Sunday, March 29, 2015


There are long stretches when I cannot go birding early in the morning, out on field trips. But that does not prevent me from watching the backyard banyan or snatching time to search pockets in my neighbourhood—whenever, wherever. It is like what the doctor orders: when you cannot spare time for a full-fledged workout, take the stairs or stretch in the confines of your office!

A word about my neighbourhood: I stay on a hill where the tapering topography gives me a clear and unhindered vista of the bay by the foothills. My block is also wonderfully ensconced in an isolated lane giving it a fantastical world-of-my-own feel. Precisely because of the vast expanse, it is not easy to spot birds from the perch of my balcao, particularly now in the post-Hudhud (cyclone that visited us last October) phase when the tree cover and the shrubbery has whittled down.

Three blocks sit in my lane and at the last the road curves in a U-turn; there is a children’s park nearby, a patch of neglected woods and overgrown scrub beyond the fence. The other day, saddled with excessive work, I had to forgo my customary evening walk and could step out for a quick stroll only at dusk. Just as I crossed the blocks and turned the corner, I saw a nightjar squatting in the middle of the road right under the noses of the noisy children at the park. I could barely make out its form in the fading light until it took off. It sallied and swooped down to the same spot again and again with a chuk-chuk call.

Nightjars are funny creatures… unlike most other bird species they will not turn tail at the slightest human presence. They stay put mid-road, sometimes at the peril of being crushed under wheels, and take you by surprise if you get too close unawares, before taking off.

I moved closer without unsettling this one and sat on the parapet watching its sorties, mesmerized. It was a magical moment stolen from a mundane existence. Few days later, I set out on the same trail around the same time hoping to see the Grey Nightjar (Caprimulgus indicus)or was it an Indian Nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus)once again.  Birds, you see, are creatures of habit and routine. Imagine my excitement at spotting not one but two nightjars. A few more rounds and I was rewarded by a huge apparition of a Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) atop a lamp post. Hoo-hooing softly, it peered down at me wide-eyed and for a moment our gaze locked. In that instant, it took wings, and ever so lightly, disappeared into the descending darkness. Birding like this without the encumbrances of binoculars, cameras, guidebooks etc. is ‘pure pleasure’. 

After sundown a new world was coming alive. Nocturnal birds were blinking sleep off their eyes, stretching their wings and embracing the dark. It made me wonder what orgies play out when we are safely tucked in and fast asleep in the dead of the night. Nightlife such as porcupines, foxes, civets, even leopards—who knowsmust be lording it over! An aside: In the savannas, tourists on safari have to be strictly inside the safe havens of the resort by 6 pm. Unless you go on a night safari, there is no way of knowing what happens in the pitch black yonder. But once in a while a streak of lightning lights up a zebra herd huddled in the open plains, or a hyena cackles close by or worse, a lion strays outside your room or a hippo by your tent! It is a sneak peek into an alternate world.

Female Blue Rock Thrush 
Some days back, in the morning the park had another visitor, literally and figuratively. Perched on the fence wall was a dull brown heavily streaked bird, a lifer for me. Going by its stance and general appearance, it seemed to me to be a female Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius). Its unmistakably blue counterpart was nowhere to be seen. This is a winter migrant from Europe and national bird of Malta, I learn. Also present was a pipit, not sure which sub-species (need to cross-check with my expert birder friends). Just a small patch of neighbourhood slightly off the beaten track had thrown up extraordinary and innumerable possibilities.

Similarly, the banyan in the backyard is a transit point for koels, treepies, orioles, besides being home to a pair of Spotted Owlets (Athene brama). From my bedroom window, unbeknown to them, I can pry into their ‘bedroom’ and watch them snuggle up to each other—grooming and kissing.

Who says you need an earmarked birding hotspot or dense woods to indulge in birdwatching! The smallest of space—a tree (banyan flush with figs, mango in bloom or silk cotton bursting with cotton pods), a playground, a modest water body, roadside wasteland, pockets of deadwood and debris (like that generated after the cyclone and still lying about), and of course, a house garden – all can be fertile birding sites, no less. In fact, more neglected the pocket the richer it is likely to be in birdlife.  

One of my most unusual birding experience was at the Tiger Hill (War Graves) Cemetery in Coonoor, Nilgiris in South India. The cemetery entrance was a charming, compact stone building with an arched doorway and lancet windows housing the graves of WWII soldiers. Weeping cypresses and firs towered over the dwarf facade and dry leaves littered the ground providing a haven for lower life. Nilgiri verditer flycatchers could be seen weaving in and out of the gravestones that also served as props for other avifauna. With not a soul around, the place seemed dead, and yet, with plenty of birds, so alive, that it was a surreal experience just to be standing there!




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