Winter birding

Winter is naturally the best time for birding, with all fliers deserting the colder regions and flocking closer to the equator. You not only get the wintering birds, as they put on holiday weight, but you also get the nesting local birds. I missed this season this year, because I was not quick enough in the dip between waves of the pandemic to make the January and February forays. So I’ll spend a day of nostalgia about one of the best winter birding destinations in India: Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. Whether you just want to try out birding or are a serious birder, or like me, are somewhere in between, don’t miss this. The wetland (photo above) has something for everyone.

Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) took off through the air, shedding drops of water as they flew, while I stood by the marsh with my camera. The afternoon’s air was hazy with moisture, and a shower later would freshen it up. These are the world’s largest pelicans, with an average body mass only slightly less than that of condors from the Andes, and their wingspans are twice a man’s height. As the world’s climate warms, their habitat is spreading. Hopefully this might compensate somewhat for the enormous loss in habitat during the 20th century.

That photo of painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) flying overhead recalls my first attempt at birding. The Family had always wanted to start birding, and in the last year of the previous century we took a trip to Bharatpur. Just inside the gate, on a side path next to a marsh, we stopped and looked at a stork flying overhead. “Painted storks,” a voice told us. It belonged to one of the naturalist guides who gave us a gentle introduction to birding, although we hadn’t hired his services for the day. We tried to look him up on our second visit, but twenty years after he must have changed as much as the three musketeers.

We were in the company of one of India’s most well known popularizers of the art of bird watching, luckily. As we watched these unfledged chicks of the painted stork, he pointed out the dead bird stuck to the bottom of the nest; an egret. Painted storks eat frogs and snakes. Could this smaller bird have been a meal for the chicks? Some of the locals have taken on the combination job of a rickshaw driver and bird guide. The ones we talked to hadn’t noticed. The park is large, and hard to walk through. You can hire bicycles at the gate, or the services of one of these local guides. They are good at their work, and, unless you are already a competent birder, worth taking along.

Later Adesh spotted an Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo). I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between that and the Indian Eagle-Owl (B. bengalensis) in the field; I need to look at photos and compare them closely with field guides. But the call and the generally larger size and lighter colour of B. bubo are sufficient for an expert to tell the difference. Nearby there was a nest, and after a wait we saw two chicks looking out from it. It was really hard to get a shot through the intervening branches and twigs. I guess the owls did not want to nest in a clearly visible spot.

Bharatpur is wonderfully located. You can easily drive to Fatehpur Sikri, and, if you are interested, to the National Chambal Sanctuary. Apart from the gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) which are the main species under protection here, you can also see Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis), also known as scissor-bills for their remarkable crossed beaks. Since I’ve written about them before, I’ll end this post with a shot of rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) braking to a halt in their flights near a nest inside the supporting pillar of the bridge on the river Chambal.

Our journey so far

On December 31, 2019, WHO declared that an emerging new disease had been reported by China. The Family and I were on a trip, and like most others across the world, did not pay much attention to this news. Within a few days, the news from China began to take up more of the news cycle. The disease acquired the name COVID-19, and the virus that caused it was gene sequenced in China, found to be new, and dubbed SARS-CoV-2. I had a full year of business trips and vacations planned, and knew that I had to keep an eye on this. (New words: COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2)

It was hard to see the big picture in early 2020

On 30 January, 2020, WHO declared that the disease was a pandemic. On the same day, a traveler returning to India was found to have the new disease. This was the first reported case of the disease in India. Wuhan and its surroundings had been locked down for days. I’d already talked to my colleagues in Wuhan, and they told me of their tedium. It was hard to imagine spending weeks inside the four walls of a flat, energetic children cooped up in the same space, looking out at deserted streets. Little did we know that the world was to follow suit. (New word: pandemic)

The world was beginning to close in

In February we made a small trip to see the winter’s birds (the featured photo of the black-shouldered kite, Elanus caeruleus, comes from that trip). The news was beginning to get dire. Countries were locking down flights. Italy was badly affected; on a call with her sister in Milan, The Family heard sirens from racing ambulances in the background. I was on conference calls with colleagues across the world trying to decide whether to move schedules for meetings. A divide was perceptible: people from Europe, the USA, and Australia were sure that this would pass in a couple of weeks, and no long term measures were necessary. People from East Asia were convinced that it would take longer to normalize. Indians and South Africans on these calls were not sure, but tended to be cautious. (New phrase: contact tracing)

Everyone was captive in their own houses

When the first large cluster of infections was detected in Punjab, it had been brought in by a traveler returning from Europe. Soon a clutch of cases brought by tourists began to spread in Rajasthan. The Family and I shared a laugh with our extended families about the passing phase of reverse racism on the streets: any white tourist was given a wide berth, and there were mutterings about why they should stay home for now. I began to teach myself epidemiology just in time to understand the advise that was soon being offered on safety. But then, the government of India decided to shut everything down very suddenly. (New word: lockdown)

Wild oscillations between euphoria at remaining healthy and tedium at being locked down

The resulting human tragedy of unemployment and displacement was enormous. For a while we, like the rest of the middle class, remained hopeful, because the skies cleared up due to the lack of new pollution. Then the monsoon storms reminded us that planet was still warming from older pollution. And the new obsession with cleaning meant that more plastic and detergents were being pumped into the earth. In the beginning we cleaned obsessively. The Family brought her professional expertise to the matter and found safe ways to disinfect food: soak fresh food in brine for half an hour. Sealed packages could be dunked in soap water and then washed. Brine and soap water could be reused, since they do not allow the growth of bacteria and viruses, so buckets full of them could be reused, saving on water usage. (New word: social distancing)

A grey and colorless world

Locked down at home, we realized how important our internet connectivity was. New services for video conferencing were quickly adopted. Our meetings went online, and suddenly that part of our work had been revolutionized. We forced the pace of moving work on-line. The Family and I decided early on that we had to fight back at the black depression that threatened us. We decided to keep a strict routine, and eat only healthy food. We shared household chores, and cooking, learnt new time-saving techniques, and set aside time for watching movies and TV, and meeting friends and family through video conferencing. (New word: Zoom)

It is hard to see the big picture even now

Now, one year on, Mumbai is opening up. Today, on 1 February, 2021, the local trains are starting up again. What did we learn? What did we change? First, that when you are afraid of a respiratory disease, mask yourself. This would be enough to slow down the disease. Quick deaths, although in the millions now, turned out to be not the most likely bad outcome of the infection. People have reported recurring breathing difficulties, heart disease, extreme fatigue. These symptoms pass in a few weeks, or months, for most people, but others have continuing problems: the COVID long-haulers. With all this knowledge, the second lesson is internal, one that most people I speak to seem to have learnt. It comes out in little ways: your life is important, its quality is important, family and health are important, socializing is important, being chained to a machine is secondary. We do not yet know how things will evolve. Vaccines are available, but it will be a decade before most people get it. In the meanwhile new variants of the virus are appearing, cases of reinfection are being discovered. Perhaps the disease will be a thing of the past in another three to five years. Or perhaps we will learn to live with a deadly disease, as earlier generations had learnt to live with small pox. New ways of working, new politics, new power groups have already begun to emerge, and they will be part of the new normal. (New phrase: new normal)

For all of us this has been a journey into ourselves, finding what we are capable of, learning new skills. Like most people, we spent more time cooking than before. I tried to learn how to identify the birds around me by their calls. I kept a record of the days through my photos (the ones above are my photographic journey through the year) and through occasional blog posts.

Bon weekend: a way through the maze

It is a good week that ends in a happy decision. After lots of discussion, through many calls-to-attention and dissents, and much going back to basics and consulting lawyers, we could take a decision that a dozen of us could each be happy with. We will have to go back to full functioning, because we can’t wait for five years to reopen. But we can’t force people to act against their fears, or to utilize city services which are working at less than capacity. So, for the moment, we decided to open fully, but with minimal staff, so no one has to share an office. People who do not come in to work on a given day will be working a normal day and week out of home. Almost every person will still be coming in to work at least once in two weeks, but older people and people who have morbidities which make them more susceptible to COVID-19 will be able to work entirely out of home.

I think this was a foregone conclusion. There is no alternative to leading our lives, but we will have to feel our way through new dangers, and adapt to take that into account. We have learnt a huge amount about this disease in the last months, and we can bring that new understanding into play, as best as now-strained finances can. As we start to work, perhaps we can bootstrap ourselves into a better situation in all respects. I am happy that we can curb the madness of meetings and video calls at all hours of the day and night and every day of the week. I love my work, and can do it constantly, but when I am doing a lot more chores and repairs around the house (because help that would be available at other times isn’t), I need to take predictable times off. I hope our co-workers agree with the decisions we took for them, but I think we have enough flexibility delegated through the organization to take care of most reasonable caveats.

Now I have time to enjoy my tea in the morning as I look at what is nesting or hiding in the banyan tree outside; a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) this morning. Or to wonder when the municipality will be back to work trucking away the neatly stacked remnants of the trees that fell down in the storm a month ago.

African tulips

Spothadea campanulata! What a mouthful. The alternative to that is the long name African tulip tree, or the more mellifluous rudra palash. I can see two of them from my balcony, each tree about 12 meters high, as close as I can estimate. They have been in flower all the months that I’ve been shut in, and now the flowers are denser than ever. I saw some little insects buzzing around the flowers, and tried to look at them more closely with my camera (see below). They are too small to resolve, but I got a larger visitor in the background of one of my photos (see above).

These exotics (apparently originally from the cloud forests of central Africa) grow easily in India. I’m fascinated by the flowers, and I’m happy that our gardener decided to plant them outside our balcony. I’ve not heard of them escaping and forming ecological threats. In fact, in some parts of the world they seem to serve as hosts to most native species of butterflies and moths, even though they are exotic.That seems to be true of India as well. But, as I looked for more information, it turned out that in some of the islands of the south Pacific, such as Tahiti, they are considered to be dangerous pests. There are many studies of the conditions under which they spread, and how to stop them. Perhaps it is the higher temperatures in India which keeps them from spreading.

Birds of a feather

I neglected my fitness regime to lean out of a window at sunset and enjoy the golden light. At this time of the day the skies are dominated by two combative gangs: the parakeets and the crows. Fifteen parakeets sat on one tree, or is it sixteen? Sixteen crows were in another. When I saw them, I remembered reading something about how intelligence and complex social structures evolve together. I hadn’t read about birds and their cognitive abilities much, except for tidbits about how crows can recognize human faces, songbirds can learn from others, and that pigeons can follow roads. So I looked up what is known of the brains of birds and was surprised out of my neocortex. Apparently birds have incredibly complex brains, which are organized completely differently from ours. An article gave a nice analogy, mammalian brains are organized like a club sandwich, in layers, but birds’ brains are organized like a pepperoni pizza, with different bits sitting next to each other. Most surprising of all, apparently the language learning part of our brains is functionally similar to that of parrots and songbirds, who also learn from hearing each other.

But the biggest surprise of all was a paper published just a couple of months ago. It seems that someone has measured brain to body ratios in a large sample of birds, and from fossils of avian and non-avian dinosaurs. The complex brains of birds began evolving when their bodies they became smaller than those of their saurian ancestors, but their brains did not change in size. After that some have evolved larger brains by growing big in both body and brain sizes, but with more rapid growth in brains. Of these, it seems that parrots and crows have the largest brain to body ratios, and they are right in the same ballpark as us. We’ve all heard about the fabulous ability of parrots to memorize phrases and say them back to us. I didn’t know that they rank with the crows in their ability to recognize human faces, and tell them apart. It’s more than I can do with parakeets. There are even claims that they can recognize that their companions can reason just like them.

There is a crow which sits on my window as I sip my tea in the morning and read the newspaper. Sometimes I’ve caught it craning its neck as if it was trying to read the paper. Maybe it was!

One hundred days of parakeets

Between a post-travel quarantine and the lockdown, I’ve not left the gates of our housing complex for a hundred days today. Sitting at home, I think I’ve got more tuned to the natural world. I’ve noticed the seasons passing: vasant and grishma are over, and now we are in varsha (think of it as spring, hot season, and monsoon). On the 99th day I leaned out the window in the evening to catch the watery golden light of sunset filtering through monsoon clouds.

The air was full of the chattering and scolding of rose ringed parakeets. I looked at the canopy of trees just below me: such a variety of greens there. The parakeets seem to avoid the gul mohar tree for some reason. They would have been spectacular otherwise; imagine their green against the red of those flowers.

Why was this parakeet rubbing its beak along the bare branch it was sitting on? Was it cleaning its beak? I looked for other parakeets sitting down. There were many. Yes, and many of them seemed to be rubbing their beaks along bare branches, quite vigorously.

Could this be a search for food? Unlikely, I thought. There was enough other food available for them to be wasting the last minutes of daylight looking for insects under the bark of trees. It turns out that their beaks grow all through life, and have to be rubbed down constantly to prevent them from becoming too large. I hadn’t noticed this behaviour before,

I had to go and pare down my ever-growing stomach. But before that I tried to take a few photos of the birds launching off from their perches. It turned out not to be so easy. They seem to have planned out a route through branches and leaves before letting go of the perch: they twist and turn very fast, before coming to horizontal flight. The light was fading, and I’ll leave this exercise for the next hundred days.

How do you drink water

Waiting at a rooftop restaurant for an alu paratha is a good reason to watch parrots trying to drink water at a fountain. Most of the birds perch at the end of the bowl below the fountain and drink from it. This one looked puzzled. How do you get at the water. Do you pick at it?

That wasn’t very successful. So it flew up to the top of the fountain and sat on the jet. Squirt? Hmm, not very efficient. Perch on it and bend to drink? Might as well join the band below if I do this. Hop up and down? Not very filling. Ah! Hover over the jet and drink from it! This one was a true Rube Goldberg of rose-ringed parakeets.

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.

The call of the Hornbill

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.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.