Old favourites and a new acquaintance

I’d gone to Bhandup pumping station last week in the hopes of seeing an Eurasian wryneck for the first time after a couple of years. I heard the pair, but didn’t see them. The find of the day was instead the Malabar starling (Sturnia blythii, aka Blyth’s starling). A flock of glossy birds surveying their surroundings from a high perch were a lifer. The light was wonderful and I could see all the defining details: the yellow bill with a bluish-ash base, the white head with contrasting chestnut belly, and the grey and black wings and tail. This bird is resident in India, and was split off from the migrant species called the chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabaricus) with which it was confused even at the beginning of the century. As I took the photos you see above and in the gallery, I realized that I’d been hearing their chitter for a while.

Most of the other birds I saw that day were old acquaintances. We arrived before sunrise, and the early part of the day was not very good for photos. So I missed shots of a common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) which spent some time on a branch in front of my eyes. My photos of an eastern marsh harrier (Circus spilonotus) trying to snatch prey in midair have digital noise and are beyond rescue. Some of the others you can see in the gallery above. I should really start keeping my bird lists, but I can’t bring myself to admit that I’m slowly turning into a twitcher.

Two shrikes

Three shrikes and you’re out. No birder will tell you this, but it’s true. I’ve never seen more than three kinds of shrike in a morning of bird watching. Last week’s outing to Bhandup Pumping Station was no exception. I heard a beautiful birdsong, one that was not familiar from the past six months of patient study, and found that it came from this long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach, aka rufous-backed shrike).

I’d only heard the shrill harsh call of this bird, so common across India. That shriek gives the group its name. But this was a song. Quite different, and more enchanting. Why was it singing when the mating season was past? It was answered by other calls. So perhaps this was a territorial call. I recalled a paper I saw a month ago which said that bird calls had become more complex in the quiet of the anthropause. One of the results was a decrease in aggression among city birds, because the more complex songs seem to better convey meaning about territory.

A little later I walked down a side path where three boys went racing past me with bikes (and unmasked, perhaps because they were outside the gaze of parents). In the quiet after they left I looked around and spotted a great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor lahtora). This was renamed two years ago, and some would recognize it by its older designation of southern gray shrike (Lanius meridionalis). The photo shows it in a characteristic high perch. The perch seems to be an important aspect of its territorial behaviour.

These were all the shrikes I saw that day. I never even reached the upper limit of three.

Birds in the city

A city as crowded as Mumbai has barely enough space for people. When houses are needed, swamps and mangroves are easily filled in. When parking space is in short supply, green spaces will be even harder to come by. It is natural that human institutions, when unchecked, will satisfy human needs above all. As a result, birds are pushed to the periphery of the city. These are the spaces that no one likes to go to.

If you are not going out of the city on a weekend, you might join other enthusiasts for a boat ride in the backwaters of Mumbai. The city has turned its back to these waters long ago. They are shallow tidal creeks which are not of much use to ships and trade, and the hunger for apartment blocks has not grown so acute that they need to be filled in. The refuse of the city washes in here: plastic and other garbage, chemical pollutants. The sea breeze does not disperse the smog, so the backwaters are perpetually hazy. In spite of this, life finds a toe hold. I drifted through these parts of Mumbai yesterday with The Family and friends and came back with photos which show that birds still survive just outside human spaces.