A birding expedition at Simpson Industrial Estate, Sembiam, teaches one valuable lessons about Nature

Where there is green, there are birds. The Simpson Estate at Sembiam is proof of this. The sprawling campus has over 22,000 trees, according to the estate manager P. Sivaramamurthy. There was a time when the estate had the privilege of hosting some 20,000 birds! Their numbers have dropped significantly, he adds. Nevertheless, I join a group of 17 boys from The Nature Trust for a bird-watching expedition at the Estate. Strapping trees, winding roads, the smell of the earth… we are intoxicated and greedy — for the sight of something as magnificent as the pitta. Will we get to see it? Simpson, however, has other plans — valuable lessons on bird-watching…

Lesson 1

Follow that birdcall

It’s the best thing to do if you have an untrained eye. Hear a birdcall? Train your eye in the direction. If you’re precise, you could spot the fellow without difficulty. At Simpson, we hear the babblers before we see them; we fall for the melodic ‘pi pe pi pe’ of the tailor bird before we fall for the actual bird; the magpie robin’s ‘kee kee’ attracts us more than its smooth black and white plumage. Then there are the birdcalls whose source I fail to trace. But I’m not complaining; the orchestra is fascinating enough.

Lesson 2

Stay close to the best birdwatcher in the group

You stand there, peering hard into the canopy for a sign of fluttering wings, and can’t see a thing. Do not worry. For, there’s always someone in the group who can sniff out a bird kilometres away. I stick to S. Hemanth Kumar. He is the first to spot the magpie robin, the first to show me the gorgeous lesser golden backed woodpecker. With him around, I’m sure I won’t miss anything. “What’s that bird?” I ask after a birdcall. “Female Asian koel,” he shoots back, without the slightest glance upwards!

Lesson 3

Be patient

Patience, they say, is the key to a successful bird-watching expedition. The shikra teaches me this. We halt a distance from a tree, peering at the bird that has its back turned towards us. And so we wait for the bird to swivel its head; hoping to see its eye colour that helps differentiate male from female. The shikra doesn’t turn. But it flies off a little later, giving us a quick view of its eyes. They are yellow — it’s a girl!

Lesson 4

No sudden movements

If only the parakeets hadn’t sensed our presence! At a turn in the path lined with neem trees, a group of about 10 rose-ringed parakeets feasts on the fruits fallen on the ground. It’s a beautiful sight — but we are not all that lucky. A movement in the group disturbs them and they fly away. Our parakeet moment is lost forever.

Lesson 5

Spare time for inhabitants along the trail too

Spotted owlet, barbet, jungle crow, white-breasted kingfisher… as we take in the birds along the way, we almost miss a shy chap who crosses the road. It’s a mongoose — he probably noticed us coming as he poked his head out of the vegetation. He scampers off in lightning speed. We also spot blood-red cotton bugs. They look like little rubies on wet earth — we would never have seen them had we been too busy peering into the branches.

The expedition ends and we haven’t seen the pitta; our notebooks don’t have long lists of birds spotted to boast of at the end of the day. But, we have an excellent time looking for birds inside an industry that makes tractors. We listen to birdcalls, smell intoxicating flowers, admire butterflies playing in the sun, follow strange-looking insects…

And just then I realise that the most important lesson in bird-watching is to let go; to be one with the environment.