Birding in the time of Covid-19

Peeyush Sekhsaria | Updated on March 28, 2020

Going easy: The brown-headed barbet seems a bit simple minded   -  PEEYUSH SEKHSARIA

What does a nature lover in quarantine do? Watch birds and, if possible, some monkeys and a wasp

The game was on. A birder friend initiated an event — “Covid: Home Birding Challenge” — urging enthusiasts to do some birdwatching, strictly from home, and then share their findings. That seemed like the perfect natural quarantine activity to me.

I am lucky to have terrace where a graceful champak tree greets me every day. A handsome shisham overlooks the terrace, lined with water-filled terracotta pots that attract a steady stream of birds. So, over the weekend, I sat down to work with my computer, notepad, phone, binoculars, camera and a bird book.

I could see a brown-headed barbet pair, quite the modern couple, share nesting duties. The female had just laid her egg, and one of the two was almost always inside the hole that they had chipped out (and which a pair of rose-ringed parakeets had —unsuccessfully — tried to capture some months earlier). Rose-ringed parakeets get their name from the ring seen around the neck of the male.

The entertainers of this terrace were the jungle babblers, also known as ‘satbhai’ because of their resemblance to a group of chattering boys. Their rabble-rousing ‘babble babble’ changes pitch, depending on perceived threats and annoyance levels. They hopped over and around the pots, picking up and scattering leaves with gay abandon, and pouncing on little insects. They also feasted on salted groundnuts, leftovers from a monkey’s raid of a shop downstairs. I had earlier noticed mama monkey feasting on groundnuts from a torn packet, while its baby sat on the champak tree, bullying the birds.

The packet came in use the next morning, too. A common myna strutted around a bit in the morning sun, and then flew off with the shiny packet, possibly to add some gloss to its humble nest. Later that day, another myna, or perhaps the same one, arrived with a feather. It dipped the feather — to clean or soften it — in the water. Then, after what I thought was some unnecessary calling, it fluffed itself, showed off a bit, picked up the feather and flew off to its nest site.

Its cousin, the brahminy starling — the name comes from its beautiful black mane, said to resemble a Brahmin’s tuft of hair — was also in nesting mode. A pair, one carrying some leaves, was hanging around the barbets’ nest. The barbets, I suspect, are rather simple-minded and had no clue of the starlings’ machinations. Sure enough, the moment the barbets were out, the starlings barged in, trying to push the leaves into the nest. It reminded me of how we would block a seat in state transport buses by throwing in our handkerchiefs from the windows, stymieing the grand efforts of those who had jumped into a moving bus with the sole aim of finding a decent seat. Luckily for the barbets, the starlings did not make much headway with their nest-jacking mission, and soon flew off.

Other birds were in nesting fervour too. The smart, punk-like red-whiskered bulbul was scurrying away with morsels of food in its beak to feed its ever-demanding young ones. The champak was its stopover, and I managed to get a shot of the bird with a praying mantis in its beak.

Perched up: The red-whiskered bulbul with a praying mantis in its beak   -  PEEYUSH SEKHSARIA


While the regular blue rock pigeons are around all the time, the yellow-footed green pigeons were quite a sight. They hung around awkwardly in the shisham tree, feeding on the seed pods and collecting thin twigs. Their delicate cooing, a bit like a gentle whistle, heard in the early morning and late afternoons, was undoubtedly one of the most melodious calls you could hear.

Speaking of calls, how could one miss the magpie robin? The male, with its jet black and white plumage and smart posture, occupied its favourite perch, an exposed stub of the shisham, so that the world could see him — and then belted out a series of melodies. Not for nothing is it called king of garden birds.

Then, late in the afternoon, I spotted the beautiful Oriental white-eye, which gets its name from the white ring around its eye. It drank some water and flew off. Another old favourite came visiting. I saw a little flitter in the shisham and wondered if it was a flycatcher. Indeed, it was — a red-breasted flycatcher. As late-afternoon approached, in true flycatcher style it flitted away. The bird was back the next day. I tried to photograph it when it was about to take a sip of water. Disturbed, the bird flew off. I pulled myself up: This was not quite atithi devo bhava behaviour — upholding the maxim that the guest is god. From now on, I will allow it to drink its water undisturbed.

Merging with green: The rose-ringed parakeet gets its name from the ring around the neck of the male   -  PEEYUSH SEKHSARIA


In the two days of my quarantine birding list, I had spotted 21 species. Among these, I must confess, was one bird whose identity is still to be confirmed and another I only heard. To that list I should perhaps also add a wasp that seems to have taken residence close to the terrace door and came up for a dip in the water, a young squirrel that has grown up on the shisham, and the baby monkey and its mother.

Covid quarantine birding — add a monkey or two — was quite a boon.

Peeyush Sekhsaria is an amateur birdwatcher

Published on March 27, 2020

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