A musical garden

You don’t need to look up from your work to know that there are purple sunbirds (Cinnyris asiaticus) around you. Their sound fills a garden. The Family spent a while trying to look for them, but it was useless. The males are small, dark, and have a handsome song. The females are drab and brown, but easier to photograph. Waiting pays off. After a day I saw two of them screaming songs at each other from the open. The dark plumage makes them one of the hardest of birds to take a good photo of, but I think the silhouettes you see here are reasonably interesting.

I’ve written about them before, and given you their songs, so I won’t do that again. I will just leave you to imagine the sunlit patch of garden, surrounded by tall trees, where these birds flit from branch to branch. Through the trees you can see the distant Kalsubai hills, and below that the enormous lake behind the Bhandardara dam. A restful place to work from.

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.

A purple sunbird

You don’t go into a national park to look for a Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus). But if you find one sipping nectar from flowers right by the road, you do stop to take a photo. This may be a common bird, but it looks beautiful, and is more than a little mysterious. Does it migrate locally? A Purple sunbird banded in Bharatpur is said to have been recovered in Dehra Dun. Mysterious or beautiful, this one was a minor star. I counted more than a dozen birders with long lenses clustered together taking a photo of this heedless individual. It fluttered from one bunch of flowers to another, perching delicately each time before dipping its curved beak into the flowers to sip at the nectar.

It was February when we saw this individual in Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park. There are major differences in colouration between the male and the female, breeding and non-breeding males, and eclipse and breeding plumage in adult males. This was a adult male whose plumage was readying itself for a breeding season which would start in a couple of months. Surprising genetic information comes from the Purple Sunbird. An ancient version of the Hepatitis B virus was found to have inserted itself into its genome, and that of many other species of birds. A comparison of these genetic fossils and modern Hepatitis B viruses show that it switched from birds to mammals about 10 million years ago. Even this common bird teaches us about the incredible history of life on earth.