It is a cold, dripping December morning and we are looking for racket-tailed drongos in the moist deciduous forest around Dhoomanagadde Raaste. As we walk down the trail, we see signs of elephant, gaur, wild pig and civet. A startled sambar stag runs away with thudding hooves. Very few birds are calling, and no drongos are in sight. A couple of hours pass and we slowly thaw in the growing warmth of the sun. And then, a racket-tail flies across the trail with a flock of jungle babblers! For the next ten minutes or so, it stays low in the undergrowth, feeding on insects disturbed by the babblers foraging on the ground. It crosses the trail again, and disappears into the foliage. We wait for a bit – it might come back. But it flies further in, and we follow. After crawling through lantana thickets, we reach a clearing and there it is again, in the shrubs at the edge. Other species have joined the flock – grey-headed and black bulbuls, flameback woodpeckers, hill mynas, a paradise flycatcher, a bar-winged flycatcher shrike, bronzed drongos and brown-cheeked fulvettas. The air is filled with the calls of these birds, but the drongo is silent at present. It flies off again, and after a while, we realise that we can’t go after it – the lantana is too thick here. So we trace our way back towards the trail. It is 0821 am.
As we step onto the path, a chital calls from the gully a few hundred metres to our right. A minute later, a bonnet macaque gives the special alarm call that it reserves for big cats, and we are instantly on the alert. The macaque is close, just around the bend, and we can’t see what it is calling at. But we hear it the next moment, as the tiger growls! We are very close, and I’m not sure if it isn’t headed our way. I instinctively take a few steps back, but Jadeya, my field assistant, gestures for me to hold his machete while he takes the video camera out. I hold on to the machete with trembling hands, and slowly follow him around the bend. We see the tiger walking slowly down the path, and follow as silently as we can. It pauses to sniff at a tree trunk, and scrapes the ground. I am almost sure it can hear my heart pounding in my head. It walks on, and I notice that it has two bright, white spots on the back of its ears.
It stops again, and sprays a tree trunk. We walk with it for about a hundred metres before it leaves the path and disappears into the forest. Jadeya finally turns and grins at me – and I beam back at him. The ‘kere’ is just ahead, and we are sure it is going in that direction. We jog down the path towards the kere, and there it is, sitting at the bank on the opposite side. It looks at us for a few moments, then yawns and sits down behind some bushes. It starts licking itself, and then rolls over with its paws in the air. We chuckle silently – it is a very contented tiger. We watch for a while, and then Jadeya says that all he needs to do is say ‘Yenu sahebre!’ (“What’s up sir!”), and it will look up and he can take a picture, but I beg him not to. The tiger is still sunnning itself. I whisper that we should leave – if we don’t disturb it, it might show itself to us another day.
It is 0908 am when I say “Ta ta” to the basking tiger. On the way back, I can hardly contain myself, and hug trees when Jadeya is not watching. We are on top of the world.