Swan song of the Waterhen?

Couple of years ago, I wrote about the ‘Quarry behind my house’ wherein I had spoken about a whole bunch of creatures that used the habitat, affording me an opportunity to observe them.

I had then written – ‘The Whitebreasted Waterhen was a resident here. I would watch it as it went about finding food, venturing cautiously out of the tangle to the edge of the water. It could be seen walking about with measured steps. The erect tail twitching with each step was very characteristic. The calls of the bird during the breeding season was always heard and on one occasion I was lucky to see the entire family – the adult with two little chicks covered with sooty black down on tow.

And again, at the end of the same article I said – ‘I still hear the cackling calls of the Whitebreasted Kingfisher and the Whitebreasted Waterhen occasionally.

There were days when I would curse the bird under my breath, for it would utter its raucous call at all odd times of the day – which could be when one was trying to catch forty winks, or in the middle of the night. This ensured that I had sleepless nights.

At that juncture, little did I imagine that the quarry turned wetland would fall prey to development. So much so, that I started missing the call of the bird. The Whitebreasted Waterhen, in spite of all the changes (read ‘development’) has managed to hold on. I continued to hear the call once in a while but never saw one…until recently!

I happened to step out into my garden and espied a movement in a small depression where the drain pipe from the kitchen emptied itself. It was busy picking food. I quickly exited the scene only to get my camera ready to shoot the bird from within the house. The bird was so shy that the smallest movement even from within the house got the bird walking away from its breakfast.

However, the bird’s demeanour of – walk, pause, look around, twitch the erect tail, walk, pause, look around,… gave me an opportunity to get a couple of decent frames before it started playing hide and seek amid the undergrowth. 

At this juncture, I saw a second bird make its appearance! I was mighty thrilled that the garden, allowed to grow wild, did make for a safe sanctuary for this shy rail when all the habitat around was disappearing.

I photographed the bird and its habitat wondering for how long I would be lucky to enjoy the sights and sounds of urban denizens like the Whitebreasted Waterhen. I also admired the ability of various species to survive, given an opportunity, even if conditions were suboptimal. For me, retaining the undergrowth resisting pressures from the neighbours to clear it, had paid off very well!

This being the breeding season (monsoon months), the birds are particularly vocal. I sat down to edit this piece and the waterhens started uttering  the other more pleasant but rather monotonous call. The call reminded me of another little bird – the Coppersmith. I read Salim Ali’s description of this call and here is what he says – ‘… kook…kook…kook somewhat like the Coppersmith barbet’s but louder, higher in pitch and faster in tempo.’

I do not know how long this bird will hold on. For as long as it visits my garden, the pleasure is mine. When it eventually does make an exit (seems imminent the way things are ‘developing’), I wonder where the bird would go.

As I read the article one last time, the call of the bird continues to play in my head like a broken record.

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