On the Sunday of the junta curfew last month, when most of India was gearing up to clang vessels and clap hands, Omkar Dharwadkar experienced a different sort of epiphany, through a different kind of sound. From the window of his apartment complex in Ponda, North Goa, through his binoculars he espied a Malabar whistling thrush. The deep blue bodied bird with its uncannily human whistle was a surprise visitor to that part of the state, a bird he hadn’t seen in six or seven years. Now here it was, singing from a tree nearby. “Right in the middle of the city, to see a forest bird is always exciting,” he said. The bird continued to visit for the next several days.
As India has been locked down in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dharwadkar, a birding guide, has sighted 35 species of birds from his apartment window alone. On an average, he records about 10 species for every 15-minute period he sits by his window in the morning.
He is just one among hundreds of birdwatchers across the country pursuing their hobby from the confines of their bedrooms, balconies, terraces and gardens. As people have been sequestered behind walls, avian life has been soaring, nesting, and calling, providing diehard birders opportunities to revel in old pursuits under new circumstances.
“Birding from home is a new experience for most of us,” said Amit Sharma, a veteran birdwatcher who has been watching with his family from his balcony in Gurgaon. “It’s a blessing in disguise. Being forced to stay home, we started observing birds, even those birds that you often miss.”
As people have stayed in, factories have wound down, traffic has vanished, and noise pollution has dipped, birds have become louder and bolder. With mating season for some species in north India, and migratory season for some others, the time of year itself is ripe for birding. People have reported seeing a smorgasbord of species: eagles, bulbuls, thrushes, woodpeckers, buzzards; throaty critters filling the air with chirps, trills and hoots.
Bird Count India, a consortium of various groups, dedicated to bird-related activities and documentation, has been running a competitive challenge where birders can upload their sightings through the platform, eBird. This is based on how many birds you see during a timed 15-minute stretch in the morning and the evening. Though the challenge is a monthly affair, this month’s theme has naturally been “Lockdown Birding”. Mittal Gala, Bird Count India’s coordinator, said about 300 or 400 people had been uploading their sighting lists online every day.
“People are excited, sharing sightings, lots of interesting things are happening,” she said.
Gala, who lives in Bengaluru, has been birding for more than 10 years, but until now had little opportunity to do it from home. “I’ve been addicted to my balcony every morning,” said Gala. “When I hear a bird calling, I rush out from my room with my phone to record the call.”
Has she been surprised by the richness of home birding? “Yes!” she said, “A lot of people are. I don’t think anybody would give you a different answer.”
Brigadier Arvind Yadav for instance, has spotted 49 species over two weeks, including the honey buzzard, ashy drongo and spotted owlet. Every evening Yadav and his fellow bird watchers recount to each other online the birds they’ve seen in each of their Delhi neighbourhoods.
Some days ago when he saw a booted eagle fly across the patch of sky above his home, he felt a frisson of excitement. Fifteen days ago they had tramped all the way to Sultanpur, outside Delhi, and seen it in its natural habitat. Now here it was, coming to him in his natural habitat. “Seeing it in the Delhi sky was rare,” he said. “It was quite a new experience.”
He is lucky that his home is in a colony that abuts the greenery of the Delhi golf course. “Since there is such little human activity birds are openly nesting and feeding,” he said. “The weather is good, there is less pollution and we also have more time to see them. When you are in the normal daily rut, who has the time?”
Normally birdwatchers have to take off to wooded urban edges or travel to lakes and forests in order to encounter nature head-on. But the limitations have unspooled fresh pleasures, syncing them to their immediate surroundings in serendipitous ways. “It’s fun in a different way,” said Dharwadkar. “You see more when you go out in a forest, but this way you get to know the birds in your own backyard better.”
It’s not just that the birds are becoming brassier, but that human beings, thrown into new rhythms, with fewer distractions, are also absorbing the world in more quietly intimate ways.
“Especially if you are birding from one location every single day, you start noticing patterns,” said Gala. She has not just been recording her sightings but sometimes following the same birds or group of birds over days, observing their tics and turns: the nesting of a black kite on a building next door, the bulbul’s insatiable interest in the gulmohar flowers.
In Gurgaon, Amit Sharma has been savouring the visits of tailor birds, barbets and shikras. Shyer birds like spotted owlets, usually in hiding, are now emboldened to thrust themselves into the open. “The birds may not always be new, but I am able to study them more closely—their plumage, their behaviour, their nest-building—and understand them better,” he said.
And the birds have also brought the humans together. “It’s such a wonderful experience sitting with family, with children,” said Sharma. “It’s a great way to spend time together and educate the new generation.”