The tropicbirds of memory

The arrival of the postman at our doorstep, just before noon, is always a welcome event, more so when he brings something always awaited by us: a book or a magazine, or even the rare letter. Today, he brought the latest issue of Indian Birdsvolume 8 number 5 of our subscription to this excellent bird journal, which we have in our little library from the very first issue. The latest issue promised interesting reading over a quiet weekend indoors, tucked away from melancholy mists and monsoon rains. Opening the issue, I was delighted to see the first paper titled ‘Notes on Indian rarities—1: Seabirds’, by three leading ornithologists, J. Praveen, Rajah Jayapal, and Aasheesh Pittie. It was the first part of a very welcome series on Indian birds, a critical review of all bird species reported from India, especially rare birds with few records, all as a prelude to making a systematic checklist of Indian birds that I will much look forward to. Their task is not an easy one, to sift through reports and publications, examine records and evidence, verify details and locations mentioned, in order to arrive at a reliable and complete list of India’s birds. In their first paragraph, they highlight several difficulties and lacunae that are are spot-on. I liked their observation on species that have made their way into checklists, without adequate basis:

An unfortunate fallout is that several contentious species, with dubious provenance, have crept into such lists virtually unchallenged, often abetted by the professional standing of the observers and/or the periodicals they are published in.

The authors’s emphasis on the necessity of critical review, on the need to establish an Indian Bird Records Committee, on verifiable evidences to support bird records, are all timely and pertinent. After explaining the intent and describing the thorough methodology they followed to find and screen records of birds, they provide detailed species accounts summarising their findings and conclusions. I was grateful to them for taking this initiative and leading us through the occasionally murky waters of Indian ornithology.

Still, I immediately wondered what the authors had concluded about a bird species that I myself had seen and reported along with my brother, a compulsive birder, nearly three decades ago. My eyes gravitated automatically to the bird, the second species on their list: White-tailed Tropicbird Phaeton lepturus. In one paragraph, with an accompanying table, they summarised the records from across India, of this beautiful bird.

White-tailed Tropicbird (drawn from a photograph)
White-tailed Tropicbird (drawn from a photograph)

At once, I noted, with appreciation yet unavoidable poignancy, their decision to mention, but discard as questionable, the records of White-tailed Tropicbirds seen in the mid-1980s in Madras (or Chennai as it is now called), by a couple of schoolboys, Sriram and Sridhar (as my brother and I are also called). Having read the methods and knowing how thorough the authors had been, I respected the grounds for their decision, although in my mind, even today, I have no doubt whatsoever that the birds we saw and reported were indeed White-tailed Tropicbirds.

We had seen the tropicbirds not once or twice, but five times in 1984 and four times in the following year, sightings and observations that we reported as notes published in Blackbuck, the journal of the Madras Naturalists’ Society. In 1986, I saw the tropicbird once more, in an extraordinary coincidence on the very same date (20 July), time (morning), and place (near Santhome cathedral) that I had first seen it in 1984, and reported that in a note in the Newsletter for Birdwatchers. Of these records, the authors of the paper in Indian Birds say:

A set of ten June – August sight records of this species reported from Chennai during 1984 – 1986 (Sridhar and Sriram 1985; Sridhar 1987; Sriram and Sridhar 1985) are not considered here as no other observer has reported this species, before or after, from that area, and all Indian records are from January–April.

They are definitive in their decision and I feel I should agree with them, for they have taken a cold, hard look at the records, as they certainly should. How could I compel them otherwise? How can I convey the certainty of those records to them, when the person I was in 1984—a boy not yet 12, a birder not yet a year into birding—is almost as distant to me as he must be to them: an unfamiliar third person from a nearly forgotten past?

Imagine then, if you will, that morning in July 1984, the boy dressed in white shirt and khaki shorts, in black leather shoes and white cotton socks, standing in a line with his classmates on the cement basketball court beside the rain tree in the morning Assembly at St. Bede’s. Imagine the magical moment when he looks up, not at the Principal pontificating from the podium, but up into the sky, at the beautiful, white, fairy-like bird that has suddenly appeared near the high spire of the adjoining San Thome Basilica cathedral, flying past on graceful tapering wings and extended tail streamers, flying over the school, over the upturned face of the open-mouthed child.

It was a bird he had never seen before. He did not know then what species it was. Yet, he saw it again, and his brother too, and again, and again. Yet, what reliable or verifiable evidence did they produce? None, perhaps. His brother and he wrote a note for Blackbuck, probably punching it out on their old Remington typewriter, describing the bird and the details they saw, white plumage and long tail streamers, black wing-bars and wing-tips, dark eye-stripe, and orange-yellow bill. The editors carried their observations, appending a critical note, humouring the “enthusiastic student members” who wrote it, cautioning the reader on such errors as greenhorns may make, confusing terns for tropicbirds, and asking other members, possibly more reliable ones, to keep an eye out for it, anyhow, in Madras and along the Tamil Nadu coast.

Yet, it seemed fated that only the boys would see and report it again the following year, a pair of tropicbirds even, again only their eyes as evidence. They would admire the bird’s flight, “slower and steadier” than a pigeon’s, with every flap of their wings seeming “to raise and lower the bird in the air”. The school-going boys would not carry their heavy pair of binoculars along with their heavy load of books. They had no camera, nor money to buy and develop photographic film. Whether they drew sketches or kept notes of those sightings, no one really knows, for there is no trace of that anymore. They could only talk or write about what they saw with their own eyes. Sadly, more reliable and experienced members of the Madras Naturalists’ Society never did see the birds: all to their loss, in the unsought opinion of the boys.

With no evidence, no corroboration, no photographs, it is only right that experts now reverse the written record in their recent review. And it is only appropriate of others, who report new sightings of White-tailed Tropicbirds—as a person does in a note in the same issue of Indian Birds, a few pages past the recent review—that they make no mention of these dubious records from Chennai, the city once known as Madras. And so, some records, like some names, are consigned to the dustbin, as they say, of history.

What will remain then, of the experience of those schoolboys, beyond the yellowing pages of journals and the white birds of memory? Will the memory, too, one day begin to fade away, in their minds, from surprise and certainty, to obscurity and oblivion? I shall wonder at that, over the weekend.

4 thoughts on “The tropicbirds of memory

  1. Very poignant. Although not comparable (cos of lack of my own conviction(?) in that sighting), I remember a postcard I wrote to Shantharam of a sighting of a Littled Pied Flycatcher in Gundya forest (Dharmasthala) in mid-summer. 🙂 I did hear back from him and it was a very nice response……which I should go and find I think.

  2. An excellent piece that will make me go scour the skies tomorrow morning in the vain hope that a tropicbird has somehow made its way back to Madras (if they ever left!).

  3. Beautiful article Sridhar. I hope you will be writing book(s) about your experiences from earlier times, they are very very interesting.

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