COUNTRY NOTEBOOK: M.Krishnan : THE SNAKE-BIRD : The Sunday Statesman: 13-July-2014
"If you wish in the world to advance,
Your merits you are bound to enhance,
You must stir it and stump it,
And blow your own trumpet,
Or, trust me, you haven't a chance!
WITH this preface from Ruddigore, I present readers which is probably the first clear picture of a darter on the wing. The photograph, I concede, could have been clearer, it could have shown more detail, particularly about the beak and eye. And the webbed feet, I know, could have been less latently displayed. All that is so but I believe no better flight-photograph of the bird has been taken.
Darters on the nest, showing their streaky, almost scaly plumage in sharp focus, darters sitting on a rock or bough with their wings spread out to dry in the sun. In the manner of the German Eagle, darters in the water with only their serpentine necks and heads above the surface - no doubt such pictures have been taken, but I have never seen one of the bird well up in the sky.
Those who know the prehistoric fowl will not be surprised at this. The darter does not, it is true, get through the air at bewildering speed, but its wing-beats are rapid when it flies low, and it sheers away the moment it sees a photographer. Before the shutter can be released, it has turned its head sharply away, so that the long kink-lumped, snaky neck ends in no obvious head! And when it soars, as it often does, it is so high (though it does not seem to be) that even the very long lens one can have little hope of getting an enlargeable image.
Having pointed out the negative excellence of my picture sufficiently, let me tell you about the bird itself. In action and repose, on the bough and in the water or air , it is like no other bird. It is not only the long, pale neck with the kink at its base, tapering to the pointed beak, that is snaky about the darter - even its speckled and streaked black-and-white plumage has somewhat reptilian pattern. And a darter on , sailing around on taut, sharply triangular wings, with neck and dagger-bill thrust out, and the long tail outspread, is the nearest one can hope to see to the archaeopteryx these days.
Actually, the darter is a cousin of the cormorants - but a cousin twice removed, quite unlike in looks and habits. Cormorants are gregarious and not particularly shy of men; they fly so close to the watcher that one can easily see the quick, sideway wag of the tail that the indulge in from time to time. The darter on the other hand, is unsociable and very mistrustful of man, keeping its distance. In the water, its big body is well submerged and hidden from view, and seeing only the slender neck and head projecting at a slant from the surface, one can appreciate the aptness of the name "snake-bird".
Like its cousins, the darter is an expert diver and swims powerfully below the surface. It hunts fish under water and is said to spear them on its sharp beak, the kink in its neck acting as a power-spring, as in herons. No doubt that is so, but I have seen a darter come up from the water with a fish held crosswise between its mandibles (and not spitted on them), which it threw up with a jerk into the air and swallowed.
In flight, the darter is more silent than the swish-winged cormorants, and much given to soaring on high. Even in the mixed heronries where it breeds, along with cormorants and waterfowl, it usually nests high and keeps itself to itself and its mate. Young darters are weird beyond belief, but they rapidly grow up into semblance of their parents. They take some time to learn to fly, and even when almost full-sized and quite full-fledged, they cannot fly - they look so out of place perched on a bough, which they clutch with their broad, webbed feet. However, even at that age they can swim with ease and speed."
This was first published on 7 April 1957 in The Sunday Statesman
#The photograph of the bird in flight not reproduced here.