“If I don’t know what’s in my backyard, how will I know what’s out there in the world?” wonders Abhishek Gulshan, a naturalist and avid birder based out of Delhi. “Did you know that with over 400 species reported historically, Delhi is the second-richest capital in the world for avian diversity?”
Gulshan’s enthusiasm never seems to waver—not for Delhi, the city he has lived in all his life. “My love for birdwatching started in Kolkata in 2011 with the common kingfisher, but it is the diversity of Delhi that I truly chase,” he maintains. Armed with mind-boggling bird trivia and a thirst for knowledge, Gulshan began his birding journey by quitting his job in 2012 to take a sabbatical. In 2017, he started a company that organises on-field birding tours for kids and adults in Delhi.
Delhi was historically a scrubland, and had an arid habitat, he explains. “There are so many places you can visit to see diverse birds. The Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurugram is a good place to start.” Once a heavily mined area, the land was eco-restored and rejuvenated with flora native to the Aravallis (dry scrubland). Now, visitors can spot habitat-specialist resident birds like common babbler, rufous-fronted prinia, sirkeer malkoha, Indian eagle owl, and more. Gulshan also loves to frequent Bhondsi Nature Park (also a scrub forest), for unusual sightings including the migratory fire-capped tit and other resident birds like plum-headed parakeet, and large grey babbler. But his favourite spot is Mangar, off the Gurgaon-Faridabad Highway. “It’s known as Mangar Bani, or sacred land, among the locals. You have to be sensitive to the surroundings—not litter, and be respectful of the space while birding here. Also, be careful while taking photographs,” he points out.
A common misconception, says Gulshan, is that migratory birds only visit in winter. “Monsoon is actually my favourite time to go birding. The Indian pitta or navrang would have already reached Mangar by now,” he sighs, remembering its two-note whistle to attract mates through the canopied forest. “I can’t wait to go spot the Indian paradise-flycatcher too, with its magnificent white tail and black plume (male). Monsoon walks are also fantastic to spot butterflies and insects, and watching the arid land turn green during the rains,” gushes Gulshan. He also loves spotting the yellow-crowned woodpecker, blue-cheeked bee-eater, and the Jacobin cuckoo.
Within the city, he has a strong affinity for the Basai wetlands near Sultanpur. The water comes from an overflowing water treatment plant, but it feels like home to Gulshan. He visited it almost every day during his initial birdwatching days to spot a few proud birds like clamorous reed warbler, pied bushchat and the migratory moustached warbler, a warbler he watched for eight hours just to observe behaviour. “A seminal turning point for me was when I dropped the camera and picked up the binoculars. It has shaped me into the birder I am today,” he says. Gulshan also recommends the Surajpur Wetlands in Greater Noida. “The light falls on the birds beautifully here, highlighting different glossy patterns on the ducks. All ducks don’t look the same, you know,” he quips. Surajpur, he adds, is great to spot the black-necked stork, one of the biggest storks in India, the red avadavat, knob-billed duck, black-headed ibis and the migratory cinnamon bittern in monsoons and bar-headed goose in winters.
For urban diversity, go to Lodhi Gardens. “I’ve even spotted the Indian scops owl here—they come out late at night or early morning. I got lucky because I heard the call and went looking while on an early morning run. I don’t run with music, only bird calls,” he smiles. Unknown to many, this garden in the middle of the city is a great place to spot the coppersmith barbet, rose-tinged parakeet and the migratory Hume’s leaf warbler. “There’s also Jahanpanah City Forest near Greater Kailash II, a scrub forest where grey francolins are quite vocal during the day,” says Gulshan.
Lubna Amir is Assistant Digital Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.