Magpie Robin-A Tribute
This tiny bird can stir up a storm in my heart
It writes my life
In clear black and white–
All the while
Perching on a tiny branch!
The afternoon of the 16th February 2011 was just like most other late winter afternoons in Pondicherry—there were many birds scampering and feeding in and around the densely forested area of the University Campus. There were Common Myna, Black Drongo, Sunbirds, Red-Vented Bulbul, Iora, Brainferever bird, Paradise Flycatcher, White-browed Bulbul, and Golden Oriole—all hunting about when the Red-Winged Crested Cuckoo landed. There was a slight breeze from the east. My excitement was overflowing. At first I had thought this was a rather plump Paradise Flycatcher female, but then closer inspection showed the clear white shoulder patch and black crest. Identity confirmed— Clamator coromandus! It was the Red Winged Crested Cuckoo visiting the campus and perhaps taking off immediately. Strangely enough I spotted the very same specimen the next day at almost the same time on the same whereabouts. But that was all. The bird’s brief visit had ended as suddenly as it began. Now after the great cataclysmic cyclone Thane’s visit it was as if the year had just turned about. Winter afternoons would not be the same again for the avid birdwatcher in these parts.
I have been keeping close watch over the local migrations of birds in this campus for over the last decade. Most migrants arrive exactly around the tenth of October and leave as mysteriously as ever around the 10th of March. Of course during this brief span of time the green campus becomes a little more hospitable in terms of the weather. All kinds of feathered bipeds make this small green patch their homes for a brief while—some like the Orange headed Thrush make a silent stop over enroute to their wintering home in the Andaman Isles.
I am not sure whether this Red Winged Crested Cuckoo has been recorded in this part of the country by other ornithologists. I know there are a few specimens in the Madras Museum.
As a matter of fact, an year ago, on 16th February 2011 afternoon at around 4.30 p.m. this bird landed on a broad leaved tree near my residence in the Pondicherry University Campus. It was a slightly pleasant afternoon and the sunlight was trickling through the not-so sparsely wooded campus. The bird appeared a little bit shaky but not too frightened and intimidated by the photographer. After a quick glance around and waving its crest the bird flapped into the neighbouring wooded area adjacent to Auroville campus. One whole year has rolled by and it is February once again.
The Pondicherry University campus is coterminous with the boundaries of Auroville—(a significant place on all tourist maps of the country on account of the idealist bio-centric international community living together inspired by Sri Aurobindo’s vision of harmony)– and the land, soil and vegetation certainly is not much different. There are not much variety in terms of trees and bushes. Cassia, Acacia and Cashew Nut trees along with variety of palms comprise the major flora. An occasional Neem or a Tamarind would add spice to the air. Many new species are also being planted and cared for. But then for the most the campus is dry and does not harbor many fruiting or flowering tree, except of course for the ubiquitous cashew—and when in season it is rife with birdlife. Coppersmith Barbets and the other kinds of frugivorous birds usually live off the nuts and berries. Tamarind, Mango and Lime are also not too hard to come by. Insects and reptiles abound. And so do a variety of amphibians. An occasional visit from a Peafowl from beyond the walls of the University Campus would add a tinge of colour to the red sand dunes. And to any willingly receptive ears the shrill crescendo of this region’s most common Francolin Partridge the Francolinus pondicherianus would be virtually unforgettable. Early dawns and late evenings appear to be the favourite times for these dumpy ground dwelling birds to break forth into their frenzied shrieks.
The heartline of the campus is of course the deep gorge or the Ravine that runs toward the sea on the east coast. A walk down or even along these red slopes in the early dawn or late evening is bound to yield interesting results for the avid bird watcher. Resident owls and nightjars have been reported by enthusiastic students. During the rains this ravine empties the excess water down to the sea and all along the dry summer days the ravine affords some sort of cool shade and respite for the ground dwellers, lizards, scorpions, snakes and chameleons as well. Many a time we have been fortunate to have had brief visits from the serpentine communities and sometimes from a solitary Iguana. Mongoose also live alongside Hare and Jackal. A decade ago late evenings would have been punctuated by the howls of jackals—they have become spare and rare indeed over the years. New constructions and ever expanding demands of natural space for human development have taken care of their dwindling populations no doubt. But then this is inevitable indeed.
For the most the sprawling eight-hundred acre campus is a quiet haven for a large number of bird species among those insects. And overhead at almost any time of the day depending on the season one can find large flocks of estuary and coastal birds, egrets, and herons slow winging toward the marshes and salt water ranges on the east coast road. The crackling racket of Roseringed Parakeets is a fairly common greeting for the naturalist who steps into the campus during the day. So is the tonk-tonking of the Coppersmith Barbet.
But then all this has changed after the Thane Cyclone’s disastrous visit. The landscape has changed and certainly for the migrating bird groups the local map has been altered and earth lies a little shadier brown and crumbled. The super fast flight of the Green Pigeon groups has also been altered considerably. I had photographed orange breasted green pigeons on tall tree tops during the last two years and they have been fairly predictable in their movements in and out of this region. This year a large flock arrived albeit a bit late. They are also visibly a bit shaky. The general turn out of songbirds and flycatchers have been for the most getting a bit less predictable while the ubiquitous cry of the Brain-fever bird rises in crescendo every morn and evening. I have almost forgotten when I last heard the Indian cuckoo’s pi..ppi…ppiyu…
The fateful Cyclone Thane blew over this region on the 29th of December. Around midnight the storm became violent and the wind blew with rising ferocity. Many trees were uprooted and the roads became virtually unrecognizable from the surrounding debris. While we watched helplessly many a huge tree crashed and their branches flayed about in the wind. Lots of White-Browed Bulbuls and Magpie Robins fell victims to the demonic cyclonic fury. After the rains the next day by about evening we came across many a wet bundle of feathers. Poor things, their world had been altered beyond recognition. Birds are such helpless victims when it comes to natural disasters; however, their recovery is indeed remarkable. The very next day when the skies cleared the song of the Indian Koel rang out cheerfully, the Brainfever kept company. Indian Robins became their perky selves once again. And the Orioles flew at breakneck speed across newly felled clearings. The Black Drongo and the Myna hung around the workmen who came to hack away the debris—there was a flurry of insect activity. Everything was coming back to life and the birds knew their landscape had been altered. The fluttering butterflies and the vociferous cicadas day in and out keep up the hope for a brighter tomorrow. For after all, in nature nothing ever goes to waste; everything is recycled—including the fallen feathers.
These are among some of the birds most commonly met with by anyone who has been fortunate enough to have fairly good eyesight and equally good hearing.
Over the years I have been fortunate enough to capture some good and some not so good images of these amazing forms of life. When I reflect on these images I am transported to those moments of ecstasy and intense happiness that I shared with them. Birds no doubt form the most endearing and colourful forms of life that we humans are fortunate to share our living spaces with. Dr Salim Ali the doyen of Indian ornithologists has recorded that there is perhaps no place on the globe that has not been darkened by the shadow of a bird—this goes to prove the extreme adaptability of this life form. Almost anywhere in the world one is sure to come across bird life—provided of course one keeps one’s eyes and ears open!
When I reflect on the years of bird watching that I have gone through the most exciting thing that comes to my mind is sharing notes with the legendary Salim Ali. It was in the late seventies that I had the good fortune to meet this great man. We were instrumental in setting up what was then known as the Kerala Natural History Society—KNHS for short—and our president was none other than the pioneer of Kerala’s bird studies, Dr K K Neelakantan. I was then an undergraduate student under him involved in trekking and natural history alongside my literary studies. As part of the natural history work I organized a wild life exhibition and I was awarded a prize for my involvement. The prize was none other than a copy of the famed Book of Indian Birds. I had also the good fortune to be introduced to Dr Salim Ali who was then engaged in field work in the Western Ghats. He was delighted in signing the book for me! This priceless possession is now adorning my book shelf. And every time I take it down I am whisked back to those days! How decades ago I was walking down the Ponmudi hills with Dr Salim Ali with his dangling his field glasses, listing the hill birds. The high pitched rackets of Grackle and Racket tailed drongo even now float down the byways of my imagination. The sounds and songs of birds no doubt serve to make our otherwise dreary life meaningful and joyous.
Ask anyone to name a singing bird and you will be fairly surprised by the quizzical looks that might appear on their surprised faces—well, they might murmur, how about the Koel? That’s a singing bird, right? Some who are blessed with wild imagination and with a bit of general knowledge trivia might come out with astounding names like the Nightingale, or the Skylark! True, they are all birds that sing—but the most commonly available sweet-singing thrush of our own lawns and backyards as yet remains seldom noticed or recognised! Most people would have some rehashed knowledge of birds through their brush with romantic poetry—either in English or in their own native tongues. Hence their idea of the Cuckoo! But then come March, and this sprite black and white bird bursts into such sweet melody perched on the top of some tree or bush and will keep on for months together till it raises its chicks. The Magpie Robin certainly has a special place in every bird-watcher’s heart; there is little doubt about it. You can meet with this bird usually in the mornings or evenings almost anywhere in our campus. Its favourite nesting spots are on dead trees or among electric-wiring boxes!
Orioles are certainly among the most beautiful birds anywhere in the world. They catch our attention as they dazzle their way through the sunlight. Many a time you would see only a flash of golden yellow. These are Golden Orioles. They are more or less residents in our campus. The Black Naped Oriole is conspicuously absent in these parts. And so is the Black Headed. After the rains you can usually hear the fluting cry of the orioles among the trees. They are not very shy birds and one can easily watch their flying antics.
This bird is quite common in our campus and its sprightly gait and variety of calls is bound to attract the attention of even the most uncaring student in the campus! One could see them hitch hiking on cattle many a time, helping the cattle get rid of marauding insects. They are omnivorous birds and the young ones as a rule appear to have a ravenous appetite. The poor parents are kept on their toes diving for insects and feeding the little ones. Many a lamp post in and around the campus is the nesting place for these sleek black and brown birds. Their yellow eye patch gives them a dignity no doubt. Perhaps they are postgraduates here and elsewhere!
The one I have here was being attacked by an oriole!
Small Green Bee-eater
Bee eaters are definitely eye catching. They swoop down on their prey in flight and deftly gathering it up return to the very same perch. The common one in our campus is the Small Green. I have also come across the Blue Bearded Bee eater perched on high tension wire near the building sites.
The small blue nests in holes in the ground. And you might be surprised to come across their nest in such obvious places that you wonder how the birds survive from their natural predators. But that they do is a sign of their success. They plan their breeding season in early summer when there is a plenitude of insect life. And the little ones are quite deft and spritely as they flirt around lamp posts and telephone lines.
Dr Salim Ali, the doyen of Indian ornithology, lists so many varieties of mynas in the Indian subcontinent—they are almost fairly commonly distributed too. Apart from the common myna, there is the Jungle Myna, Blyth’s Myna, Grey Headed Myna, Pied Myna, Grackle or Hill Myna, and Brahminy Myna. In our sprawling campus you could easily come across the Brahminy—so called on account of its white tuft no doubt. They are usually found in pairs. The best time to spot them is immediately after the rains.
The hoopoe is certainly a majestic bird with its outstanding crest and royal gait. Its hooping call most often echoes round the campus and floats down the corridors and through the open windows. Your first sight of the bird would be surely on the ground as it walks by kingly in its grace. It would take off flapping its barred wings at your approach. Insects are its food and you can meet with them singly or in pairs, almost anywhere in the campus.
White Browed Bulbul
There are many birds that one usually hears but seldom sees. This is one such bird. The bubbling calls echo and reecho among the bushes morning and evening, and the birds dash about usually in pairs. The white brow is distinct, provided you have enough patience to wait for the bird to show itself. Other than this brow the bird is drab and not at all noticeable. It usually merges with the dry foliage.
Red Whiskered Bulbul
As the name implies this bird sports red whiskers and is adorned with a black crest. Most often you might mistake its crest for its beak and the bird appears to have two heads—so a Janus-faced bird! It is not uncommon in our campus and you are bound to come across fairly large hunting parties in and amidst bushes, crackling away. They are usually early risers and quite active throughout the day. These bulbuls— so named on account of the musical instrument of that name—are among the lovable birds which keep our campus alive.
Red vented Bulbul
It would be good for the beginner to keep some standard sizes of birds in mind for further reference when you come across newer birds. Sparrow, Bulbul or Myna are usual reference sizes. Red vented bulbul is usually found alongside mixed hunting parties of red whiskered and white browed. As the name implies it is identifiable on account of the red patch below its tail. The head dress is something that resembles a crew-cut! It nests on small patchy bowls of twigs and dry leaves amidst bushes.
This beautiful resident bird in the campus is a famed singer—but seldom do people see it! Obviously the usual pair loves to hide amidst the thick leafy braches and tease the searcher! Anyone who takes a stroll down the green part of the campus is certain to hear unusual whistles and chirpings from among the foliage. If one were to take the pains to wait it out patiently one is sure to spot the couple darting between the branches. The male is yellow and black and the female dullish green. One is left wondering how such a small dumpy bird could hold with in itself such lovely repertoire of notes and songs! The life of the campus would be drained if these lovely birds were to desert us! A couple of years ago I was taking an overseas professor for a morning walk round the campus and hearing an Iora pair among the trees we both stood amazed and silent – so religiously like in a church or a temple!
One evening in mid-February I was most excited on sighting a whole family of Green Pigeons right across a small clearing beside my quarters. They were perched high up on a cassia tree eating the berries on the lantana or some sort of parasitical growth on the trees, and the late evening glow of the sky was reflected in the bosom of the male. I am not quite sure whether these Orange breasted Green Pigeons were just visiting the campus for a breather in the midst of a long distance flight or even local migrants. Either way the campus is a bustle of bird life between October and March. However, as each year passes the numbers of our feathered friends are certainly dropping. Massive tree-clearings, no doubt, here and elsewhere are regularly destroying their green cover. Just imagine what a dreary place our earth would be without these beautiful creatures!
Birds against the blue skies
One morning in November last year I was gazing up into the deep blue sky when I spotted these long distance fliers. Their flight formation is amazing. Just as a taut bow, they were a gaggle of Geese. Large groups of ducks and geese assemble during winter alongside pelicans, storks, herons and egrets in the water bodies in and around Chennai—the best time to watch them is between October and late March. Ducks and geese like flamingoes are among the high flying birds—ducks have been reported flying as high in the air as even five miles! I have some good shots of Glossy Ibises as well.
White Throated Ground Thrush
A long time ago while bird watching in the western ghats I had many an occasion to come across this short stumpy ground thrush—and I recall making a even a presentation for my naturalist friends including images of this beautiful bird that I had sketched in my notebooks of those days. But then imagine my surprise when I came across this bird here in our campus one morning sitting and meditating all alone among the leaves! The short stretch of tree cover amidst the bamboos near to the Centre for Pollution control was the haunt of this silent one. I have never heard its whistling songs here in Pondicherry.
When one starts writing about birds there is no end to what one could put in. Birds are such delightful creatures that once you have started noticing them you will find yourself drawn to their world, their calls, their songs, their movements and their habitats more often. The study of birds has developed so much these days that from being a mere amateur birdwatcher one could progress to a full-fledged ornithologist in no time provided one takes the pains for it. However, as an aesthete and a committed bird photographer I have discovered another dimension to the whole thing: waiting for the right moment for the right kind of light and aperture, I have found, is a process of silent meditation. It bestows you with a patience and quiet –a calm that passeth all understanding!