A Rendezvous with Birds

By Arpita Joshi

We wake my nephews at 5 am. The sky outside is still dark and they rub their eyes with some amount of unsaid resistance and trepidation, ruefully looking at the vacated warm bed. Shortly as we make the journey of 45 minutes and 30 kms across the eerily empty city to Hoskote Lake (Bangalore), they’ll be asleep again, heads knocking gently against each other as the road passes under. We are off on a morning birding trip to Hoskote Lake being organised by the inimitable Deepa Mohan in collaboration with Zeiss and assembly time is an early 6:30 am. As we roll into the dirt road that skirts the lake, the boys sleepily take in their surroundings. Already about 30 people are milling about, bleary eyed, pink cheeked, hands in their pockets if not on cameras and binoculars. The numbers aren’t surprising considering how the pandemic has us pinned down in our homes and this outing is for most of us a respite from the secure yet sometimes interminable constancy of the indoors. One suspects the numbers will swell in the hours ahead. The lake is playing its part as a portal to another world. The sun is rising behind a thick veil of clouds lining their shaded greys with shocking hues of vermillion and tangerine even as sheets of coloured mist shroud the lake surface broken only by the sound and splash of the clearly plentiful waterfowls.

This is my second walk with Deepa. Short hair tucked under a practical floppy hat, neutral coloured clothing to blend into the natural setting, a set of dangling binoculars, ever smiling, enthusiastic and full of stories about the local flora and fauna – Deepa is well known in Bangalore as a birder-naturalist and guide par excellence. In a podcast conversation we had, she mentioned Hoskote as Bangalore’s top birding hotspot – recommendation and opportunity have come together beautifully on this March morning. As the daylight begins to blend the sunrise into grays and blues, Deepa pulls the group together, reiterates the ground rules that have already been shared on the chat group that was created to coordinate this visit. The Code of Ethics for Birders taken from the American Birders’ Association is up on her blog and includes detailed guidelines for both individual and group birding: Promote the welfare of birds and their environment. Respect the law, and the rights of others. Keep groups to a size that limits impact on the environment, and does not interfere with others using the same area. We have also been told to wear neutral colours and carry bottles of water and snacks to stay energised and hydrated. A group photo later, we shift collectively to the edges of the lake and the walk begins.

Becoming a birder and a naturalist

Deepa Mohan – urban nature guide

I first met Deepa in 2006 when she was visiting the NGO I was working with. As it turned out 2005-06 was the period around which at the age of 52, Deepa began deepening her exploration of the natural world. It started rather innocuously with a trip to BR Hills and a chance meeting with Bangalore based natural history filmmaker, photographer and conservationist Kalyan Varma and later with S. Karthikeyan, chief naturalist at the Jungle Lodges and Resort (JLR) – whom she refers to as her ‘guru’. “Also those days it was a very small, much smaller community of wildlife enthusiasts. It was a combination of both wildlife interest and the burgeoning of lets say blogging. Everybody was on livejournal those days. So I made a lot of face-to-face friends who were also my friends on the Internet and both really helped me to get into wildlife circles and start going out for birding and nature trips”, Deepa shared. On inquiring how her particular interest in birding evolved, she shared how in the days ahead one such space she connected with was the Bngbirds group. According to Deepa, the Bngbirds group has been actively pursuing birding in Bangalore for a mind-boggling 47 years. She jokes how the group began by communicating through postcards and has transitioned “(…) from phone calls to emails to egroups and then to WhatsApp and now the umbrella group is on Telegram. We don’t know where it’s going next!” She began by joining their second Sunday walk in Lalbagh (which continues till date), met a lot of people who were really knowledgeable and hence became a regular. “So my interest actually started with trees, but then I realized that the things sitting on the trees were also very interesting”, Deepa smiles and adds. Now, 15 years since her interest in birding was first piqued, Deepa is one of the prominent members of Bngbirds, organising and guiding many of the walks and in addition began the Covid-careful walks during the pandemic.

Open bills in the forefront, Stilts in the background

As we walk down the mud path hugging the Hoskote lake, Deepa immediately begins to point out the birds. “You can see the swallows swooping from above”, and our eyes reach up to the electricity lines where one can see long rows of a small bird huddled in hundreds. “I think its a mix of barn, wire-tailed and red-rumped swallows”, she adds as binoculars and cameras point upwards. The lack of rains has made a section of the lake bed available for careful treading and on its water edges long necked birds stand on tall elegant legs – the Asian Open Bill stork, many different species of egrets and herons, a few Painted Storks in the distance reign alongside splashing cormorants, coots and Spot Billed Ducks and the thoughtfully striding Black Winged Stilts, Bronze Winged Jacanas, moorhens and more. Hoskote lake has the advantage of having a somewhat mixed terrain – deep and wading waters, perching and nesting trees, grassy knolls and a surrounding scrub jungle – that make it a birding paradise not only from the perspective of the water birds but also terrestrial and scrub ones.

Cities as habitats

With so many years of birding in the city behind her, Deepa is a repository of great birding spots across the city that she circulates through in the various walks shes organises. I ask her if she has experienced a change in these spaces over the years. “In the last 14 years that I’ve been involved in these outings, I have certainly seen (…) the degradation. I can see that we’re getting less and less places to access and places that have become full of human habitation. The birds have disappeared to a very large extent.” Taking the example of Turahalli forest in South Bengaluru, she explained how even around 2009, it had a population of raptors or birds of prey, “These birds of prey require large swatches of forest or open grassland to be present. Today Turahalli has hardly any raptors. You get all those small tiny birds maybe, but even those have reduced. The people who now live in Turahalli, there are a multitude of apartments there, they are very happy because because they see some birds. Whereas we realize that what we are seeing are the remnants, the few species that are left after the others have been pushed away.” This has been confirmed by The State of India’s Birds Report 2020 which points out that of the 867 bird species assessed by them, 52% show clear decline over the past decades. Caroline Isaksson points out in her book Impact of Urbanisation on Birds that, ‘Together with climate change, urbanization is considered one of the largest threats to wildlife, including the persistence of many bird species. (…) The new urban conditions are not only through the process of urbanization per se but also the fact that the existing or remaining “green” areas are often changed, through plantation of non-native plant species, managed lawns, and removal of the mid-story canopy.’ Having birds around has shown to not only have benefits for our sense of well-being but more importantly birds are integrated within complex eco-systems playing a part in pollination, seed dispersal, pest control and other such myriad functions.

Swallows lined up on the wires above the lake

As the sun climbs higher, my little nephews want to stretch their legs and do things beyond the structured listing of birds. They prod the cracked muddy surface of the lake, overturn bits of rock, make small discoveries of their own and proudly earn their grass and mud stains for the day. They also seamlessly mix with the seasoned birding crowd who have fascinating large cameras that they’re kindly allowed to peer through. Later in the evening, the Whatsapp group of the visit is alive with photographs, hand written lists/ e-lists and gushing observations. Deepa and many of the regulars have e-bird accounts. E-bird is a biodiversity-related citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It allows all birders to store and share their photos and lists, converting their data into useful knowledge on bird distribution, habitat use, identifying migration trends etc. At the end of the day the group has collectively listed spotting a whopping 85 species. These include some truly special ones like the Indian Nightjar sitting by the mud path, the beautiful Red Avadavat, a distant Booted Eagle. I might not have spotted many of those but the photos ensure that I have a chance to see and appreciate them nevertheless. Someone even sends my nephews the two birds they saw through their borrowed long lens – a Grey Heron and a pair of Spot Billed Pelicans – which then get referred to as ‘their’ birds for the days ahead.

Urban dwellers and birding

You’re considered a good homemaker if you do not have a single ant in your home. You do not have any beehive outside you house. Leave alone any other major things. We all do not want any animals around, we do not want any insects around – that is considered good housekeeping”, says Deepa, when I ask her how urban dwellers might benefit from the practice of birding. Pointing to large looming realities such as the climate crisis and the large-scale species extinction, she continues, “So now you’re realizing that that is not a tenable thing, we are upsetting the balance of nature and so definitely it is important that we accept nature once again. We realize we are a part of nature and we should accept all that is in nature (…) atleast keep our forest patches and urban green patches and protect them. (…) off late I am finding that more and more people are aware. Let’s say I take 20 people out on a walk. There may be a few people for whom that may be it, they may not be interested. But there will be some who realise that yes, we are a part of a larger scenario, let us look at this and if this is what has been sustaining us let us see what we can do. So it is a long journey from interest to conservation. But yes, unless you take that first step, you’re not going to climb the stairs.”

In the evening we discuss the outing. I tell my little 7 year old nephew how the documentation and listing helps the birds and ask him if he wants to consider any documentation of his own. He mulls it over and comes back confidently to declare that he would like to document all creatures on this planet. As a compromise we decide to begin with those in our colony. In the days ahead we list the supplies we need to do this and put together his scrap book enthusiastically titled: D’s World Book. Striding down the colony roads, holding hands, pointing to this and looking up that, I am reminded of a line from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: ‘Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit’. As my nephew rejoices in carefully spotting, photographing and memorising the name of his first butterfly, I wonder if this is our first joyous step in preparation for the climb ahead.

Arpita Joshi is the co-founder and co-host of the podcast The Curio-city Collective (TCC), a non-profit space that explores how we can help build a new imagination of Indian cities geared towards the well-being of individuals, collectives and eco-systems. TCC can be reached at team@thecuriocitycollective.org