I sit hidden in the bushes across the forest road from a Racket-tailed Drongo nest, noting down what this breeding pair does, and recording what they say. They talk mostly to each other, but also to their neighbours.
My field assistant, MK, sits a few feet away from me, keeping an ear and eye out for elephants.
Observing wild creatures requires one to be still and silent, and as a result, we see and hear what really goes on the jungle.
We see a male Mountain Imperial Pigeon bring nuptial gifts of caterpillars to his mate. She is building a nest. He then brings her sticks, one by one. She makes short and soft, guttural calls every time he arrives. We see a troop of grey langurs on the ground, the young ones at play, somersaulting over each other. We hear alarm calls from Barking Deer and Sambar, and then a roar. Tiger! We see a Sloth Bear mother with two cubs riding on her back, holding on for dear life as she shakes a fallen log for grub. Once, a huge Gaur bull had grazed peacefully a few metres away from us.
Today, I hear a strange sound. Somewhat reminiscent of a Barking Deer’s alarm call, but not quite that. It is repeated several times, and then a bell of recognition rings in my brain. I have heard this call before, but never in these hills, in all the thirteen years that I have roamed them. I call out to MK, “Naare! Naare!” He is amazed too, and we get up and rush towards the sound.
And then my heart skips several beats as a large black, white and yellow bird with a huge beak soars across over the forest canopy. A Great Hornbill!
Other than the Indian Grey Hornbill in the scrub forests of the foothills, there have been no reports of hornbills in the BR Hills. In fact, others have pointed out the lack of hornbills as one of the avifaunal peculiarities of the BR Hills (Srinivasan and Prashanth, 2006). Some other Western Ghats evergreen forest species that have not (yet?) been seen in the BR Hills are the Malabar Trogon, White-bellied Woodpecker, White-bellied Treepie, Heart-spotted Woodpecker, and the Flame-throated Bulbul. These hills are situated at a junction of the Western and Eastern Ghats, and are known to share floristic as well as faunal components from both regions. The dispersal patterns that came about due to this topography, and how they shaped the current distributions of these bird species have been the subject of much speculation.
When my friend and collaborator, Aung Si, and I were documenting the ethno-ornithological knowledge of the Solega tribals in 2010, some of our interviewees mentioned the name “naare” when we saw the Indian Grey Hornbill with them.
One of our Solega friends then told a story of when he was a young boy; maybe ten or eleven years old. He was walking in the evergreen forests with his father, when suddenly there was a loud whooshing sound and a very large bird landed on a branch near them. He was frightened – not only was it huge but it had a “kokku mele kokku” – a beak over a beak – and was unlike anything he had ever seen. His father told him to cast away his fears – he had just seen a “dodda naare”.
This young boy would see the dodda naare again, more than thirty five years later, in 2018. In fact, this time, he got photographic evidence.
My sighting was a few days after this picture was taken. MK too, said he had seen the bird earlier, on two occasions, many years ago, from atop a Myristica tree. I see the hornbill again several times over the next few weeks, always fleeting glimpses. It is extremely shy, and flies off as soon as we get close. It is quite difficult to spot once perched within the shady branches of large trees. And one day – a most heartening sight – there are two of them!
We start asking around. Solega naturalists at the Jungle Lodges & Resorts at K.Gudi say they have seen the Great Hornbill on two occasions, in the winter of 2017. I show a picture of the Great Hornbill to the Solega who live in settlements close to the evergreen parts of BR Hills. I just ask them if they have ever seen this bird in these hills. Many interviewees replied in the affirmative, that they have seen this bird, albeit many years ago. And that they call it the “dodda naare”. One interviewee also says that he has seen them eat the red fruits of the Myristica dactyloides tree – “meena kai” in their language. I am thrilled!
Two lessons that I’ve learnt from working in the same landscape for so many years: first, never take anything for granted in the jungle. There are surprises every day. Patterns change and species come and go, maybe not at the pace we would like for our research purposes! And secondly, never dismiss the traditional knowledge of the people who live there. It may not seem very scientific, but it is based on the collective observations of generations of these forest dwellers, and often contains information very pertinent to one’s research, or even to the conservation of entire landscapes.
Have these magnificent birds always lived in these forests? Or are they transient, passers-by? Will this pair nest here in the BR Hills? The fact that the Solega have a name for them, plus their sightings over the past fifty years indicate that they are not uncommon, whether as visitors or as residents, we do not know yet.
One can imagine a scenario in which the current distribution of Myristica trees in BR Hills is thanks to the hornbills, who are known to disperse the seeds.
And also a scenario where these extraordinary birds are occasional residents here, in years when their populations in neighbouring Nilgiri Hills are on the rise.
Those Blue Hills are not too far off as the hornbill flies.