In my relatively short time as a bird enthusiast, I have come across two types of bird lovers – The first kind, ones who love to own birds in their drawing rooms and balconies – Munias (Finches), Budgerigars, Macaws, Parakeets, Mynas etc. The second kind of bird lover are the ones who risk personal health and venture out to watch birds in their natural habitats in biting cold, searing heat, pouring rain and just sometimes in areas where there are floating warnings in the air of a man-eating Leopard on the prowl.
I realized it the hard way at a very early age that birds are not meant to be caged. My father brought home a few Rose-ringed Parakeets, one after the other, when I was young, probably noticing my growing enthusiasm regarding any being other than humans. Parakeets in cages can survive for years but the ones we kept as pets were especially depressed with their new homes of wiry meshes. They died within months of arriving, if not less.
I am sure everyone is aware of the popular classification of people into the following categories, Dog persons and Cat persons. These are our most loved pets but on the flip-side they are hated to a great degree as well, especially cats. Dogs are mostly feared. I can say this with utmost confidence that it is really difficult to hate birds or to fear them. Yes, I can understand the fear when walking under a tree whose lower branches are used by crows as launch pads to direct their slimy white jelly like shit on heads of people passing underneath with pin-point accuracy. That can be negotiated with few quick steps accompanied by silent prayers.
Birds are everywhere, except for the tops of the highest of mountains, deep inside the driest of deserts, shopping malls and movie theatres. I once saw a Common Myna inside the domestic terminal at Kolkata Airport while boarding a flight for Hyderabad. House sparrows have conveniently used ventilator shafts of houses as nest-boxes for years. The birdbath lying at the corner of the terrace of our home in Kolkata is used by crows, sparrows, mynas, bulbuls, drongos, koels, pigeons, doves, babblers, tailorbirds and sunbirds. My neighbours residing in the house opposite mine hardly lay foot on their terrace. A Coppersmith Barbet has been using an age old, dry bamboo pole used to hang clothes as its nest for at least the last two years.
When I came back to Kolkata from Raichur (North Karnataka)in September 2014, quitting my corporate job to look for a new way of living, birding was high up on my list of things to pursue in life. Raichur had woven special birding memories for me and Kolkata offered different and exciting propositions as well. In the first few weeks it was evident that the Rufous Treepie was a bird that I had not found in Raichur but present in relatively good numbers even inside dense human colonies like my locality in Santoshpur, South Kolkata. The Pied Starling was another, but they are as common as the Common Myna and within a few weeks my interest in finding them in their daily routines faded.
To begin with, it was an awkward feeling to be walking in crowds with my head held high, searching for movement on top of buildings, trees and overhead wires. Oriental Magpie Robins on wires are a frequent site and if the male or the female can be seen, there is a great possibility that the other one is not far away. During evenings, many a Jungle Babbler gangs of 5 to 10 individuals can be seen on rampaging ventures over tops of buildings, calling away harshly as if to tell everyone to better stay indoors if they wanted to see another day.
A good-hearted friend of my father once tried to sympathise with him regarding my poor mental health condition that leads to staring at treetops for minutes at a stretch with curled eyebrows. It was well handled by my father who knew that the medical term for the condition was “Acute Birding Syndrome”and that it was quite harmless for the brain.On the contrary it has quite a calming effect on the mind. I was passed mentally fit.
The winter of 2014-15 revealed the migrants that visit our locality. White Wagtails and Citrine Wagtails arrived and settled in and around the canal that runs south to north and lies towards the east of our house. They were often seen floating away on thermocol plates and other sluggishly floating islands of human waste on the pitch-dark, thick waters of the canal. Two Common Kingfishers who called different parts of this canal home had lost their brilliant blue plumages for a dull green one due to their frequent fishing dips in these toxic waters. A Taiga Flycatcher resided by the canal for the entire winter and the initial days of spring along with a number of Brown Shrikes who exited the Bengal Plains for their much northern summer homes later still.
Ribhu, my friend from before the time of my earliest memories, started birding immediately after I did in November 2013. We had taken several birding trips in South and West India before we could finally go out in our home turf in Kolkata a year later. He suffered from severe Dengue and had come back home from Hyderabad to recover. As soon as he was fit enough to take the field we ventured out together on the same streets that we walked or cycled around as young boys. The major realization we had was how blind we were a few years back to all the extravagant show of colours and flight patterns going on around us.
On the eastern side of the canal, on a road that stretches west to east up to the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, we found a small flock of Scaly-breasted Munias on an empty plot of land with tall grasses growing naturally on them. This road used to be one of our favourite hangout places back in the school days as it was relatively quieter than the adjacent areas. Much before that I remember seeing vultures feeding on the carcass of a cow while on an evening ride on the back of my father’s motorcycle through a landscape of entirely grasses. The area has seen continuous development since and huge residential towers and shopping complexes now adorn the place. It is not surprising that I searched for the Munia in vain on a number of occasions after Ribhu left town.
Ananda has been my primary buddy when it comes to birding the neighbourhood apart froma bunch of other adventures. On one fine morning in March 2015 as we were headed towards Santoshpur Stadium as part of our irregular cardiovascular routine before our first real Himalayan trek, we found the Asian Paradise Flycatcher by the canal. One of the more exotic species found in the sub-continent, I was clueless that they existed in the neighbourhood.
A Paradise Flycatcher find is always followed by an excited chaos. As we were about to cross the narrow concrete bridge to the other side of the canal, the long-tailed rufous wonder crossed in the same direction and perched on a short plant for a few seconds. Kaustav Da, a friend of ours, also on his early morning regime was crossing the bridge in the opposite direction. He also spotted the unmistakeable bird as we wanted to point it out to him. Amidst all of this it flew away out of sight and never to be seen again since.
Crossing the narrow concrete bridge and going further east, one lands up in an exceptionally green residential area maintained by the Geological Survey of India. Survey Park stretches for a substantial area and ends at the EM Bypass. It has plenty of water bodies lined by giant trees who have survived and now stand witness to a lot of local history. These trees provide overnight lodging to colonies of cormorants, pond herons, cattle egrets to name a few. Woodpeckers, Barbets, Kingfishers, Doves, Green Pigeons, Orioles and Parakeets are found aplenty.
“Neel Pukur” or the “Blue Lake” is the biggest of the waterbodies with a perimeter of about half a kilometre. Further east of Neel Pukur lies another small lake which we simply refer to as “The lake near Tatai Da’s house”. In spring this area turns red, yellow and purple with blooming flowers. Yellow footed Green Pigeons who usually stay in flocks of 12-15 split up in pairs and dedicate much needed time to courtship and love making. Coppersmith and Blue-throated Barbets dig holes on tree trunks or use houses made in the years gone by to raise their young.
On one spring morning in 2015, while birding around the periphery of the lake near Tatai da’s house I found a Lesser Flameback Woodpecker drumming hard against the trunk of a dead, leafless tree. There is no doubt that it was searching for living food underneath the bark, but try telling that to the Blue-throated Barbet who nested there. The landlord heard the knocks of the uninvited visitor on the door, came out of its nest in a hole and sent the pecker packing. After a few months I remember finding a pair of Rose-ringed Parakeets using the same hole as their nesting location.
A colony of crows who near about own the perimeter of this smaller lake came to identify with my near-permanent nose-up posture as the eternal search for their eggs. They would gang up on me in huge numbers and come to rest only after chasing me off to Neel Pukur, a good 200 metres away.I finally had to give up birding in the vicinity of these guardians of hell.
To the north of Neel Pukur, on the other side of the Santoshpur main road and beside the Santoshpur stadium, lies yet another long and narrow strip of water. By this lake a kind-hearted butcher feeds the guardians of hell with the pancreas of goats he has sacrificed early in the morning. The crows know him well and in excited contemplation of the free handouts they follow after him from ‘a good 200 metres away’, perhaps.
It was the summer of 2015 and I had heard the Stork-billed Kingfishers actively calling out to potential partners in and around all these water bodies. My sister, brother in law and I decided to take out my nephew, who was less than a year old on his first birding trip around the neighbourhood. We heard a Kingfisher calling from a distance while strolling beside the same lake where the crows enjoy goat pancreas each morning. I whistled back the tune and it replied. It is funny how Asian Koels, Stork-billed Kingfishers and Common Hawk Cuckoos can’t distinguish between a human whistle and their own kinds call. After a few exchanges of loud “Tiuu Tiuuu”s the kingfisher arrived from the other side of the lake and perched on a coconut tree a few metres away from us. If I had hawk vision, I am sure I could have made out little heart signs at the places at which its eyes were supposed to be. I decided to stop calling out to it as I could never fulfil its burning desires. If I had a Barn Owls ears, I am sure I would have heard this large Kingfishers little heart cracking up as it called away without reply for another minute or so.
Papai came to town from Bangalore in June that year in preparation for his journey to Australia for a degree in Sports Management. He has a knack of finding things shrouded by oblivion. He had often demonstrated this skill when we were children by finding out cricket balls hit for a six or out of the playing area for a dismissal, when everyone else were busy getting their hands dirty digging the wrong places. It was not surprising that he also took up birding after Ribhu and I had started.
In early July, Papai, Ananda and I were out for one last birding venture before Papaiwent on his voyage across the Indian Ocean. It is funny how special birds are kept in store for special occasions like these as inside the Santoshpur Stadium area we found an unfamiliar Cuckoo. It sat motionless underneath a small tree and I can’t be sure who saw it first but chances are that it was Papai again with his magical eyesight. I made a mental note of the patterns of the underside of its tail. Immediately after coming back home a quick referral of the field guide suggested that it was an Indian Cuckoo, a summer migrant in our parts. As I write my journal a year later I am optimistic thatthere are a few IndianCuckoos out there in the neighbourhood, sitting motionless in trees and doing their best to stay well hidden from human eyes.
A look up towards the sky during dusk from our terrace reveals tiny palm swifts in their relentless flights. Black Kites can be seen chasing the swifts around and presumably for flexing their muscles in order to get in shape for their bouts with crows in the markets for the juicier rejects of chicken and fish. They often chase each other and play-fights in flight amongst themselves are not rare. Shikras are hawks that still rely on hunting unlike the kites who have turned scavengers to the extent that they rely almost entirely on human population to survive. The pigeon sized Shikras often perch on the numerous coconut trees that are there in the vicinity of our house. At dusk almost the entire bird population can be seen flying in different directions in flocks or on their own, bound towards their homes after a tired days work at the office. However, the Barn Owl just gets up from bed at dusk and so do the night herons.
Santoshpur Lake had natural banks a long time ago but years of maintenance and development has turned it into a garden of sorts with fountains on both ends of the long and narrow strip of water. Evening walkers sweat it out along its perimeter and the less energetic lot opt to sit on the concrete steps of the ghats. The major entertainment on the ghats is the humongous number of fishes who come out in numbers for the offerings of bread and puffed rice from the people. Two night herons wait patiently till 9 pm, the time when the gates to the lake area closes and the fountains stop displaying.
After the gates close these herons come down from their perches on one of the trees that line the lake. Their favourite hunting patch is in and around the tubes that hold the fountain on the west end of the lake in its place. The obese fishes must be no matches for these skilled hunters. Some light on that matter is thrown by the lamps that light the lake and under which the herons shine bright in good health.
The champion of the neighbourhood is the Black Drongo. Primarily diurnal, they have taken to hunting insects attracted by the streetlamps at night. It is to be understood that the suicidal insects who jumped in fire during the uncivilised human past faced a major crisis with the arrival of electric lamps that were kinder than fire. The Drongo has taken the responsibility upon itself to transport these insects to the doorstep of death.Drongos can be seen harassing kites and even crows. They go after smaller birds with an intent to kill as I had once witnessed first-hand. On that occasion, the female sparrow narrowly escaped with dear life as it freed itself from the attacker’s talons. Drongos are the coolest bird in the presence of that being who claim to be the champion of the world, us humans.
It was a human need that led to the stripping off of almost all the natural vegetation on the western bank of the canal to be replaced by benches and gardens of hybrid plants that do not belong there. On inquiry I had found out that the ‘beautification’ was being carried out by a real estate agent to sell apartments on that side.Another lake by the “Chanchal Sarani” which used to be one of our favourite skittling grounds back during school and college days now lies in dump, almost entirely filled with human waste.
It is the harsh reality of the city design that soon this body of water must also give way for new land and new apartments to accommodate the growing population. However, the optimist would say that the birds would still find ways to adapt to the ever changing neighbourhood.