On a lazy Sunday morning in November, we are out watching birds, our fellow residents on the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) campus. We lock our eyes on a few Yellow-footed Green-Pigeons feeding on a ficus tree next to the Staff Hostel. The fruits, bright red, are dotted all over the tree. The green-pigeons are not alone. Two Indian Grey Hornbills and some five Grey-fronted Green-Pigeons have joined in the merry, much to the discomfort of some crows that aggressively inch closer. They manage to shoo away the green-pigeons, which settle down on a eucalyptus tree lining the tennis courts, soaking in the early morning rays.
We move on. At every other step, the hurried chipping calls of warblers fill the air. Some we spot, some not. Some, we have learnt, can be told from their call. We indulge in the guessing game but reach nowhere. The Greenish or Green or whichever-warbler-it-may-be goes about its business, uninterested in us.
We are easily distracted by an Indian Paradise-Flycatcher that flits about, its streamers swinging behind, giving it an angelic aura. It’s a busy morning on a main road rendered empty by the Covid-19 pandemic. Indian Golden Orioles chase each other; Drongos–Black and Ashy–somersault in the air; Cattle Egrets solemnly pick at the grassy ground with Common Mynas for company; Large-billed Crows and House Crows look around, probably for a victim to hound; Coppersmith Barbets sit in a line, leaf-like; Oriental Magpie-Robins seem immersed in some serious business. All this action unfolds in an urban setting filled with hostels, play courts, and academic and office space. It is a prelude to what we may encounter in our next destination a minute away – the road by the lake that houses woody patches where climbers merge trees with shrubs.
IITB is home to over 190 bird species. It is located in Powai, a regular Mumbai suburb bustling with people, vehicles, buildings and markets. But, nestled as it is amidst Powai and Vihar lakes and hillocks, contiguous with the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, it showcases a variety of ecosystems.
Skirting the lake is the marshland, home to a variety of waterbirds like Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Grey-headed Swamphen, and Indian Spot-billed Duck. Cormorants, terns, bee-eaters, swifts, swallows hang about here all day long. The lakeside also holds two prominent wooded patches – Soneri Baug and Kol Dongri, a favourite of the resident gems like Rufous Woodpecker and White-browed Bulbul. The hill, part thickly wooded, part rocky, is the preferred haunt of Indian Robin, Yellow-throated Sparrow (famed to have converted the pastime hunter in Sálim Ali into a world-famous ornithologist and naturalist) and, occasionally, Rufous Treepie. Then there are some like the Red-whiskered Bulbul, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Oriental Magpie-Robin and Jungle Babbler that are seen pretty much everywhere. While many are residents, a good share of visitors – local migrants, long-distance migrants, passage migrants, stragglers – arrive in the winter, and some in the monsoon.
There is the menu for every palate – flowering and fruiting trees like Red Silk Cotton Tree, several ficus sp., Charcoal Tree, Coral Tree, African Tulip Tree, Ber, and Mango. And insects that feed on plants and trees; insects that live in the grassy patches; and water-dwelling prey. Feasts happen either singly or in pairs, or in small flocks of one species. Sometimes there are mixed flock parties. A fruiting Charcoal Tree, for instance, typically whips up a mixed-species party of Chestnut-tailed Starlings, Asian Pied Starlings, Brahminy Starlings, Common Mynas, Indian Golden Orioles, a lone Indian Blackbird, a Black-headed Cuckooshrike pair, a flitting Asian Paradise Flycatcher and more. Where you will catch an angry Jungle Babbler shooing away a Black-headed Cuckooshrike, or an Ashy Drongo chasing a Green Bee-eater to snatch the prey tucked in its beak.
IITB, like many educational institutions, is privileged in its access to the natural world. And it’s not the birds alone. There are others too, like the monitor lizard, mongoose, snakes, monkeys, and the occasionally encountered crocodile and leopard. For more on that, check out WWF_Report.pdf though the report is over ten years old. With time, this natural world is progressively buckling under the institute’s pressure to grow.
It’s evening, a time to call it a day. We watch the crows, in hoards, fly in from all directions to settle on the trees at the academic area. Common Mynas and Rose-ringed Parakeets follow suit. An orchestra pitch fills the air as they settle down. In winter, this pitch reaches a crescendo when they are joined by the migrants, especially the starlings. How do they even hear each other in all that musical din? But there is no time to ponder. We leave the place in haste, before the trees start showering gooey bird poop.