Coppersmith barbets, red-whiskered bulbul, golden oriole, pond herons, forest wagtail... spotting thebirds was a thrilling experience for birders at a recent bird race organised by the Madras Naturalists’ Society
So, what do you need to be a bird watcher? A cap, extra large field glasses, comfortable walking shoes and a lot of patience. Bird watchers are morning people and you can sometimes find them outside your home, pointing to a multi-coloured blur that flits across the sky in the early hours of the morning.
But for a night owl like me, who has never seen the right side of dawn, being up at 4.30 a.m. like a morning lark was a new ‘experience'. So, packing curd rice in my lunchbox, I rush to participate in the Bird Race, recently conducted by the Madras Naturalists' Society (MNS), in association with HSBC.
We meet our teammates at the gates of IIT-Madras before the deafening booms of Saarang drown the chirping of birds. We are effectively camouflaged (always wear earthy shades while bird-watching), and Gayathree Krishna from MNS lauds our efforts. It is almost 6 a.m., time for the race to start. We drive along to meet another team and set out together into IIT's marshes.
For the first half hour, veteran birders (every team must have a captain who is a good birder) recognise ten or more birds just through their calls. “That jarring call is the treepie and the sweeter sounding ones are the sunbirds,” says Susy Varughese, who teaches at IIT and heads Prakriti, IIT's wildlife club. Far into the trail, ducking under thorny bushes and kicking stones aside, we reach the thickest of IIT's canopies, where the mist follows the marshy green water in swirls and fish pop out at intervals to celebrate the sun.
Slowly, we begin spotting birds such as coppersmith barbets nesting on tall branches, red-whiskered bulbul, golden oriole, purple moorhens, pond herons, citrine wagtail, blue-tailed bee-eater, forest wagtail, a paradise flycatcher (male in morph plumage), Indian moorhen, the little blue kingfisher, pied kingfisher and a pair of spotted owlets, and come up with 40-odd species by the end of a three-and-a-half-hour walk. By now, an odd grumbling noise emanates from our stomachs and we decide to get back for breakfast through an open area strewn areca leaf plates and past the Amman temple. Curd rice never tasted so good with tomato pickle!
We leave by 10.30 a.m. to the Guindy National Park (GNP) where we end up walking the longest through the official section of the park that goes in winding circles. The path is mostly mud and as the sun begins to heat up the trail, the birds are off for their afternoon siesta.
Just as we're wondering how long the birds sleep, we're close to the blackbuck area. Binoculars out, we silently watch families of graceful blackbuck antelopes grazing in the shrub jungle directly behind Raj Bhavan. Walking further, we pass a thick bamboo cluster where we spot black kite and paradise flycatcher. We eventually get lost and walk in different directions until the only human being we've seen in hours puts us on the right track.
We walk out of the park around 1.45 p.m., exhausted and pondering over the evening session that was to start at 4 p.m.
Theosophical Society is picturesque against a sky that is gradually turning darker. We walk along coconut groves, pass a Buddha temple and reach one end of the Adyar Estuary where we spot a greenshank and grey headed lapwings. It's already 5 p.m., and we are determined to spot a few water birds. I see movement on a tree. “A bird!” I yell, making everyone turn. “It's a crow,” comes the reply. “A jungle crow,” I'm told. We pass by a pair of rose-ringed parakeets, on a v-shaped branch and then spot black-winged stilts, lapwings, pond herons, egrets and a tiny sandpiper perched on a floating log. We had walked through one end of the estuary to the beginning of a broken bridge, just when the sky was turning a florescent orange at Besant Nagar beach. We count 64 birds, nowhere near the winning number, and part ways, a little upset that the common house sparrow isn't that common after all.