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India: Searching for the Indian roller bird

Rising early in Kanha National Park means the chance to spot the spectacular, cream-and-blue plumage of the Indian roller bird — but it's just the beginning of the park's colourful birdlife

India: Searching for the Indian roller bird
Image: Getty

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It’s 7:30am in Kanha National Park, and, suddenly, something catches my eye. “Pull over,” I ask my guide, Raj. He jolts to a stop, pans around and lowers his head to peek under the canopy of lilac-flowered hedges dotting Kanha’s roads, but I’m facing the other way, with my camera lens squarely focused on a 3m-high tree stump.

There sits my new favourite bird, the Indian roller, and in my viewfinder are two of the cream-and-blue beauties. They’re standing together but moving apart: one extends its head backwards, as if to laugh, while the other pushes its breast forward. They’re enacting a mating dance and I’ve never seen rollers, nor any bird like them, conduct such an intimate ritual.

I first learned about the acrobatic family of Coraciidae birds in Africa, where the Indian roller’s lilac-breasted cousin perches on thorny Acacia tree branches. African rollers stole my heart and encouraged a wider interest in avian species. On safari you can spend hours searching for a rhino or tiger, but even if you don’t find large mammals, you encounter birds along the way. And whenever I ask guides to name their favourite animal, I find most of them prefer birds to mammals.

“A good naturalist is interested in everything happening around her,” says Indian naturalist Arpita Dutta, who used to work for Kanha’s Banjaar Tola safari lodge, where I spent two nights during my safari last winter. “And birds engage in interesting activities. They show their unique characteristics, as well as how they adapt to changes in temperature and climate. Together, all of this tells a story.”

There are also far more of them: Kanha boasts 320-odd avian species, 260 of which are park residents. By comparison, Kanha has approximately 44 types of mammal. And Kanha isn’t even on the hardcore birder’s radar. Some of India’s best birding takes place in the foothills of the Himalayas, where there are as many as 680 bird species (about 50% of India’s total). “But Kanha is a great place to go if you really want to see tigers and are also keen to spot a variety of birds,” says Glen Valentine of Rockjumper Birding Tours.

This combination drew me to Kanha during my first trip to India last March, but I had no idea that I’d see upwards of 30 avian species during these six days on safari. I casually keep track until a British traveller recording sightings in a small notebook inspires me to take my count seriously. He’s most excited about seeing an ‘absolutely tiny’ Indian pygmy woodpecker, and regrets that he hasn’t come across the rare spot-bellied eagle-owl, which travellers have the best shot at seeing in Kanha’s Mukki zone.  

With their bright colours and near-constant presence, the Indian rollers soon become my favourite of Kanha’s winged residents, but I also fall for drongos with their long-forked tails, the regal-crested serpent eagle, and the noisy jungle babblers whom locals call ‘angry birds’ for their resemblance to the video game’s stars.

Midway through a morning drive, we stop for breakfast in the parking lot of a ranger station. While munching on spicy samosas, something catches my eye. A common crow standing atop a dead tree begins lowering his beak into the tree’s hollow while pushing his back feet into the air. He’s clearly trying to reach something in the hollow, but I can’t figure out why he’s simultaneously jutting backwards, so I inch forward for a better look. Suddenly, through the cracks of the hollow, something moves. It’s another bird; the two are tussling.

The crow becomes increasingly aggressive in his efforts, and, within seconds, a small owl flies out of the hollow and through a nearby cluster of trees. Dipping his beak downward one last time, the crow emerges with a single white egg and flies off to enjoy his hard-earned snack.

Local’s tip 
Before arriving, tell your lodge about your interest in birds so guides can plan accordingly. Freelance naturalist Arpita Dutta suggests going to Kanha in winter, when migratory birds join native ones. The park’s Mukki zone is best for waterbirds, Garhi Road offers great variety, and if you want to birdwatch on foot, ask to visit Bhimodi Lake, a water body outside of the park’s core zone.

Published as part of the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)