One morning in early September, I jump awake with a start. I’ve heard an unusual and unmistakable bird call. My heart pounding, I race to the balcony to confirm what I instantly know – the Grey Wagtails are back in town! A feeling of intense happiness washes over me to see 4 of them chasing each other, tail a-wagging, frolicking in the puddles from last night’s downpour. Grey Wagtails are among the earliest winter visitors that we see down south, travelling all the way from the Himalaya. School programmes in Tamil Nadu have encouraged children to record and celebrate their arrival by distributing sweets in the town, making this nondescript but widespread grey-and-yellow bird a symbol of the magic of migration, and all that makes watching birds such a rewarding pastime.
One of the attractions of birding is the fact that birds are everywhere, and a birder can indulge her hobby practically anywhere on earth. Of course, the rare species are usually in remote areas, far from crowded cities, and to get to them birders undertake expensive and difficult trips, braving leeches, mosquitos and inclement weather. However, as a beginner, the best place to start birding is in your own neighbourhood – a park or playground that you frequent, or, if you are lucky, from the comfort of your own home.
Well, there was a time when I was mostly oblivious to the presence of birds around me, a ‘normal’ person, some would say. The journey from that state of oblivion to one where I am acutely aware of every stray bird sound in my neighbourhood (no less than a ‘superpower’ in my books) has been a most enjoyable one indeed.
Though I had a passing familiarity with birds in my childhood, I was well and truly bitten by the birding bug much later, thanks to my 7th floor balcony which overlooked a large abandoned factory overgrown with trees and shrubs. This little oasis in the middle of a busy residential neighbourhood in Bangalore turned out to be a magnet for a variety of birds that I slowly became aware of. I signed up on a citizen science project to keep a track of the Greenish Warbler, a tiny migratory bird that visits the Indian subcontinent every winter from Europe and Central Asia, and happened to be in my backyard. The discipline of spending 15 minutes every morning, watching birds from my balcony, got me acquainted with my avian neighbours. I started noticing not just the Greenish Warbler but other unusual birds that were showing up in the winters – an Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Black-naped Oriole, Chestnut-tailed Starlings and once a Verditer Flycatcher! It was a veritable treat for the budding birder and photographer, and I soon put together a small video with the photographs I took from my home.
However, all good things come to an end, especially in a fast-developing city like Bangalore. The trees were cut down, the land sold to a builder, and it broke my heart to contemplate that the birds which had been coming back to this area year after year would now return to find their wintering habitat destroyed. While the buildings came up rapidly in place of the trees, I took comfort in a small patch that was still undisturbed, including a large eucalyptus inside my own compound – a small island of green amidst the concrete, with an African Tulip, several Neem and Gulmohur trees, and a clump of bamboo. In the summer, the cheerful “pleased-to-meet-you” of the Red-whiskered Bulbuls mingled with the insistent staccato “kutroo-kutroo” of the White-cheeked Barbets and the raucous manic screeching of Rose-ringed Parakeets hurtling across the horizon at dawn and dusk. In the winter, the Ashy Drongos continued to visit year after year, noisily staking their claims on the neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, the highrise project ran into legal trouble, and the abandoned luxury apartments came to be occupied not just by feral pigeons, but also a most unusual winter visitor – a Blue Rock Thrush that has come visiting every year for the last 6 years. For a few days one winter, he would turn up every morning at 11 AM on my balcony railing and sing!
Over time, I noticed a change in my attitude to birdwatching. Instead of chasing rarities, I learnt to rejoice in the everyday observation of common birds, trying to decipher their predictable and sometimes inexplicable behaviours. The Pale-billed Flowerpecker probing a bud on the Eucalyptus tree inspired a small poem and made its way to the Storyweaver platform for children. During the lockdown, like many others around the world, I kept my sanity by watching birds from my home, watching mynas fighting and observing the nesting attempts of a Black Kite pair that had built a nest right above a large beehive.
This summer I decided to put up a bird bath in my balcony. It was a no-frills affair – just a shallow plastic plate placed strategically near the Eucalyptus tree and near a row of potted plants – but it immediately found favour with the bulbuls, and soon after, the Cinereous Tits. After several months, the white-eyes finally gathered up enough courage to check out the bird bath. A bird bath is such a great way to watch the everyday behaviours and discover the unique character of common species up close, providing an endless source of enjoyment and wonder.
Eucalyptus trees are of course looked down upon as exotics, and widespread plantations of these species are the scourge of the rural Bangalore landscape, draining the water table and supporting little by way of biodiversity. Though it has a bad reputation, I’ve grown to love my Eucalyptus as a constant companion. I once observed Scaly-breasted Munias breaking and carrying off Eucalyptus leaves, presumably for nest building. Entire branches were laid bare of leaves by these determined little birds!
During late October to mid November, the Eucalyptus flowers profusely, attracting flowerpeckers and sunbirds, but also various types of bees and insects. This in turn attracts a most unusual array of insectivorous birds – migratory Verditer and Indian Paradise Flycatchers, a stray Black-headed Cuckooshrike and Rufous Treepie, and for the last three years a male Blue-capped Rock Thrush has been making his way to this patch. The first week of November is a much-anticipated time of the year when I’d rather be home than anywhere else in the world!
Recent studies have shown that biological diversity around one’s home evokes happiness and increases life satisfaction. I wholeheartedly agree, sitting on my balcony sipping my evening tea while Dusky Crag-Martins swoop and dive overhead in an everyday display of acrobatic finesse. I can hear the sing-song tune of the white-eyes in the neighbourhood. Perhaps they will come for a dip in my little pool. All is right in my world as I recollect Tagore’s poem about beauty in the backyard (translation below, courtesy of this page) –
I travelled miles, for many a year,
I spent a lot in lands afar,
I’ve gone to see the mountains, the oceans I’ve been to view.
But I haven’t seen with these eyes
Just two steps from my home lies
On a sheaf of paddy grain, a glistening drop of dew.