Thursday, March 31, 2011

Backyard Birding

binoculars in hand
I am watching birds
watching me!

I have always been an armchair birder. It is fun to step outdoors, equipped with a binocular and camera, not to mention the guide book, and traipse into urban forests and wetlands in search of elusive avifauna, birdwatching, as I have done on many Wednesday’s bird walks. But what really grips me is camping in my verandah and snooping around the garden observing backyard birds. These “garden variety” of birds flit in and out of trees and bushes from dawn to dusk executing aerobatic feats and put up a musical performance, like no other. And unlike the “wild” birds of the woods, this variety is not shy of my intrusive presence, and in fact, preens and prances, and perches openly on low tree tops.

In Nairobi, I wake up to incessant twitter of birds and the first call that greets me at daybreak is that of the Streaky seedeater. Though, I am busy packing off my son to school at that hour, I know it is sitting atop the bougainvillea bush or the frangipani warbling away its sweet song. Back home, in Wellington in the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) in South India, it was the haunting sweee of the magpie robin that would set the tone for the day.(Nilgiris, incidentally is an international biosphere reserve with over 10 IBA sites). In urban environs, it is easy to miss the buzz of birds due to day-break and day-long cacophony, not so in the Nilgiris and Nairobi where characteristic somnolence underscores bird songs filling the crisp, cool air.

Kite trills in the sky
how can you tell if it’s
Kenya or India?

One of the early birds I encountered in Nairobi was the pied crow. In India, the eponymous house crows are a ubiquitous sight, not so in Nairobi, but interestingly they are also seen in Mombasa. It is said that, centuries ago, this intrepid species crossed the ocean waters, traveling on dhows and ships that harnessed trade winds, and landed on the Kenyan coast! Interestingly, they did not traverse further uphill to Nairobi where their jungly brethren, the pied crows, still hold sway. The rasping caw of the pied crow is a shade different from that of the house crow. Also unlike them, pied crows are averse to loitering low and I often see them scouring the sky or perched on the tall Norfolk pine (Monkey-puzzle tree). Being on ground is beneath them; even the mango tree in my garden is not befitting their “high” status. The mango, though, is the favourite watch-tower of a black kite which settles down in the crook of a branch every evening after relentless sorties in the air.

In my early days in Nairobi, one morning, I heard a fluty trill which seared the heart and brought back memories from the Nilgiris-past - of a whistling thrush - when I would walk the path of pine woods. After a bit of hide-n-seek, I came face to face with an olive-brown bird with an orange beak. The African Olive Thrush, therefore, holds a special corner in my heart. Since then, of course, the bird has been a constant companion feeding at the bird feeder even as I admire him from close quarters. An oddity of a one-legged olive thrush resides in my garden, and I wonder what calamity resulted in its handicap or if it is a congenital defect and whether it hinders its flight in any way.

As I step onto the verandah every morning with a cuppa, I am greeted by pairs of Baglafecht weavers, Rufous- and Grey-headed sparrows creating ruckus at the bird feeder demanding their breakfast. For the lure of millet seeds, bread crumbs or even chappati tidbits they have been coming in droves. In fact, I just have to step onto the patio and the weavers and sparrows leave the comfort of their post of peach or bamboo and descend on the railing, boldly, expectantly. The Northern Pied Babblers with their eternally surprised wide-eyed look chatter their way to the feeder vying for attention. The Holub’s Golden weavers are not far behind, either.

flocking together
at the water bath, birds
of different feathers

The pearl millet seeds which I had asked a friend to get from India (I haven’t found them here yet), brought in surprise parties of Chestnut Weavers and African firefinch in May (during the long rains). They roosted on an Acacia in a glen across the fence and at sunset waves of weavers could be seen winding their way to some distant destination. For a month, the frolicking flocks had us in thrall; it was as though a bunch of holiday-makers had come visiting filling the bower with their chattering and laughter. But just as they had come, unannounced, they departed suddenly without notice! I wonder, if the hacking away of bushes and shrubs of the glen had anything to do with their disappearance. I still do see the firefinch, but, not as often and in as many numbers, as I used to then. My hunch is that the stock of small millet seeds are up and the bajra millet is not to their liking.

I substituted millet with sunflower seeds but was disappointed when there were no takers for it. But look at nature’s mysterious and miraculous ways. I had planted sunflowers in August and within a couple of weeks the shoots shot six feet high sporting glorious sunny heads. When the flowers were spent and the black core stacked with seeds exposed, Grosbeak weavers turned at my door! Having followed the ‘scent’ of sunflowers they were congregating at the feeder snacking on sunflower and even, watermelon and pumpkin seeds!

Mousebird parties
feasting on peaches
tree of seeds

The Speckled Mousebirds, on the other hand, are a permanent fixture in the garden. Like Indian parakeets, these birds come in gregarious flocks, and like them, they party on fruiting trees. At any time of the day, they can be seen flying from tree to tree with their long tails trailing. Munching mangoes, pecking at guavas and peaches, they are feasting all the time. The delectable peaches are particularly devoured, avariciously, so much so that only seeds are seen dangling on the tree where the fruits once were. When they are not eating, they can be seen hanging awkwardly on a telegraph wire, heads lolling, dozing!

On a lazy afternoon, a pair of Hadada Ibis silently stroll the lawns, feeding on subterranean insects or termite larvae, their long beaks digging earth. And when the lawn is mowed, more pairs can be seen hobbling around. The Hadada rivals the crow’s caw with an even harsher grating call as it flies overhead and settles on a rooftop nearby reminding one of the stork statuary of Dutch cottages. A pair or two of Silvery-cheeked hornbills have stopped by for marauding weavers’ nests delicately tied to leaves of the Yucca. We have fobbed them off a couple of times, successfully, but I must say, it has been a treat to watch them glide by.

sitting, waiting, warming
Fiscal mother breathes life
into her brood

With so much of aerial activity around, it is only natural that bird couples play house in the garden territory. A common fiscal parent pair had chosen a crook of a branch on a peach tree to build their nest. For a few weeks, one could observe the life cycle of fiscals – from eggs to chicks to sub-adults, as in a virtual Biology lesson. Four chicks emerged chirruping in a fashion after their parents, tails arching sideways, except in the case of the chicks it was a stub of a tail! In contrast, the olive thrush showed little discretion and set up its roost conspicuously on the verandah.

bursts into song
ventriloquist bird of paradise
Beautiful sunbird

As I cozy myself with a book in the armchair by the verandah, it is time for the bronze sunbird to flit about the bird of paradise shrub. The sparkling variable sunbird too makes an appearance, albeit a little infrequently. Apart from these, I have spotted the Cape and Ruppell’s robin-chat, African pied wagtail, Hammerkop, Grey heron, Yellow-vented bulbul, Cinnamon-chested bee-eater, White-headed barbet, Bronze mannikin, Village indigo bird, Red-eyed dove and keep discovering new varieties as days pass. It is heartening to know that my garden is a veritable “birding site”, no less.

Red-bellied firefinch

Chestnut weaver

Northern Pied Babbler

1 comment:

  1. i really like the way you've caputured the photoes and the just summed it with a small worded saying , to me, your words are like are honey and your photoes, the colour saffron i enjoyed them and will continue to keep reading your blogs