Whenever you step into a forest, it becomes extremely difficult to keep your presence hidden. You give away your position to hundreds of life forms. Your outfit, soaked with sweat, leaves behind chemical cues. Your stomping echoes on the ground and is noted by critters in a way no human can. Any sound reverberates instantly to many with acute hearing. Every step in the wilderness is tracked by a multitude of wary eyes. The messages you emanate sets the wilderness on alarm. The predator-prey reflex gets triggered.
So, you see, the real challenge is not about getting a good photograph. It is about gaining the trust of the wildlings, seeing them before you are seen, and seeing them go about their daily activities unaware of your presence. Being able to read this language is imperative, the first thing on the to-do list of any field biologist.
Recalling the mantra, I, and my photographer friend, Abu Bakar Siddik, were trekking a wide, stone-strewn stream as silently as possible. We were at the Hazarikhil Wildlife Sanctuary. This sanctuary is a roughly 30 sq km of mixed-evergreen-planted forest mosaic, about 100 km northward from the Chattogram port city in the east of Bangladesh.
Among many other exotic life forms, the forest is home to two understudied and highly endangered mammals of South Asia, the Asiatic wild dog and the Himalayan serow. Billboards at the sanctuary entrance feature both. In terms of steps taken to ensure these animals thrive in the sanctuary, the scenario appears rather bleak. The sunburnt billboards and photos of the animals that are faded and barely discernible allude to a disturbing epiphany: Hazarikhil is one of the country's forgotten and forlorn forests.
We were there to photograph a very special bird called the grey peacock-pheasant. To the uninitiated, the term might be baffling. What on earth can be a peacock and a pheasant at the same time? Peacock-pheasants are specially-built pheasants, you could say. Peacock-pheasants, within the mega-diverse pheasant family, form a small group of eight species—a subgroup in a large fraternity that shares a distinctive feature.
These pheasants don some features that are common in the peacock. Their plumage is beaded with numerous eye-like spots, akin to its namesake, the peacock. These spots are iridescent, meaning if it catches the light at the right angle, the spots radiate neon hues of blue, green, and purple. Peacocks and peacock-pheasants share the same family. Both are sexually dimorphic and have crests and leg spurs for fighting. Males in peacock-pheasants can have more than one spur on each leg.
Peacock-pheasants are spread in the countries of South Asia and Southeast Asia. Bangladesh has only one species. The eyespots of the grey peacock-pheasant are somewhat purplish on the back and greenish on the tail. Like pheasants, this species has a loud, hard-to-mistake call. Hazarikhil is the sure-shot place to feel its presence. You will be deafened by its morning crows. You might not see one. But that is okay. The number of cityfolk who have seen one in the flesh will not be more than 50.
It was my first tour to Hazarikhil. I was initially sceptical as just the day before I had returned from an intensive field survey. It was the lure of the bird and the forest itself (don't forget that it supports dholes and serow) that I had fallen for.
It was a March afternoon during the last hours of the Hazarikhil trip. Our team of six got split up. I and Abu Bakar Siddik opted for trekking through streams. Hazarikhil has them in plenty. It was also partly a response to the sweltering heat of the forest trails.
Soon, we started following an upstream flow. No sooner had we left behind the plantation section of the sanctuary and entered the stream, the temperature dropped significantly. The cooler temperature, the broken sunlight, the waning afternoon sun, and the shading stands on both banks created a special effect. The forest grew quieter as we strode deeper. The stream became wider, more boulder-strewn. Our gut feelings made our movements slower. It seemed, from under the shade of the next bend, anything could pop up. Clouded leopard, marbled cat, or something prehistoric? Everything seemed a possibility.
We noticed a forktail pair, a common bird that loves to live near hill streams. The next 200 yards appeared to be the slowest, most careful trot of my life. The breeze was somewhat stalled, containing our smell. The gentle water flow was helping to rest of the sound that we could not help producing. We went within 20 feet of the birds. We adjusted ourselves against two boulders. I took some deep breaths and started pressing the shutter button.
I then felt a nudge on my right shoulder. My friend drew my attention to something on the next bend, about 300 yards away. At first look, it seemed like a small badger, foraging and moving slowly toward our direction, oblivious to our presence. I immediately looked through my viewfinder.
The peacock-pheasant—one of the most secretive birds of the entire Orient, the bird that had made us feel like we were tracking a spirit for the last couple of days, the bird that had blasted our eardrums every single morning—did not notice us. It simply increased its pace and climbed the right bank to disappear into the jungle.
The whole thing happened within four seconds and left us awestruck. There was no precautionary sound cue, no pheasant call, nothing. It popped out of thin air and vanished within a blink. We spent a few moments realising what we had just seen. Both of us were able to take around 8 photos. We, then, high-fived just to be sure that it was not heat-induced hallucination. Double-checking is good practice.
Be subtle. Be silent. Be gentle. Be stealthy. Be respectful to the forest no matter how small it is.