Not such a common babbler

The common babbler (Argya caudata, formerly Turdoides caudata) is a bird which I find hard to recognize by sight. When they are in their usual noisy foraging group, I can tell them from their voice (the recording linked below was made by Peter Boesman) and behaviour. Among the babblers they have perhaps the longest tails, and they are smaller and slimmer than the other babbler species. Certainly, their call is sweeter than the querulous grating calls of the other babblers.

At the end of a day’s bording outside Jamnagar, as we drove along a country lane, we spotted a lone bird on a meswak tree. We stopped the car. All four of us had puzzled looks on our faces. What could it be? Eventually, The Family asked tentatively, “Is it a common babbler?” We sheepishly agreed, thanking our luck that the more experienced people in the group were not close enough to have seen this piece of rank amateurism.

We’d seen a lone common babbler earlier in the day and paused to recall how to identify it: small, long tailed, overall dusty colour, streaked head and back, and a very distinctive white patch below the throat. But when confronted with a small brown bird, we were like absolute novices. The torturer there could have let out a song to help us, couldn’t it?

Eating during a pandemic

One of the nice things about the pandemic is how we have been thrown back to basics. Our food consists of whatever is available at that time. The Family has newly discovered a knack for cooking, and the two of us have finally found that we can work together in the kitchen. So one day, when she found a large packet of liver at the back of the freezer, I cleaned it out and marinated it while she chopped up a quick salad. While the liver marinated, I took a bunch of spinach leaves off to the dining table to clean. Just as The Family has discovered a knack for cooking, I’ve found that I don’t mind the tedious jobs of cleaning leafy vegetables and shelling peas. So the spinach was ready by the time the salad and marination was done. We managed to use two burners simultaneously, she sauteing the spinach as I cooked a liver curry. It looked nice on the plate, and it tasted good.

Multigrain bread is not available in our neighbourhood, so we have to make do with toasted white bread. In any case, our target through this lock-down is to lose enough weight to get close to the lowest healthy BMI. Between eating moderately and working out daily, I think we may reach our target in a couple of months. And if the lockdown ends earlier? We may not have reached the target, but we’ll still be in a good healthy range. Lovely, the ways you can find to distract yourself.

Clear the air

It is time to say this. The epidemic and the enforced lockdown continues to show what a strange universe we had locked ourselves into. The walls we had built around our complicated social and economic world have collapsed and through these gaps we can see new possibilities. When we build up again, there will be a push to instantly return to what we had earlier, but it will be good for us to see how flimsy the supporting arguments were.

The air is so clear ten days after the beginning of the lockdown that from the rooftops of Jalandhar one can see the high Himalayas. We’d driven through this city almost two years ago, when we spent a week in the lower Himalayas. Passing through the traffic snarled up in the city I never realized that we were only 450 Km from Srinagar in Kashmir. This air can be kept clear. Change from oil to electric. Electric scooter technology is cheap and widely available. Just the will to change the tax structure to favour a new industry is lacking. Autos on the road are another major polluter, but changing their two-stroke engines to battery would be another step towards clean air. It can be done at a cost much smaller than the lockdown.

Dolphins on Marine Drive in Mumbai! Whales visiting the oil rig at Bombay High! These are not fake videos. We saw different dolphin videos taken by a lot of people, from a lot of different angles. So this we can be take as verified. Just one day of reduced noise pollution in the sea brought dolphins into Backbay. That’s not something I’ve seen written about even in the literature from a century ago. The incidental conversation in the whale video indicates that this is probably not fake. We will not be able to recover this perhaps, because the world’s supply chain moves through the seas. On the other hand, I know some extremely good engineers, and they should be able to put their minds to lowering the noise made by ships, if they can make a living doing it. After all, energy lost to noise is produced by burning fuel, so less noise is an incremental increase in efficiency. In any case, it is good to see how quickly nature can begin to reclaim the earth.

Peacocks dancing through the streets of Mumbai! Who would have thought! I didn’t even know there were peacocks left withing the city. That’s hope for the future. We do have small green lungs in the city. I hope videos such as this give people a reason to hope that planning for more patches of greenery will help preserve these wonders right here, next to our homes. I think a lot of small patches with trees will help.

Away from the big bad city, one has seen videos of elephants roaming through the streets of small towns. That may not be to everyone’s liking. There is a growing body of scientific thought that says that the increasing instances of new diseases, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, and COVID-19, is due to human activity encroaching on parts of the world which were the natural range of other species. It sounds reasonable, because the new diseases are not coming from the already-dead lands of Europe and the US. They are arising in parts of the world where there are ancient ecosystems newly destroyed. We have known for years that human-elephant conflict is due to us taking over their land. Now perhaps we are facing bigger threats as we take over new ecologies.

Enough of a Sunday sermon. Let me end with this wonderful video of a fawn of the spotted deer, Cheetal, galloping in the waves of the Bay of Bengal. The video is verified to come from Puri, that famous temple town and beach resort. What a wonderful sight! I cannot go out to see wildlife right now, but it is coming in to see us today.

The intense social life under lockdown

Our culture is changing so rapidly now. Some of it is bad: a constant worry, leading to a tendency to be prescriptive in our little lives and dictatorial in powerful circles. But others are wonderful. The Family and I are in much closer contact with our globally dispersed families.

Apart from calling more often, we have family meals together at least twice a week. We find ourselves having dinner as others join us on video with an evening’s tea, or an elaborate afternoon meal, or a mid-morning break for tea, or even brunch. Sometimes these are formal occasions, where everyone dresses up (except an occasional hilarious couple who have just woken up and appear looking disheveled). We chat about our daily lives (I’d never pickled onions before), while the children run around and come up now and then to monopolize the conversation for a bit (they have seldom had such large audiences). Sometimes two or three of us wander off for a private phone chat, and join the conversation later. It is all a bit like a messy family weekend that I remember from my childhood.

Is this the shape of our lives for a while? I will be happy. WHO recommends that we do physical distancing. That’s what it feels like: social togetherness and physical distancing.

Spotted, a dabbler

I like watching the Indian spot-billed duck (Anas poecilorhyncha), partly because you don’t have to strain your eyes to see it. It is a large duck, about the size of a mallard, and does not mind swimming in open waters. The yellow-tipped black bill has two orange spots near its base which give it its name. I don’t think I have ever noticed the subspecies which one finds in Myanmar and further east; it is supposed to lack exactly these same orange spots which give it is name. A spot-billed duck without spots!

These photos were taken at Lakhota lake, in the middle of Jamnagar. The wonderful morning light showed me the clear brown eyes of the duck. That’s a detail I don’t see so very often, although the bird can be seen dabbling away in small ponds and lakes all across India. Earlier in the morning, when there was a tiny haze over the water, I’d seen several of them preening. The photo above shows that characteristic flash of green, under a black wing edged in white, which lets you identify the spot-bill even if you can’t see its spots.

Before rapid genetics became easy, there was a confusion between the Indian spot-bill and a closely related species in China and to its east, now called the Eastern spot-bill. Eventually, observers in Hing Kong found that although both species can be seen together, they almost never cross breed. That observation led to the discovery that there are to species, something that molecular genetics now confirms. I love these painstaking field workers, and envy them. They get to spend their days in the sun, watching birds all day, with long breaks in the afternoon and night, perfectly in time for two large meals a day. It’s a wonderful life, in spite of the constant danger of being drained of blood by a friendly neighbourhood mosquito or leech. Some of my gurus in birding live such a life, earning some money by taking amateurs like us on birding trips. They have a bad time now, with the virus keeping them indoors. If the lockdown or even curtailed travel persists for long, say two months or two years, I wonder what happens to them, and a lot of others who are invested in hotels, restaurants, transport, wildlife guides, and so on.

It is sometimes said that spot-bills don’t mix with other ducks. That may be true in some small ponds at some time of the year. As the photo above shows, they have absolutely no trouble mixing with coots. The spot-bill is a dabbler, searching for food just below the surface, snagging minute crustaceans and vegetation in their bills when they upend. They don’t compete for food with divers or skimmers. In a large, reasonably deep body of water, many species always come together. The lockdown gives me an opportunity to go back in time, and arrange my photos. I think I’ll try to find some more photos of the spot-bill.

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan

There are times when I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else than the heart of Mumbai. I like to think that I stalk these familiar lanes all the time, renewing acquaintance with the little things that I love, and frowning disapproval of the new. But I just discovered that I’m wrong. I see two sets of street photos from Mumbai, the featured photo is one of the group which comes from a long walk the day after Diwali 2019, and the photo below from a walk in January this year.

Niece Mbili will finish her long course in architecture this year. When she visited in January I took her for a walk to see the parts of Mumbai she didn’t know. I like this view because you see three completely different styles of architecture standing cheek by jowl: the grandiose tower of the stock exchange looms behind a dilapidated Art Deco building from the 1930s, while a newly painted chawl, probably from the early 20th century, stands off to the left.

I led Niece Mbili to a few of Mumbai’s lesser known Art Deco buildings. The photo above is of the crumbling Lalcir Chambers on Tamarind Road. The beautiful Art Deco front door still remains. The wonderful lettering in the facade is another clear Art Deco feature. If you step back and ignore the inept repairs, the data and electrical cables stapled to the walls without any consideration of aesthetics, and obscure signboards, you can see the clean Art Deco lines emerge. Niece Mbili is an expert at this kind visualization. She was suitably stunned. She didn’t know that Mumbai has almost aa many Art Deco buildings as Miami. Now she plans to visit for a longer while. When she does I’ll plan a good walk.

My earlier walk had brought me to an unexpected sight: this artful wooden door. I was quite surprised by what looked like a street art duel: one artist painting a Picassoesque face, the other replying with Pacman. But equally interesting were the padlocks on the door. I was certain that I could tear the padlocks out of the wood, if I wanted, much more easily than picking the lock. The unthinking things that people do for their peace of mind!

But that day’s highlight was the guard sitting on the road, guarding a building which was under renovation. I like the totally relaxed attitude of the man, his chair blocking what would have been an extremely busy road on a working day, slippers off his feet, knowing that no one in their right mind would walk in through that doorway. Oh, and that doorway! It must have been all the rage in the 1880s to sculpt the most modern things into arches above doors. The locomotive is great: progress and trade, and what not. Some day I should post a photo of my favourite: a sculpted stone representation of a complicated theodolite.

Let me leave you with this song by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt, from the 1956 movie CID, with Jonny Lever and Minoo Mumtaz (I think) in this scene. For many of us, that is the anthem of the city: you can’t bear to live here, you can’t bear to leave.

Quiet mornings

With the physical distancing of people in full swing, it seems that we are all beginning to find new connections to the world around us. I get up in the morning and hear a wonderful natural concert put up by the birds around us. There are familiar calls, as well as new ones I’m learning to recognize. You make a lot of new friends when you give them some time. The sun comes over the nearby rooftops as I put away the drying and make a tea. The concert in raga Lalit gives way to the long Bhairavi of the morning as I sit down with my tea. This is the new soundtrack of my mornings.

Among the most distinctive voices in the earliest raga are Coppersmith Barbets (Psilopogon haemacephalus, recorded by Tushar Bhagwat). They hang around the garden all the year round. Their monotonous call is a constant background to every morning’s concert. Even in ordinary times I hear them more often than I see them.

Grey hornbill in Mumbai

A pair of Indian Grey Hornbills (Ocyceros birostris, recorded by Tushar Bhagwat) visit the garden every year to nest, and bring up a new brood. Their arrival is a sure sign of the end of winter. I took the photo here a couple of years ago, in October, some time before they left the garden.

The call of the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus, recorded by Paul Bourdin) is another sure sign of spring. The call of the koel has been part of the cultural landscape across India for centuries. There is even a 15th century poem by Uddanda Shastri about a koel who carries a message from a lost man to his lover, modelled after Kalidasa’s Meghdoot.


In the past I paid more attention to the spectacular colours of the Indian Golden Oriole (Oriolus kundoo, recordings by Frank Lambert and Peter Boesman) than to its call. Now, as I try to tease apart the content of the mornings’ symphony, I am beginning to recognize it by its voice. How does the same bird have such a harsh call, and a beautiful singing voice?

The Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis recorded by Conrad Pinto) is such a beautiful bird that I’ve spent a lot of time photographing them, and I know its call fairly well too. But disentangling its voice from the morning’s background score is still a little difficult for me.

The lively chirping of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus, recorded by Peter Boesman) starts later in the morning. I wonder whether they wake up late, or whether they are too busy foraging in the morning to vocalize much. Does anyone know? In any case, the sparrows’ chirps are a transitional point. After that the Lalit raga, the raga of dawn, dies down and there is a transition to the Bhairavi raga of the day.

This is the time of the Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri, recorded by Rajagopal Patil). These gaudily coloured and combative birds have free reign of the airspace around trees during the day, and fly about with their constant screeches. Portunately they are gregarious, and when they congregate on a far spot, other birds can still be heard in my neighbourhood.

I have a suspicion that there is a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus, recording by Peter Boesman) somewhere in the garden. In the middle of the morning I think I’ve heard the chirping of this bird. During normal days we wouldn’t be paying attention to birds at that time, so neither The Family nor I am sure whether we have seen one. After we can move freely, we will keep a watch for it.

The Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer, recording by Conrad Pinto) is a common bird, whose call I know from childhood. There are a few of them in the neighbourhood. I hear them intermittently during the day, and late in the afternoon, when I go for a walk, I pass a tree which seems to be a favourite hang out for a bunch of these loudmouths.

Perhaps the most annoying bird is the common myna (Acridotheres tristis, recorded by Peter Boesman). Their call is sweet enough, if heard from far. But one of them has decided that my shower is its day room. It sits on the window sill and lets off a full throated taan. This would also be wonderful, but due to some peculiarity, the space around the window acts as an amplifier which sends an incredibly loud version of the song through the aparment. I would give him a wonderful reference if he is seeking a position elsewhere; I really want to get rid of him.

There is little to be said for the Blue Rock Pigeon (Columba livia, recorded by Mike Nelson) except that it brings a certain gravitas to the daytime ragas. The cooing is often interrupted by the noisy beating of wings that you hear in the recording, as it takes flight from the slightest perceived danger.

No description of the sounds of an Indian city can be complete without including the House Crow (Corvus splendens, recorded by Peter Boesman), whose social behaviour, aggression, and intelligence are keys to their survival against much larger raptors. The typical raucous call that you hear in this recording is by far the most common vocalization of the crow. It has many others, including a throaty croak that sounds a little like it is trying to say nevermore while clearing its throat.

I suppose if I’m stuck at home for much longer I can produce a blog post with the birds that I hear less often. For now a dozen is enough.

Oliver asks for more

It was early afternoon, and the glaring sunlight was not the best suited for photography. That’s when I spotted a family group of red-naped ibis (Pseudibis papillosa). I like to take photos of these birds, because, in the right light, their glossy feathers and the red nape are wonderfully photogenic. This was not the right light, however. I watched one of the adults pecking at the ground all by itself, and then noticed what the other pair was doing. The juvenile was packing at the beak of the other adult. This was behaviour that asks to be fed; begging!

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The breeding season for these birds extends from March to October, depending on the part of the country one is in. So this young one was probably about a year old, Since it was able to walk around pretty well, I guess it must have been fledged recently, or was about to be fledged soon. It kept begging, but the adult refused to feed it. This drama went on for a long time, and was still on when we left. It looked like an avian version of Oliver Twist asking for more gruel!

The dance of the cranes

It was quite dark when we started climbing the observation tower in Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary. I could hear a lot of quarreling and squawking from behind the line of trees next to the road to the tower. As I climbed above the line of the trees a biting north wind hit me. The previous afternoon had been hot, and I’d neglected to bring my jacket with me. In an hour it would begin to warm up, but now, before dawn, the wind cut through my tee like knives. Still, there was this immense commotion which sounded like it was something to see. And it was.

As I reached the top of the tower I saw a very large flock of Sarus cranes (Antigone antigone) had gathered together. In the dim pre-dawn light the wet land seemed to be a charcoal drawing, all shades of grey. Sarus are the tallest of cranes, reaching up to a man’s chest or shoulders. And some of them were dancing. Early February is not breeding season, so this was not a courtship dance. I’ve never seen anything like this before, nor read about it. Was it aggression? Unlikely, since there was no food or sex involved. Was it exuberance? Perhaps, but one would have to eliminate many other reasons to establish that as a reason. I was happy to watch and take photos.

In a matter of minutes they began to take to the sky. Wave after wave of them passed overhead. There must have been an enormous number of birds roosting in this place. A lifetime ago, when cities were less crowded, you could see them in the middle of fields. Now they are excluded from many more places. The result is that IUCN now classifies them as vulnerable.

They passed north of the tower and headed over to their feeding grounds to the east. Now the sky was beginning to turn from gray to pink. I had been hoping that I could take a photo of them flying into the sunrise, but missed that by a minute or so. The sun came up just after they had vanished into the distance. Too bad. It would have been such a wonderfully cliched image!

The sun was yet to make a difference. If anything, the wind seemed to be stronger. I turned back to look at the wet lands to the west. With the cranes gone, and the sun above the horizon, the place looked different. Not worse, just different.

A personal loss to the epidemic

We never met Chef Floyd Cardoz, so we weren’t alerted by calls made to the people who met him just before he left Mumbai on March 7. If we had, we wouldn’t have been so very shocked by the news that he died of COVID-19 on March 25. For five years now we’ve made his restaurants a regular fixture on our calendar. His interpretation of Indian food is (was!) something we loved, like many others. The amazing Egg Kejriwal, the surprising Arbi Tuk, the playful deconstructed samosa, the seasonal fried fish, the superb Desi Taco, you name it, and we’ve tasted and loved it. Chefs Thomas Zacharias and Hussain Shahzad will continue to do the marvelous job that they are known for, but we will miss Floyd Cardoz.

He started learning at Les Roches in 1986, was at the Taj Mumbai and The Oberoi the next year, eventually becoming a Sous Chef at Raga, New York. It was as a Sous Chef in Lespinasse New York that he began introducing innovative Indian dishes on the menu. In 1997 he opened Tabla, and a decade later Paowala, both in New York. His ventures in Mumbai started five years ago.

Here is Cardoz on Indian food: “There were other cuisines we enjoyed when we went out to eat at restaurants—especially Mughlai, Chinese, and South Indian, or sometimes street fare of Chole Bhature. To most of us this was what we called Indian food. The food at home was never considered “Indian cuisine” as it was more Goan or Kashmiri, or Maharashtrian. The nicer restaurants predominantly served “restaurant food,” which was primarily Mughlai with a bit of tandoori or Punjabi food thrown in. Over the years the cuisine slowly evolved and Indian restaurants spread to other parts of the world, making the diners believe that this was Indian cuisine.

“When I started to cook, I had no interest in cooking the Indian food that restaurants had made popular.

A new take on sweets

“I love Indian cuisine, the variety it offers, the cooking techniques, and the use of flavor and texture. I want the world to enjoy and celebrate this multiplicity in food that India has to offer. However, the use of an all-encompassing term “Indian Cuisine” does this wide range a disservice. We don’t group French, German, Italian, and Spanish cuisine into a broad group of “European cuisine.” Calling our food “Indian Cuisine” does not cover the depth, or showcase the nuances of the wide variety. I want to champion this diversity and beauty of regional Indian food. There is so much to discover, so much to acknowledge.”

The sour mango cream with salt and chili in the dessert whose photo you see above is part of the wave he started.