Thursday, April 4, 2013

The tale of the Broad 'Tailed' Grassbird

The tale of the ‘Broad Tailed Grassbird’-- a note I wrote for Agasthya the newsletter of KMTR
It was a cloudy morning in the middle of June in 2011 and yet, the rain in Kodayar was hardly a trickle. I was returning from Kakachi with Preeti and Chian after searching for frogs the previous night. We rode past a swamp in Nalmukh tea estate when a sharp warbling call caught our attention. Weary of previous nights work, we did not stop to investigate but kept going and as we navigated a curve, it occurred to me that the bird could be the Broad Tailed Grassbird! We got off the bike and ran to investigate. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle brought out a nip in the wind. The calls were incessant. It came from the base of two eucalyptus trees. The swamp had a lot of thick sedge growing in it. As we intently waited, the bird flew out from a clump of sedges and perched on the tree and began warbling. One could clearly see the black mouth inside when it was calling. The broad tail too was distinct. Elated on seeing an endemic and vulnerable bird in a tea estate, we tried to photograph the bird in vain.

A record picture of the Broad Tailed Grassbird calling from a eucalyptus plant
I had on one earlier occasion, seen a pair of Grassbirds in the Muthukuzi area albeit being obscured by grasses. This sighting was clear and is etched in my memory.  For the next couple of days, we would regularly hear the bird from the same place. The bird possibly had its nest in the sedges and from literature; I came to know the nest remains water tight through the monsoon. Very little knowledge exists about this bird
A few days later, we noticed a pile of the very sedges in which the bird was nesting being harvested and stacked along the road. Turns out the sedge was being used as mulch for growing organic tea.  Organically grown tea was supposedly environmental friendly but on the contrary, the exact opposite seemed to have been happening. What the estate owners had not realized was that their tea growing practices had in-fact allowed a vulnerable bird to persist and even breed in their estates. 
A sedge of the cyperaceae family being harvested and ferried to the organic estate. The bird nests in the thick clumps of this plant.

While tea consumers and tea production is bound to increase, the fate of the bird lies in limbo across much of its geographic range. The estate could help in conserving this bird by maintaining a situation where even vulnerable species survive in an island of tea. Such a situation could lead to a certification for following ‘green’ practices and definitely boosted their sales. But, in the name of organic tea, a bird is being pushed a step closer to extinction.

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