Back when I was in fifth grade, the time when I started birding, smartphones weren’t that common, everybody didn’t have them. Kids, definitely not. The primary social networking site that people used was Facebook. My friends were underage but still had Facebook accounts that they operated through computers at their homes. I wasn’t on Facebook, I don’t even remember if I had a Gmail account back then, probably not. There was a popular Facebook group(and it still is) called ‘Birds of Pune’ that I used to follow through my mom’s Facebook account on her phone.
I had just started birding and I used to be amazed on seeing awesome bird photographs clicked by people, that too on a hill which is very close to my house. I used to hardly visit that place then(which is not at all the case now, it’s my second home and people feel that I live on the hill now). People used to click amazing photos of some rare birds there and post on the Birds of Pune(BOP) group. I used to be so surprised on seeing those photos because I myself never saw anything whenever I went there. I used to wonder where people saw all these lovely rare birds and why I never saw them, leave aside photos. I used to use a small matchbox camera back then, those that fit into your pocket. Those hardly had any zooming range and quality. People used to post pictures of a lot of different kinds of birds from that hill that I had never seen there. The photo of the bird that awed me the most was that of a Nightjar.
A Nightjar is an extraordinary creation of nature. Trust me, even if that bird is sitting right in front of you, you won’t be able to see it. It is literally an invisible bird. It has one of the best camouflage in the avian world. It mostly sits on the ground and its colour and texture match exactly with its surroundings. You won’t believe what an amazing camouflage this bird has until you see one. Because when you see one, you’ll argue with me for a while that it is not a bird but a stone.
A Nightjar is a nocturnal bird, that is, it rests at one place the entire day and gets active after sunset. So if you spot a Nightjar during daytime, it won’t move even an inch from that spot until sunset, unless it’s disturbed of course. But the very first challenge is spotting one during the day, lol, because it’s almost impossible. And it is such a confident bird that even if it is present around you, it won’t fly away because it thinks that you haven’t seen it yet. That’s the reason why Nightjars allow people to come to a closer distance compared to other birds and don’t fly away.
Now the thing that struck me about the people from BOP is how the hell did they see a Nightjar on the hill and how the hell did they get such crisp closeups. I had never ever seen such closeups of any other birds, except Nightjars (today most people have telephoto lenses so this doesn’t apply now). And I had just started birding then, so I didn’t know anything about birds and their behaviours. Naturally I didn’t know that nightjars don’t fly off that easily. And at that time, I was very much fascinated with extremely tight frames, crisp, sharp closeups of birds with every single feather of the bird sharp, and headshots and eye shots of birds. Today, I’m not. You know that if you follow me on Instagram (@ks_wild). Why not? Well that is a different story.
Anyway, I always had this thing in mind since then that I want to spot a Nightjar by myself in broad daylight and get those crisp, sharp closeups and headshots and eyeshots.
Three years back, I used to go to the hill after sunset to monitor Nightjars for a week. That was when I saw a Nightjar for the first time, and not just one, but around 3-4 different individuals. Of course I didn’t see it in broad daylight but under a torch light and of course I didn’t get good photos except distant record shots. So my dream of monitoring Nightjars was fulfilled and I’m gonna write another blog about that later. But my dream of spotting one during the day and getting those specific shots was still incomplete.
I never really saw a Nightjar on the hill during the day ever, maybe because I didn’t search for it enough. And spotting a Nightjar elsewhere around Pune city was out of question because I hardly went to any other places for birding due to transportation issues as those places were far away. So I had never ever even seen a Nightjar properly.
Until recently, I went to another place around Pune city for birding. I was very firm on my decision of finding a Nightjar that day! I searched A Lot. I walked A LOT in search of a Nightjar on scrublands along hills and mounds, in the freezing cold weather of an early Winter morning. I started from a flat land and had reached the top of a tall hill at the end of around 2 hours or more, when I decided to turn back empty handed. My friends who were with me said that let’s trace back the route by which we came here, to climb down the hill, as we were not quite familiar with the place. But I wasn’t quite satisfied with the sightings that day and I always thought that if we walk a bit further till the patch of land that’s in front of us, we might get to see something. I had been doing this from the time we started exploring that day, that let’s walk some more and we might see something, which had led us to the top of this hill. I asked my friends to just walk a little bit more towards the front and then start climbing down from there so that we also get to explore that patch rather than just tracing the same path backwards. They agreed, we explored that patch, saw nothing and started climbing down from there.
And just as we spent 2+ hours without any ‘great’ sightings and without any Nightjar as well, a miracle happened while we were climbing down. An Indian Nightjar flew from just a few meters away from me, exactly at the moment I saw it. I was excited as well as alert at the same time because once the Nightjar settles down, it would be impossible to spot it again. I tried to track where it went but couldn’t locate the exact position and only the area where it flew, which was half way up the hill. We climbed back and tried to find the Nightjar, but now it was even more difficult as I couldn’t even locate the area where I saw it settling. This happens a lot of times when on field.I tried to guess the area and find the Nightjar. And you wouldn’t believe me, it was sitting on a rock exactly in front of me, at a distance. We were so so lucky to find it perched on such a huge rock without any kind of obstructions like grass or shrubs covering it. It was completely in the open. It was far away and to get some good photos, we were gonna need to get close enough to the Nightjar.
But I knew that we could not hurry here, as the Nightjar had just flown to this position and it was quite alert. We would have to give it a lot of time to settle and to go back to normal before we could go close. I made it very clear to my friends that we are not gonna hurry, we are gonna stay here for a long long time and get close to the Nightjar step by step. And that’s exactly what we did.
We could have directly gone to that place in less than 2 minutes because it was not that far away in reality, just far for the camera. But we played around that area for one and a half hour, tactfully deciding our route to approach the Nightjar and then setting up checkpoints in between. As in, first we will go upto that rock, click photos from there, wait for 20 minutes, then go to that tree, wait there for another 15 minutes and so on. Now to avoid a direct approach and getting in sight of the Nightjar, we decided such an approach that we would get something in front of us always to cover us, such as a huge rock, a shrub etc. For that, we had to climb the rest of the hill again, walk a few steps and get down half way again.
Over a course of one and a half hour, we reached to an UNBELIEVABLY close distance to the Nightjar without making it fly away. All because of our planning of a very patient and tactful approach. My dream of spotting a Nightjar by myself in broad daylight and getting crisp, sharp closeups and headshots and eyeshots was finally completed after almost 8 years. Now, the photos that I had dreamt of back then when I was in 5th grade don’t have much value for me today because I don’t believe much in such tight frames anymore even though I still like them. But what I’m happy about is that what I had dreamt of when starting birding has been finally fulfilled. This is an achievement for me!
Had we traced back our original path to get down the hill, we would have not seen this Nightjar and returned home empty handed. It was just that inner voice that I trusted and made a quick decision of walking for a while and getting down from a different path that we saw the Nightjar. There’s a very important life lesson hidden here kids, every small decision you make, every small step you take might change your life forever. (How I met your mother reference, get it? Haha)
I still haven’t found a Nightjar on the hill yet, in daylight, but that’s just because I haven’t tried. But now I am going to! And I’m very positive that I will find it, soon 🙂
Well, this is the end of this blog, but I would like to add an important point here. As I said, Nightjars are nocturnal birds and they rely totally on their camouflage during the day to hide from predators. That’s the reason why they’ll sit at one place the entire day without food and water, even in the hot scorching heat of the Summer. So if you see a Nightjar during the day, don’t go very close to it until it flies away. Maintain enough distance. And by enough, I mean really enough. You don’t want to disturb the bird, disturb it’s camouflage and let predators spot and hunt it, just because you wanted to get photos. Birds come first, photos later. When I said ‘UNBELIEVABLY close’ in the blog, I meant in comparison to when we approach other birds. These closeups here have been clicked at 330mm using my friend’s telephoto lens and have been cropped to a great extent, that’s why they feel closer than what we actually were from the bird. So please please PLEASE don’t go and try to pet Nightjars. They are wild birds and not domestic dogs, please maintain a good distance. With that said, I’ll see you all in the next blog 🙂