A couple of warmer days cleared the haze a little. I can now see a smudge above the trees which is the horizon. With the relatively mild amount of pollution the sunrises and sunsets are glorious. I sipped my second cup of tea and looked at the enchanting yellow morning light on the mango tree. The tree is still in bloom, but if you look at the inflorescence carefully, you can already see the green spheres which are the new fruit. A year has rolled around. Last year this time everyone was busy not paying attention to dark clouds. This year everyone is looking at that little bright patch in the clouds, the vaccine, and telling each other that the storm is over.
But one can still make the best of the day. The Family breezed in and announced excitedly “Grey hornbills.” As I searched for my spectacles, she impatiently handed me my camera, knowing that it would be the next thing I would look for. There they were, on a gulmohar tree far away. Indian grey hornbill (Ocycoros birostris). Two of them. Probably juveniles, judging by the orange coloured bare skin around the eyes, and the incompletely developed horn above the bill, the casque. So the nesting pair which had lost its usual nesting hole when last year’s storm blew down the tree did manage to find another tree in the garden.
This pair afforded us a good view of what hornbills do when they are not building nests or looking for food. One sat and preened its chest feathers, the other scratched behind its ears with one claw. They looked content. I watched for a while, clicked off a couple of dozen action photos of birds doing self-care, and wandered off. Half an hour later, when I came back, they had gone. I guess the young eventually leave the vicinity, find a mate and a nesting site, and settle down to produce brood year after year. Our garden has had a single breeding pair for year. The young do not seem to come back here to nest. Perhaps that is for the best. Since they can survive in trees that humans grow in gardens and cities, they will keep finding new nesting spots. At least one of this group of magnificent large birds has thrived in an urbanized world.
I love Satyajit Ray’s movie Charulata for its pacing, slow and deliberate, changing with the seasons. It was a translation of a story called Broken Nest by Tagore. I see the hornbill couple in the trees around my apartment now and realize that this metaphor can have a real and devastating meaning. Indian grey hornbills mate for life, and the pair that I see now have been coming back to the same tree after every monsoon to nest and raise two or three chicks. This year, the fierce monsoon storm five weeks ago blew down their nesting tree. They spent days scouting and seem to have found a nesting spot.
Hornbills nest in hollows of trees. The female seals herself into the hollow with pellets of mud and her own droppings, leaving a slit through which the male feeds her. She moults as she incubates her eggs, and the two processes end at around the same time. In the last few years I had a good view of the fledgelings learning to fly. I’ll miss that view in the morning now. I guess I’ll have to spend some time this year figuring out where the nest was, but it doesn’t seem to be someplace which I can see so easily.
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.
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.
Yesterday I heard the call of the hornbill again. In the last few years a pair has nested in one of the tall trees in the garden. The nesting season is before March, and the birds are gone by April. The featured photo was taken in early March this year. Mid-October seemed a little too early for these birds to nest.
I was discussing this with The Family when she floored me with a bit of nature lore. Apparently hornbills prey on small birds, and have been spotted raiding the chicks of rose-ringed parakeets. Our garden is full of flocks of these raucous bright green pests. The parakeets nest from September to December. So this is a time when the first chicks have hatched. Maybe these Hornbills were here early to hunt. If so, we should thank them for keeping the population of the parakeet pests in check.