Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Twenty Years of Birdwatching

When I came to my current abode of three months – on Dolphin Hill in Visakhapatnam – the green hills seemed devoid of avian wealth. All I was witness to was a countryside trembling with countless butterflies. Swallowtails – as big as the smallest humming birds - suffused the lantana verge; but no birds! Of course, there were the garrulous mynas and the rowdy crows of the garden variety. Then, one fine day, parties of screechy parakeets announced themselves. From the eyrie of my balcao, I almost missed the drab Roller perched on a pole until it took to the skies in resplendent blue - a la Cinderella. Soon, I was toting up bee-eaters, pigeons, drongos, and babblers, wondering where indeed were they hiding earlier. In the hills, unlike in the plains, spotting birds is a tough game. The tiered topography doesn’t help, nor do the cloudy climes that often play spoilsport. 

In the sepulchral silence of NDA (National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla, near Pune) woods - my first armchair birding destination - no trill or tweet went unnoticed; in fact, with no other distraction it commanded attention. Following the sound trail, many times I would be led on wild goose chase, literally, before I finally confronted the ‘ventriloquist’ bird. And thus began a journey into the bird world. Soon, identifying a bird by its whistle or song, sally or stance became child’s play. To my trained gaze, then, birds stood out stark with the foliage and flora melding into the background!

Twenty years back when I first saw - or saw the first - Oriole in the sylvan environs of the NDA, it seemed to me a golden bird out of a fairy land. After years of living in treeless urban-dump, it was the first time I had encountered wildwood. But as years passed and the noob bird-gawker in me became a seasoned birdwatcher, the golden orioles became more visible, more plentiful, like the ‘Rose’ of Saint Exupery’s "Little Prince".

In Goa’s Mandovi Periphery, the Orioles were so commonplace that I would see them every day, everywhere. Golden Orioles may not be as “common” as the crows or sparrows, but they are “common” enough to make it to the list of most common birds of India. Come to think of it: sparrows aren’t “common” anymore, are they?

A Bangalore-based ornithologist recently compiled a list of “50 Most Common Birds of India” on a social networking website to which a dear friend commented: “These are most common birds…I would have thought most of them are uncommon.” This comment is precious not because it is innocent and an inadvertent admission of ignorance but because it is perspicacious. Even many birdwatchers would not have dreamt up that exotic-sounding bird species such as Zitting Cisticola or Rufous Treepie could figure in the ‘commoner’ category’. So what’s behind this conundrum?

After two decades of birdwatching, it still took me nearly a month or more to start spotting birds and realize what a haven Dolphin Hill was! This just illustrates how we presuppose - subconsciously perhaps - that birds should be seen readily and obviously to make their presence felt!

A year back, I made a Powerpoint presentation on ‘Backyard Biodiversity’ for the denizens of Mandovi where I talked extensively on birds. A friend, fledgling into birding, asked me: “Where do birds go at night”? Another real riddle! My answer was the counter-question: “Where do they go during the day? Why don’t we see them even in broad daylight?” For a common man not into active birdwatching, spotting birds is an elusive proposition. For one, not all bird species are gregarious or noisy; many are solitary and silent and unless out in the open or on telegraph poles or in the garden, they easily merge into the elements of the ecological habitat. Camouflage is their ace cheating card.  If we miss the avian action in the light of the day what is to be said of the night?

You see birds when you seek them and when you start seeking them, you start seeing them! On one of my evening walks in Mandovi, as the day drew to dusk and the birds fell silent, I resigned myself to a close of yet another birding binge. Suddenly, as though by a sixth sense, my attention was drawn to a faraway tree by the flank. An ethereal, magical moment gripped me. In the twilight, silhouetted against a tree top was a flock of peafowls settling in for the night. In the stillness of the woods, it was a rare communion we shared that day.

In Dolphin Hill, the other day, as I was walking with a friend engrossed in conversation, well past sunset, I really do not know what made me turn to the distant fence. Sitting bolt upright, absolutely still, the size of a monkey, was a Great Horned Owl! The joy of such serendipity is supreme. That then is the beauty of birding. After a while, you don’t look for them, the birds look out for you!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


The Woman in Red

Red chiffon
Vermilion on forehead
Coral round the neck
Adorned are the Ammas of Andhra
Bhavani becomes them!


4 a.m. Durga Temple
Janaki keeps her date
With Maa Devi Durga Bhavani
Darshan done, sindoor and mala donned
‘Bhavani’ now returns home
To the call of family deity
for Puja and Prasadam
Uncombed hair, empty stomach,
She walks for an hour
from Yarada village to Dolphin Hill
Bare feet - in penance
To meet call of duty…
8 to 5 ‘domestic’ routine
Washing, cleaning, cooking, ironing
On 2 ½ cups of milky tea
In descending darkness and black-out
Also an outcome of striking ‘power’
Fear of snakes banished 
She hurries home for evening prayers
To her two daughters
And an alcoholic husband
Fresh naivedyam to prepare… yet again
Until Vijayadashmi
In the innocent hope of appeasing the Demon!

‘Modern’ Amma

A minister once
In his wisdom… or lack of it
Called women ‘names’
Parkati aurat, he said –
For those with short-crop,
And, by corollary, thence
for their ‘modern’ outlook
He, perhaps, never ventured
Down under… South
Or he would have seen
The Ammas of Andhra
Head tonsured off its tresses
Sporting skull-crop of grey
Or, a bob and a blunt
Nose-studs and saree in place
The mane left behind
At Tirupati…
At the feet of Lord Venkateshwara
Fashion sense or religious stance
It is, finally, all in the glance

Note: I have used the description Amma in many places… it may seem a derogatory connotation to some (ironically so, given our penchant for poking fun at “Madrasis”), but I use the word, in its true sense, as a genuine term of endearment and respect.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

On Uprooting and Relocating


The airplane hovers over
Cranes, conveyor belts, cooling towers
Jetties and docks, flames and fumes
Welding sparks and city lights
The industrial gaze of Vizag
gears up to gobble me


Black and white.. and red
Coal and sulphur... and iron ore
open-air stacks of fine dust
like giant heaps of rangoli
bedeck sidewalks


Polythene bags and frazzled fabric
Clog the roadside nullah
Barfed by thousand factories
Blackened slurry and slush; in it
wading unsullied, a snowy egret


Harried existence
Uprooted, struggling to drop anchor
Waves wake up on shores, gently
Unhurried, unnoticed


The houses I have lived in
Have made home in my psyche
And I, in turn,
Have lent them my Identity


I buckle under the burden
Of the baggage of our itinerant lives
My pace slackened I lumber to a grinding halt
For the moment, I am content
To watch dolefully, as the world races by


Often, lights fade out
And fans die on us
Mother of pearl moon
Beams on the patio -
Bay breeze fans sweet dreams


Trawling language zones
from Kiswahili to Konkani
we  now sashay into
Rainbow Sagarika RJ's
Telugu desam


Gongura and Thottakura
fiery Andhra chilli
Greens from hawkers' market
titillate the palate
and lure me to local flavours


No buses, no autos, no school
Bandhs and blockades
Protests and price rise
Between Samaikyandhra and Seemandhra
The T-word threatens …
to disrupt “normalcy”, indefinitely
Unsafe streets


Political collusion and Pollution 
incites disquiet...
Notwithstanding - 
On Dolphin Hill
I get my eye-piece of the pristine bay
And I am good to go


On Dolphin Hill
You don’t count butterflies
You only feel them
flutter your heart!


Uprooted from Goa
Washed ashore Visakhapatnam
Mandovi Hill to Dolphin Hill
From West coast to East coast
The journey comes a circle
Begins all over again


Saturday, July 13, 2013


The Church bell tolls twelve
the swing scarcely stirs
Bereft of banter, unmanned 
is my Home and Garden.
Freely now, the squirrel scampers
the kingfisher squawks Goodbye
The lapwing pipes its dirge
"did he do it, did he do it..."
Echoes across emerald haze
flood my memory-room
Drowning the ocean roar
the rain pours her heart out.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


 A year ago, I went on a trek to Chorla in Sattari taluka on Karnataka-Goa border. This is a pocket of moist deciduous forest overlooking the Western Ghats - a lesser- known Valley of Flowers on the lines of Kaas Plateau in Maharashtra. Kaas Plateau, as you may be aware, is popular with tourists who pay to come and witness the seasonal natural phenomenon when for a month or two the valley is carpeted with wildflowers. I was astounded by the wealth of wildflowers at Chorla, not only for its beauty and novelty, but also because it dawned on me that I had already seen many of the species right here in INS Mandovi! 

INS Mandovi is situated on what was once Mandovi Hill, a lateritic plateau habitat existing since millions of years. This kind of lateritic plateau harbours a variety of endemic species of wildflowers and other flora and fauna. The Mandovi campus has retained a fair amount of native vegetation, even today. The Periphery, particularly, has remained untouched over the years.  Thus, INS Mandovi is a unique, if not exclusive, biodiversity hotspot. This was corroborated by the erstwhile Director of WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) India - Goa Chapter, Dr. Nitin Sawant, when he visited the campus.

My daily walks on the Periphery Path over the year have reinforced the fact. Struck by the richness of Mandovi’s backyard biodiversity, I decided to document it by photographing the wildflowers and avifauna. As one passionate about ecology and environmental conservation, I firmly believe that conservation should begin at home, in one’s backyard; that documenting backyard biodiversity, raising awareness among residents and children is of activist importance. This documentation thus spans an entire circle of season from summer of 2012 through showers to the summer of 2013.

MONSOON – The harbinger of natural wealth

In the legendary Goan monsoon, Mandovi wears a green garb. Wildflowers sprout vigourously over the months from July – September such that new species come up in quick succession. We think of these wayside flowers as weeds, and therefore, something unwanted or waste. But give them the label, wildflowers, and it gains respectability, which it deserves!

Many wildflowers such as water willow, sonki (senecio grahamii), touch-me-not (mimosa pudica) and so on are seen during this period. Many of the flowers are tiny, some the size of pea, yet others the size of a thumbnail. For two months after monsoon, climber vines completely invade trees and hug them like a rug. By September, the monotony of green foliage is broken by striking red tubular flowers; these are the ipomoea hederifolia or scarlet morning glory. Another red beauty that speckles the verdure closer to ground is the Gloriosa lily. It does not grow as extensive as the other species found here, and is in fact, few and far between. This is a rare medicinal plant whose value has been recognized since ancient times. Its tuber is used extensively to treat many maladies. In fact, some tribes in Nilgiris use the tuber of this plant as an antidote for snake bites. Once abundant in the Western Ghats, it is now getting scarce due to poaching because of its medicinal properties.

Ipomoea hederifolia
Gloriosa lily

Celosia argentea
Impatiens rosmarinifolia

We also have wild okra - jungli bhindi or raan bhendi (as it is locally known) here. Similarly, wild ancestors of cucumber or melon family too abound. Spiked green lemon-size fruits that look like cucumbers can be seen hanging on the vines. These are not edible, but are an important ingredient during Diwali celebrations in Goa. Only a few days before Diwali, the Panjim Vegetable Market gets flooded with baskets of cucumis prophetarum. I am told that on the morning of Dhanteras this fruit is nipped in a symbolic gesture to officially usher in Diwali!

jungli bhindi
sesamum indicum

By October-November, a short shrub with attractive purple orchid bells reared its head filling up the landscape. Imagine the joy when I figured out that this was Sesamum indicum, the source of sesame seeds or til!


Why are wildflowers so important to us?

According to renowned Goa-based botanist-ecologist Nandkumar Kamat:

·       Wildflowers are an important genetic resource.
·       Many of them are medicinal with great potential for future research and use.
·       They are a rich bank of biopharmaceuticals and pigments.
·       They sustain certain species of insects and birds.
·       Cultural dimension – painters and poets have been inspired to create classic works of art.

Think of Van Gogh’s paintings of Blue Iris or Sunflowers and, of course, William Wordsworth’s Daffodils, and you will get an idea of its aesthetic value and cultural connotations! 

MANDOVI – a butterfly haven

Common Sailor wearing its stripes! In Naval Base, Mandovi
Cotigao, Bondla and Netravali in North Goa may be butterfly-watcher’s paradise, but our Mandovi Hill is no less. Where there are so many wildflowers, can butterflies be far behind? The gloriosa lily, the explosion of morning glory, the scarlet ixora of garden ubiquity and wild asters – all - attract butterflies. Many artificial butterfly parks have been created to attract tourists, but Mandovi Hill is a natural butterfly park.

Presence of butterflies is an indication that the ecosystem is throbbing and alive; that there are plenty of host (flowering) plants. On the flip side, butterflies perform the important function of pollination, thus propagating plants. Therefore, habitat protection is the best means of conserving butterflies.

Butterflies are seasonal. In October, they were visible prominently; late monsoon and winter season is the best time for butterfly sightings. The quality of site-fidelity, that is being present in the same place, day after day, makes it easier to spot or track them. Opposite Sick Bay where the steps lead to the swimming pool one could see colonies of striped tiger mingling with plain tiger and common Indian crow varieties. The Common India crow is one of the commonest butterflies found in all habitats (forests, grasslands etc.). It can be confused with the female of Great eggfly, though. The Eggfly is an interesting species. The female of the Danaid eggfly actually mimics the Plain tiger and that of Great eggfly, the female of common Indian crow. They can have you foxed. As if it were not enough to have mindboggling variety of species you now have to contend with ‘conmen’ butterflies ‘impersonating’ other butterfly species!

Great eggly

Plain tiger

Peacock pansy

Lemon pansy

Some of the common species such as the Common Wanderer can be seen feeding on ixora. Others are butterflies of the undergrowth such as the Common bushbrown. They camouflage well amid dry leaves and twigs. In the dry season, when its eyespots fade it actually becomes indistinguishable from a dry leaf! One of the most beautiful butterfly species seen on the Periphery is the Peacock pansy. Its eyespots resemble the motif on peacock feathers, hence the name. I have also seen the giant Malabar raven in flight. As per guidebooks this species is a common sight in “well-wooded forests”… by this logic we can safely conclude that Mandovi is a well-wooded forest!   

Common Indian crow
Common wanderer 

Click here to see the list of butterflies of Mandovi.

While wayside flowers changed the landscape drastically and butterflies weaved in and out of season, one faunal variety that stayed more or less constant and thriving was birds.

BIRDS – Indicator of Healthy Habitat

Birds are an indicator of healthy habitat in ways that even butterflies cannot be. Birds are the first cog in the wheel of the environment cycle; their disappearance should be the first warning sign that something is going wrong with the  ecosystem. Construction activity in the vicinity can be more disturbing for the birds than butterflies. Thankfully, Mandovi still pulsates to bird calls.

In fact, Mandovi mornings begin with bird songs. The common iora sings its heart out first thing at day-break, sitting atop a tall tree. The magpie robin takes the cue and starts its  celebratory chirrups. Apart from the common birds - mynas and bulbuls, one sees many other species - drongos, bee-eaters, and robins - throughout the day. There are numerous other birds (uncommon to the city-slicker, though quite common here) - from orioles to  bluejays and kingfisher to cuckoos - that make a regular appearance.

Cattle egret

The uncommon birds that I have seen here are the Tickell’s Blue flycatcher and the shy Black-headed cuckoo shrike - one of the haunting song.

The Periphery is particularly buzzing with frenetic activity. INS Mandovi is blessed with the presence of peacocks that are the pride of the Periphery. If you see a flock of birds performing fantastic synchronized aerobatics taking off the silk cotton trees during November to March, be sure they are the rosy-starling and chestnut-tailed starlings. The rose-coloured starlings are winter visitors here - migrants which breed in Afghanistan.

Chestnut tailed starling

Tickell's blue flycatcher

When I told some of my naturalist friends that I had spotted green pigeons – yellow-footed and Pompadour - they were amazed as they are rare. We are extremely fortunate to have the green pigeon varieties here. They are to be found only in ecological hotspots like Pilerne Industrial Estate, Goa University campus or Raj Bhavan premises. It is a rare sighting and truly indicates that INS Mandovi figures among Goa’s last pockets of pristine plateau habitats.

Black redstart

More have come in cameos and left their imprint behind, such as the very rare Black Redstart! I was fortunate to see one individual behind the Naval War College building. This bird is a migrant from trans-Himalaya/ Ladakh, so I gather. 

In INS Mandovi, I have seen many ‘lifers’. This is a birder’s terminology for ‘first sighting of the season’ or a ‘person’s first sighting of any bird species’. These are:

  •  waterhen, that of the water-bodies.
  • Blythe’s Blaza (brown lizard hawk).
  • grey-headed bulbul
  • white-browed bulbul
  • sparrow hawk

In fact, almost every day I see new species. I have counted 70 species of birds on the Periphery alone and am still at it! All this reinforces that Mandovi’s habitat health is in fine fettle.

White-throated kingfisher

Purple sunbird

SPECIES diversity

Not only is this place blessed with birds and butterflies, but it also represents a wide diversity of insect and reptile species. Fungoid frogs are a ubiquitous presence in the kitchens and bathrooms. Periodically, snakes – venomous and non-venomous, make a surprise appearance in the house, too. In my year-long stay here, I have come across a saw-scaled viper, spectacled cobra, striped keelback and green vine snake, among other serpents.

On my walk by the Dhobi Ghat one evening, I came across a very unusual stick insect the size of a human index finger. Its body was couched in what looked like a tiny bundle of twigs. At first, I thought a small insect was trapped into something, but on close observation, I could see that the twigs were a kind of exoskeleton equivalent of a tortoise shell!

The species diversity of Mandovi Hill is mind-boggling. My documentation hasn’t even begun to touch upon trees, shrubs and grasses! Documenting flora and fauna is a humongous task and calls for observation over at least one-year season-cycle to understand the real nature of biodiversity.


BARREN is Beautiful

Only for three months, the campus looks green. The rest of the time dry grass takes over and the charm of the cooling soothing green gets behind Mandovi. But, barren is beautiful. Observe closely and you’ll find that barren is also productive; it is fertile. If barren was not beautiful, the African savannas wouldn’t have been the biggest draw on Earth. At first impression, the African savannasMaasai Mara – looks like a desert, fallow land. But the beauty of it emerges when you see it pulsating with wildlife.

As months pass and the vegetation dries further, the tangled overgrowth may look messy, but when grasses, plants and shrubs wither and die they get back to the soil and nurture it. The leaf litter helps create humus which sustains viable roots that will sprout again with renewed vigour in the next season.


Author’s Note: This documentation is culled and adapted from the script of a presentation the author made to the Mandovi fraternity on February 8, 2013 at Tarang Auditorium. It is born out of labour of love… out of a year’s “walking in the woods” of INS Mandovi. The sightings of wildflowers, birds, butterflies and other reptiles documented here (all the author's work) have been logged from the limited geographical area of approximately 10 km-stretch of the Periphery Path, alone.

Backyard biodiversity is our natural heritage and, if it be rich like it is in INS Mandovi, then it is a veritable museum of who’s who of flora and fauna! Therefore, it is important to document it and preserve it, for posterity.

“Mandovi Hill Periphery Path” is fit to be a “Biodiversity Hotspot, Birding Site and a Butterfly Park” in its own right.

All Photographs in this blog and website are the Author's Original work/Copyright.