The Little Bird



Sahana Nagandla


 
Copyright 2024 by Sahana Nagandla



Photo by David Ruh: https://www.pexels.com/photo/bearded-vulture-perching-on-a-rocks-17734708/
Photo by David Ruh courtesy of Pexels.

Hiking through one of the biggest mountains in the world is of course an experience to treasure for a lifetime, but for me, a meeting with a furry creature made this memory even more precious.

Beams of light cracked through gray clouds, fragmenting the somber pall and illuminating the Swiss Alps with a golden luster. Grateful for the warmth, I stabbed my hiking poles into the ground and stopped for a rest. Slowly, the rigid ice under my feet began to melt into slush and massage the curves of my leather boots. From my humble position slightly above the mountain base, I craned my neck to watch the sun at work, thawing snow-capped peaks and sucking away the morning chill.

Despite the tranquility of the landscape, the silence created a gnawing sense of unease. Not a single pair of outstretched wings or a downy underbelly met my gaze. Not the slightest squawk or ruffling of feathers was carried to my ears. The rugged peaks, however captivating, seemed void of aerial life.

This realization dawned on me slowly as I studied the barren landscape. I had traveled across the globe and hiked thousands of feet up unforgiving terrain for one creature to grace my camera lens: the majestic four-foot Alpine hunter, the bearded vulture. I wasn't after merely any bird; I was seeking one of the world's rarest creatures. With barely 300 vultures seamlessly camouflaged amidst the snowy mountains, that was a Herculean task. Yet, I refused to let the harsh truth cut even a sliver of doubt into my mind.

My goal in photographing this endangered bird was not a search for adventure or a chance to prove myself, it extended deeper than that. Ever since I had seen a bearded vulture in a magazine and spent months learning about its historic roots, I knew it was special. This species had been close to extinction until an initiative to restore the population was launched recently. Through the program, the number of vultures drastically increased, though they are still critically endangered.

I hoped that through a curved camera lens, I could share this bird's beauty and remind everyone that it was still a reality, somewhere high up in the sky where barely any humans had set foot. And I was determined to accomplish this feat against any odds, not for myself, but for the world and the bearded vultures.

Senses on hyper-alert for aerial movement, I resumed trekking up the slippery path closer to the tips of the Alps with renewed energy. No other humane or animal sound was in earshot except for my soft footsteps and heavy breaths. Gusting winds echoed against the tall cliffs, and melting ice descended from the peaks in copious streams of water, their sounds miles distant but audible. It was not silence; yet, it was a pristine calm that seemed to fill the air, one so fragile it could break any second.

The ground under me radiated an anticipating energy that coursed through my body, its agitation anchoring me in place. It was as if something was about to happen, something that nature itself was waiting to witness. Though I didn't know what exactly it was, I had a strong premonition. I felt the world whisper to me, promising to grant me my wish. This was the place. If I would spot a bearded vulture, it would be here. I knew it.

Confidently, I took a deep breath and slid my backpack off my shoulders. Careful not to make much sound, I set up my camera equipment and propped a chair behind it. With a contented sigh, I sat down, eyes trained on the sky, and prepared for a long wait. The wind whispered through the pine trees and canyons, carrying the crisp scent of snow and the distant rumble of melting ice while gentle warmth caressed my cheeks. Dull clouds and white peaks stared back at me endlessly, their beauty slowly losing novelty, and my eyelids grew heavy at the static sight.

Just as darkness was about to fill my vision, a high-pitched shriek ruptured the stillness. With a racing heart, I jolted out of my weary state and scanned the sky frantically for the sound's source. Unable to see any movement, I squinted into my camera lens, zooming into the direction of the shriek. The sky remained motionless, waiting with bated breath just as I was.

Seconds ticked by, turning to minutes, but the world stayed still. My heartbeat slowed, and I started to sit back down with a grim face. Then, I spotted it: a flutter of white wings in the distance. Unable to believe my luck, I adjusted my camera with trembling fingers and heard the bird call again.

Finally, a flurry of white came into focus, the distinct shape of wings and a rounded head becoming clearer. The bird approached closer with alarming speed, seeming to aim straight for my camera lens, and I quickly moved my hand to capture the shot. But, as I was about to click the flying creature zooming towards me, I heard two loud screeches and glass shattering.

Startled, I nearly knocked over the tripod and flew out of my chair. Below my precious Sony A7 IV laid shards of broken lens glass, and perched regally on top of it was the cause of destruction. At a towering five inches, its off-white wings spanning the size of my pinky finger, was a white finch.

Before I could process what had just happened, I heard a shrill cry and saw a pair of massive wings flash away faster than I could blink. Creamy white wings and short legs covered with shaggy fur, large enough to carry a small predator through the sky. My eyes stayed fixed on the spot from where the gigantic bird had disappeared, unable to shift away. Was that what I thought? Was it a bearded vulture? My shoulders drooped glumly despite the tornado of emotions crashing in my brain. What could have possibly been the bird of my dreams was just a touch away and disappeared before I could fully see, let alone photograph, its beauty.

As the well of disappointment dragged me deeper into its depths, a chirp sounded in front of me. Fuming, I turned to the finch, the remains of my expensive camera lying below it. Small beady eyes stared back at me innocently, not at all mirroring my murderous expression. It was smaller than the width of my palm and stood defiantly on two needle-thin legs that supported its fluffy body. At the center of its white face, between two round eyes, was a pointed beak. I did not know what to make of this pitiful bird. Whether it had granted me a glimpse of the bearded vulture or was the reason I did not fully see the big bird, I was unsure.

But, in the heat of the moment, my blood started to boil as it cocked its head comically at me. I took a step closer, intimidating the ugly creature to fly away. Despite my threat, the bird stayed still and let out a series of laughing chirps. I looked at the bird in shock, wondering how it dared mock me. Though my stare continued to bore into it, the tiny being didn't appear to have any intention of moving.

With a defeated sigh, I stepped back and turned away, hoping the bird would feel insulted by my ignorance. After waiting a few seconds with mounting frustration, I peeked discreetly over my shoulder and found a cheeky smile taunting me. The nerves in my forehead started to pop out upon watching the finch's foolish bravery, but as I stared at its lopsided beak and glossy eyes, the corners of my lips began to tug upward. As if it could sense my change in emotion, the small bird tilted its head even further, nearly perpendicular to its body. A small giggle escaped my mouth as I watched the acrobat before me, and the bird returned my smile. Carefully, I stepped closer to the bird, expecting it to stay still. But, at the slightest movement of my foot, it rose off my camera and hovered in the air for a second. Not wanting to scare the finch away, I paused midstep, locking eyes with the furry creature. For the first time, it gave me a solemn glance and lifted into the air.

As the bird flew into the distance, I watched it withstand the strong gusts and navigate the harsh terrain without doubt. Like its massive predator I had barely glimpsed, the small finch held its head high and its wings stretched as long as the mountain range.

In the blink of an eye, right before the bird disappeared into the white backdrop, it seemed to mirror the bearded vulture I had seen years ago, its posture confident and its gait like the wind. By the time I opened my eyelids, the finch was gone.

As I stared at the sky, a warm feeling cut through the chill straight to my heart. I might have missed seeing the bird of my dreams, but this bird, this small, insignificant finch seemed no less stunning at the moment. In my eyes, its six-inch figure was as regal as possible, since it, like everyone and everything on the face of this Earth, is a creation of Mother Nature. And each one of nature's children is equally, brilliantly beautiful.

Sahana Nagandla is a high school student with a strong passion for storytelling. She loves writing about her own experiences and hopes that one day, they will change the world. Sahana also enjoys reading, playing basketball, and watching movies in her free time.  "At the time of this story I was visiting Switzerland with my family, though I did not mention them in the story because I was walking ahead (since they were with my younger brother) and they did not arrive at the scene until well after I spotted the finch." 


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