In the year 2011, during a routine trip to Ganeshgudi, at a particular location, we were surprised to see Malabar Pied Hornbills indulging in a strange behaviour – rolling on the ground and splashing themselves with dust! Dust-bathing was new to me and upon further investigation, I learnt that by wriggling their bodies and flapping their wings vigorously, they allow the dust to absorb excess oil, thus de-greasing feathers and dissuading lice, mites and other parasites. Interestingly, this behaviour lasts for just a few days a year.

I immediately planned to photograph the hornbills dust-bathing. Interestingly, they always chose a spot in the open, so approaching them on foot was out of question. I sat far away with my telephoto lens and photographed them, but the magic of the dust bath could never be captured. After discussing the conundrum with my photographer friend, I decided that the best way to capture the scene was to use a wide angle lens and trigger it remotely at the location where the birds were dust-bathing. I had to wait a whole year to put my plan into action. However, the next year, 2012, was a disappointment, because the birds had either abandoned the location or probably done the dust-bathing earlier. I had to put my plan on hold for another year.

2013 started on a promising note. The hornbills were back and I was happy that I could act on my plan.  It took some time to pull off the initial photos, but they were far from what I desired. Actually, the dust bathing is visually much better if the hornbills were photographed with the sun behind them. However the presence of a hill to the West posed a problem, because the dust-bathing area fell under shadow much before the hornbills landed for their ritual. Again, I huddled with my photographer friend to sort this issue.

I worked out a new plan where my camera would be triggered remotely. To get the light I desired, I had to place two speed-lights (flashes) buried in the ground and gelled with the colour of the sunset behind the birds’ dust-bathing area (to mimic the evening sunlight), and trigger them wirelessly. All this took crucial days, and was worrying, because the dust-bathing spectacle lasts only a few days in a year.

The outcome of this exercise of over two years was this greatly satisfying image, which rightfully captures the spirit of the spectacle of dust-bathing by Malabar Pied Hornbills. An incidental outcome, of course, was all the knowledge gained about the challenges of remotely-triggered wildlife photography.


This image was the cover image of the Feb 2015 issue of Sanctuary Asia.