan plains of central India, and are home to some of India's most characteristic birdlife. This album is one unedited recording, with birdsong gradually develping as the sun rises.

We begin with White-browed Fantails, Prinias, Barbets, Bulbuls, Orioles and other small birds together weaving a melodic chorus. Among them, the quick drumming of a tiny Yellow-crowned Woodpecker sounds like a creaking door, while Alexandrine Parrots, Turtle Doves and Scimitar Babblers can also be heard. Later a pair of Indian Grey Hornbills fly in, and a troup of Langurs call nearby.

This is a magic recording from a perfect morning, presenting a symphony of India's dry-country songbirds.

"But you will not be finding any birds singing in that area, sir.” The Indian National Parks officer smiled reassuringly at me from behind his desk.

My heart sank. “How do you know?” I replied.

“It is part of my area, as Range Field Officer for that park, and I never hear any birds in that place.”

“But it is the heart of the forest, there must be birds there, surely?”

“No sir, if you want birds you must be going here, by the lakeside”.

I looked down at the map on the desk between us in the gloomy office, and followed his finger indicating a large dam marked outside the park boundary. Nearby were several villages, a town, a major trunk road and, finalising any remaining doubt, a temple.

“No, this area will not do”, I stated, trying to sound diplomatic yet decisive. “We wish to make sound records of forest birdsong. There are villages here, and a road, it will be noisy…” I didn’t mention the blaring, devotional broadcasts starting every 4am that we had come to expect from any temple in rural India. Instead I pointed to the centre of the extensive Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary. “We need a quiet place for sound recording. Here must be the best area”.

I really had no idea. I was looking at the map for the first time, and guessing. We had taken a week driving to this remote part of western Orissa state. The roads had been appalling, even for India. With the continual jarring, I had injured my back, and I found myself in considerable pain.

We had come because Sunabeda looked a promising park to visit; an extensive plateau of dry woodland country in central India, Much of it was inaccessible, and reportedly with its own remnant population of rarely seen Tigers.

Now we were in the dusty, back-block town of Nuwapara, at the decaying regional headquarters of the Indian Forest Service, with a park ranger telling me in all sincerity that we had made the journey in vain. The Field Officer smiled even more at my resolve to go to the forest anyway, and gave that wonderful sign that can has many meanings; the Indian head wobble.

Sarah and I were soon in an adjoining office, with senior staff all seated around. Our Field Officer was there, but it was an intense Muslim man with an impressive henna-died beard who was leading proceedings. Not for the first time in Orissa, surprise and curiosity at our presence was expressed, and we learned we were the first westerners to visit the park. We presented our papers of introduction, and explained our purpose.

When in this kind of situation, being quizzed by Indian officials about what we hoped to do, we had learned to feel a little guarded. Rules are rules in India, and we knew from experience that our aspirations could be squashed by the most helpful of staff who bring up some regulation that is impossible to get around. However on this occasion, we were amazed at the assistance offered by these park staff. Not only were we granted full permissions, but we were to be assigned a cook for our 4-day expedition, and accompanied by our smiling Field Officer as guide! And there was more: “The Indian Forestry Service will contribute 1000 rupees towards your expenses”.

2 hours later, our cook had bought up half the market, and we had enough food packed into the back of our vehicle to feed an army. He climbed into the tiny remaining space, balanced 50 eggs on his knees, and signalled he was quite comfortable. I however found my front seat had to be vacated for the benefit of our Field Officer, and spent the next few hours and 70km being tossed around in the back, attempting vainly to protect my back from further injury.

The road into the park was arduous. After threading through fields and villages we arrived at the foot of the range. The dirt road ascended in one long, gradual incline, but it soon degenerated into a track of rocks and boulders. Frequently we would all have to get out to give the vehicle enough clearance to continue. Our usually jovial and easy-going driver, Shiva, was getting seriously concerned for his vehicle. Only the Field Officer’s assurances, and an encounter with another vehicle similar to our own going down, eased his anxieties that the road ahead would be passable.

Once on the plateau, the wet deciduous forest of the slopes thinned to open woodland, and we immediately knew we’d made the right choice in coming here. It felt like Australia. Here was open savannah country similar to what we were familiar with back home, particularly the tropical scrub we knew from places like Kakadu. The landscape was a mosaic of open rocky areas, grassland, scrub and woodland – the kind of country that we were confident would be home for a wide variety of birdlife.

After dark, we arrived at the Forest Lodge, and our cook got to work in the humble kitchen, managing to serve us up a truly spectacular meal. That evening, the Field Officer (I wish we could remember his name, but it escapes us) asked what we expected to hear in the morning. He was not in the least defensive of his earlier assertion that there were no birds here, indeed he seem to have forgotten ever saying it.

“Well…” I began, “in the pre-dawn we might get the last calls of Owlets as they go to roost. After a short break, we might hear a Drongo, as they’re usually the first diurnal birds to call at dawn. A few more species will likely join in for a dawn chorus, but I’m not expecting it to be very loud or prolonged. Then it will probably go quiet for an hour or so until the sun actually rises. Once the air warms a little, the birdsong will get stronger, and with luck we may get a few hours of diverse birdsong until mid morning, when it will taper off until only species like Parrots and Orioles are left calling.”

I had experienced mornings in India that followed this pattern, but I had no idea of whether it would happen like that here. Or happen at all.

At 4am the next morning, we were up and driving out to a likely location; a mosaic of open and wooded habitats we had earmarked the previous evening. Sarah and I left our ‘team’ by the vehicle, building a fire to warm themselves against the pre-dawn chill. We walked off into the scrub, hoping any tigers were as rare here as they were supposed to be. I set up my microphones and Sarah moved off with her cameras to await the light.

It was a wonderful morning, one of the best symphonies of nature we had heard in India. Not that the birdsong was particularly loud, dense or overwhelming, it was just very beautiful.

Melodic songs from White-browed Fantails and Indian Scimitar Babblers entwined with each other throughout the morning. At one time there was a small bird, which I didn’t identify but could have been a Prinia or Flycatcher, singing its heart out from the top of a shrub. Tiny Yellow-capped Woodpeckers climbed tree trunks, giving a rapid drumming reminiscent of a door creaking open. Turtle Doves ‘coo’ed happily, and even the Barbets, which can be monotonous in their calling, were here somehow more expressive. One even sounded uncannily like a Kookaburra laughing for a moment! For the first time I definitely identified an Alexandrine Parrot calling, a distinctly more gravely-textured cry than the more common Plum-headeds.

Not only the birds were calling; nearby a family of Hanuman Langurs were moving in the treetops, their occasional full-bodied whooping echoing across the landscape in the crisp morning air. Finally, to cap off a perfect morning, a pair of Indian Grey Hornbills flew in with a subtle whistle of wings, and began feeding in a nearby fig tree.

Eventually everything quietened down and I packed my gear. I found Sarah nearby, sitting on a rock contentedly. After all the uncertainties of achieving anything in India, we were feeling the kind of elation that comes from sheer emotional exhaustion.

Walking back, we found our team still standing quietly by their fire as we’d left them, rugs draped around their shoulders. We approached with broad smiles, to which our Field Officer responded with an equally warm grin and an energetic head wobble. “Ah, very nice”, was all he said.

A very nice morning indeed.

Our heartfelt gratitude goes to the Indian Forest Service, and particularly the unsung staff of this park who assisted us so generously. During our visit we heard of how they face great problems from the pressure of local villages, underfunding, corrupt local politicians, errant wildlife, and to cap it all off, the ongoing threat of ambush from Naxalite rebels who have been known to use the park as refuge. That they continue to work for the preservation of wildlife and the environment under such conditions we found truly inspirational. This recording is for them.

A grateful bow also to our patient driver Shiva, who’s vehicle survived unscathed.

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