Tag Archives: birds

Sunbird Series

Sunbirds are tiny, but mighty. Always on the move, ever on the look out for larger predators. The male glitters like stardust, and the female is like a pixie. Here’s my little pictorial ode to a Sunbird couple in Delhi.


Sunshine, starbright,

Bedazzling glitter.

Iridiscent, Stardust-

You must stay forever,

In Delhi’s unworthy dust.

Sunbird M Clear Final (2)
A jewel on my Hibiscus!
Sunbird Treepie
A Rufous-Tree Pie flies past a Purple Sunbird. Notice the size difference!
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Purple Sunbird on my Hibiscus
Sunbird Drinking Aparajita.jpg
Female Sunbird on Aparajita flowers
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Female Sunbird poised expertly on Tecoma flowers!
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The tiny Purple Sunbird on a Semal tree!
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A slightly different view of a singing Sunbird!
Sunbird M Spear.jpg
The Sunbird’s beak looks like a well-aimed spear in this one!

2018. All photos by Neha Sinha

Please do not use without permission.


The things a Purple Sunbird has to do to get a Lady

I’ve been watching this courting pair of Purple sunbirds over Spring in Delhi. Here’s the male with his bright red and gold shoulder patches, which he eventually dropped.

This image is from March 10. Notice the bright, unmissable embellishments!


On March 23, the shoulder patches are noticeably less bright:Sunbird Shoulder Patch

Image from earlier today, March 30. The patches seem to be gone.

Sunbird on Semal Mar 30

And that’s because… drumroll.. he’s found his girl! Presenting the female sunbird!


And here’s one last image of the Sunbird singing his heart out:

Sunbird Siris Mar 29.jpg

All photos by Neha Sinha. Please do not use without permission. 

Why Spring is the Birding Season!

Tuk, tuk.

The sound is insistent and almost metallic.

You can hear it in most Indian cities. Under trees, next to your office window, while out on a walk, from your balcony.

The sound comes from a bird with whiskers — a bird coloured green, red, yellow and black. The small, energetic Coppersmith Barbet, bashing on with the cheer of a tuk-tuk on a colourful street; its call heralding the coming of summer.

For summer is almost here, and spring is ongoing. The fingers of heat will run through your face, bringing memories of heat exhaustion, but it is not unbearable yet. And this is the best time to get out there and go birding.

Let’s start with the coast. Coasts are not for everyone. In high summer, the sunlight prances on the water, and the whole world seems like a prism of blinding, broken glass. Early mornings at this time of the year are just right. You can take a boat and go into the sea, or you could hide out on the beach. There will be Brown-headed gulls, flying and hunting together, having come from Central Asia and Mongolia.

gullsforaging-copy_022418014501.jpgGulls foraging for food. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

They are bold birds, fine-feathered, looking impossibly smooth for all their watery pursuits. And if you look really hard, you can find Little Stint and Temminck’s Stint on beaches and on coastal wetlands. These tiny birds have feathers that look like fine, mottled mud — like the colours on ancient, well-worn pottery. The Little Stint is tiny, and that tiny bird makes a long migration to come to India — the ones we get here come from arctic reaches of Eurasia.

Go to the desert, and there too you will be delighted. This is the time of the year to see thousands upon thousands of Demoiselle Cranes that come to Rajasthan. They congregate chiefly at Khichan village, where villagers proudly feed these stunning, stately birds.

parrot-copy_022418011237.jpgRose-ringed Parakeet at a nesting site. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Over the years, man and Crane have grown together. The cranes have learnt that they can to go to Khichan , generation after generation, for both refuge and food in winter. And it is a date that they keep regularly, the magic of migration combined with peer-learning in the flock, remembering routes in the sky over the desert.

Part of the desert is in Delhi too. The Aravalli ranges start from Rajasthan and come to Delhi. The Aravallis are not moist and evergreen. Rather, like the capital, they are tough, thorny and spindly. A remarkable natural feature that requires much more love. Asola sanctuary in Delhi is full of birds. The area takes getting used to.

asola-copy_022418010744.jpgIndian Scops Owl. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

Many native species of shrub and tree in the Aravallis dry forests have thorns almost an inch long. The grass is brown rather than green, and old rocks are worn with time. Thorny plants, well-adapted to Delhi’s heat and dryness, grasp on to it little pinches of dust between the rocky crags. You have to walk carefully, avoiding thorns.

Learning to embrace this tough, old place is rich in its rewards. In between the grass and rocks, you can find the stunning, quaint-as-a-button Painted Sandgrouse which is regularly seen in Asola. And you have the sedate looking, long-legged Indian stone-curlew which is a resident there. In the wetlands of Asola, you will find migratory birds hunting for food and fish — Bar-headed Geese, Mallard ducks and Northern Shovelers.

indian-hoopoe-copy_022418010924.jpgHoopoe on a tree. [Photo courtesy: Neha Sinha]

And apart from the birds, this is also the time to watch flowers. The Flame of the Forest is beginning to bloom all over central India. In the Himalayas, the blood-red rhododendron, which may be impacted by global warming, has begun blooming early, in winter and spring.

The impacts of climate change are evident in many phenologies — that is early or late blooming of flowers, changes in when insects or bird eggs hatch, among others. But spring is a time of celebration that is hard to ignore. It’s a time to get out there and look at the sky and the sea, the bough and the boulder. You’ll never be able to predict what you find.

All photos by me.

This piece first appeared here.

Its Migratory bird season – and here is where you can find some birds!

For Delhi: Basai, Najafgarh and Mangar. And read on also to know why these places are under threat.

There is a sense of oldness in natural places.

The earth before you will have evidence of being freshly trodden- the many-grooved footprints of birdwatchers in their field shoes, tracks of Nilgai, three-cleaved marks left by hopping birds. The marks may be new, the smell of fresh animal droppings stinging the air. But the place itself feels both new and old; new because you see something unseen each time, old because there is something primeval about natural spaces. These are places shaped not by the human hand, but by sun, wind, water, birds and animals.

If you’re standing under trees in Aravalli’s Mangar forest, the leaves dapple the sunlight, leaving chequered shadows on the ground and on your face. The colour of the light, and so your immediate world, may become a greenish yellow, sieved through the leaves; on the ground, shadows shift as the leaves move, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. If there are Nilgai nearby, say in the Delhi Ridge, you may be standing on a path made by them. If you are in a wetland – like Basai or Najafgarh, the levels of the water are different in different seasons, and the land around the water shifts accordingly. You could be a completely bone-dry spot that becomes aquatic at other times. Water shapes the place, migratory birds mould its character. The oldest things on earth — birds that are actually living dinosaurs, water that whips terra firma — create the place.


When Delhi talks about being an “old” city, we mostly refer to fifteenth-century monuments and tombs, the sun warming their stone on winter afternoons. We think of Old Delhi’s ancient bazaars – still selling spices and silver, flanked by solid wrought iron pillars which have seen the times of kings. We think of the feeling of Delhi, an old capital, a centre of power, the sense of government flags, corridor whispers, red beacons, which are hints in the air — power was and is here. But very few think of Delhi as an old city through its natural spaces.

Maybe that’s why Delhi-NCR’s spectacular natural spaces are under threat.

We are at a remarkable moment in the story of the city – citizens are fighting, under duress, to preserve Delhi’s history, for its future. Of the many struggles going on in the city — to preserve avenue trees, to save the trees at the iconic Pragati Maidan from getting axed for redevelopment, and to conserve lakes, three stand out in scale.

One is the pitched battle to save parts of the world’s oldest mountain range, the Aravallis. It may not be enough to say that these hills and ridges are ancient geological heritage; it may not even be enough to say the Aravallis act as a safety net for Delhi, protecting it from complete desertification from the Thar. Clearly, these arguments are not enough for developers and a determined state government bent towards hacking away Aravalli’s trees, levelling the ridges, and to sell green-view apartments, which certainly won’t have a “green” view for long.


A concerned citizen has moved the National Green Tribunal against the cutting of more than 6,000 trees in the Aravallis in Faridabad. While the Haryana forest department says all of the Aravallis are deemed forest, trees were cut all the same. Not only does this fly in the face of environmental concerns, it is a denial of the fact that the Aravallis too — and not just apartments — are part of cultural and lived heritage for Delhi, Faridabad and Gurgaon. Delhi’s Paharganj, derived from “Pahar” or hill, is named such as it was a hilly area, and today the Delhi Ridge (named as the area undulates with Aravalli hills, ridges and streams) is a forest that gives lungs to the gasping city.

Another chapter of forgotten history, lost through tomes of city master plans, is Delhi and Haryana’s Sahibi river. “Cartographic assassination” is what rivers and wetlands face, as they get described in public record and maps, says urban ecology and planning expert Manu Bhatnagar. What was once Sahibi river has today become Najafgarh naala. In this naala too, Delhi and Haryana show reluctance to recognise the old Najafgarh jheel, which hosts flamingos, and migratory birds from Tibet and other high altitude regions.

The area also has what is considered one of the biggest heronries in North India – more than 200 birds have created communal nests in a clump of trees. Heronries are classic features next to wetlands, reminiscent of the sight of squawking chicks-in-a-row at heronies in the world heritage site, Bharatpur. Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage (INTACH) had filed a case in the NGT for the conservation of Najafgarh jheel, though the lake is yet to be officially protected. Birdwatchers and citizens have been rallying for the conservation of the area for years, even as flats in Gurgaon inch closer to the wetland, and have swallowed its basin.


Finally, there is Basai. It is known in bird watching circles as Delhi-NCR’s finest wetland. It lies unassumingly in a corner of Gurgaon, shoved uncomfortably close to construction sites. This incredible site, hosting nearly 300 species, designated an “Important Bird Area” due to its avian wealth, is created by sewage water. But ecosystem processes sieve and save the water, creating not a filthy cesspool but a resounding arena of life. This is one of those rare places where you will find both the migratory goose in the water and the resident eagle in the sky; where you have a wet grassland merging into a wetland, creating a green-and-blue, grass-and-water mosaic one normally sees in far more “remote” or “wild” spaces.

In less remote, urban spaces, which ironically jostle for both breath and water, wetlands often turn to wastelands, quite literally so. The Delhi Bird Foundation, helmed by avid birdwatchers, has approached the NGT against waste going into the wetland –a construction and demolition waste plant is coming up next to Basai wetlands. Fifteen-year-old birdwatcher and Delhi resident Maitreya Sukumar explains why: “It is a wetland home to many birds. It is a thriving ecosystem. It gets rare birds each year and should definitely be preserved,” he says. Maitreya’s mother is one of the petitioners in the case.


All over the world, natural spaces in crowded cities are cherished as islands of succour. These are not just points, but “places”, which hold deep meaning for those who visit, an ongoing relationship of belonging between person and place. These places carry a sense of being old, timeless, and un-changing in the surrounding echelons of chaos and noise. New York’s Central Park is not famous because it is a park, but because it is in one of the world’s busiest, fastest-paced cities; the park itself is maintained more as a wilderness than a fully manicured area. The Nara Park in Japan holds several deer; the deer come out and stroll through the city of Nara, walking between people, an unsaid conversation between hooves and heels.

Closer home, Sikkim has recently passed a unique legislation to increase fraternal bonds and personal relationships with trees, allowing a person to adopt a tree as a child: the Sikkim Forest Tree (Amity and Reverence) Rules 2017.

Delhi’s own amity does not lie only in its buildings. Delhi’s geological and ecological history has shaped the names of its places, the quality of local life, and resilience — an ancient story of Nature’s survival in a harsh, polarised environment and environs.

It would be imperative for India’s national capital to not forget where it came from.

This piece first appeared here.


Land or wetland?

A waste of land?

A look at our curious bipolarity towards wetlands, which teem with life but are valued more as land than waterbody.

This piece appeared in February this year, since then the National Green Tribunal has called for the re-establishment of the National Wetland Regulation Authority.


(Photo: foggy morning in Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Delhi)

On February 2, the world celebrated the International Wetlands Day. This is fitting particularly for India, where wetlands have always been celebrated and used in some form. We rejoice when it rains, have built our cities next to rivers, and have created acres and acres of paddy fields, all joining up into a living, ethnographic entity.

It is also fitting then that it took years of hard work to create a legislation for the diverse array of wetlands that India possesses, but tragically, this is mostly on paper. Taking note of this, the National Green Tribunal recently sent a notice to the states asking for action taken to protect wetlands.

Our legislation maps out the various corporeal forms of wetlands, and importantly, also the natural forms in which they do not resemble wetlands. The Wetland Rules, 2010, say that wetlands are an area of marsh, fen, peatland or water, natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water (with depth of six metres or less), which includes all inland waters such as lakes, reservoirs, tanks, backwaters, lagoons, creeks, estuaries and man-made wetlands along with the wetlands’ zone of influence.

Thus, wetlands are waterbodies endowed by nature, or made by us; many wetlands are ecologically water bodies even if they are seasonally dry.

Further, the Wetland Rules set down governance which mandate that wetlands fulfilling ecological parameters need appropriate protection. Yet, despite this legislative definition which considers both ecological and social dimensions, the Wetland Rules have not been implemented.

Consider this: the Wetland Rules mandated the creation of a Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority (CWRA) which will oversee issues related to wetlands identified for protection. Not only have most states not fully identified wetlands for protection, but the CWRA has been defunct since 2012.

At the primary level, this creates a huge gap in the protection matrix for wetlands. Wetlands, as habitats for biodiversity and repositories of ecosystem services, do not get adequate protection unless they are already in protected areas. At the secondary level, this creates conflict in land uses. The Wetland Atlas says there are 1,88,470 natural and manmade wetlands in India. But several times, they are seen as ‘land’ rather than ‘wet’ and annexed for terrestrial purposes.

There is a lot of finger-pointing on the 2015 Chennai floods. But there is a consensus that the floods were exacerbated (if not caused) by building over wetlands and swamps. The fact that wetlands are not considered in planning exercises has led to losses in billions of dollars, and psychological trauma for all those who were flood-affected. ‘Zones of influence’ of wetlands were not protected in Chennai: notably the catchments and water sheds of the Adyar river. While wetlands comprise waterbodies, the zone of influence of the wetland includes run-offs, areas which are swampy (thus turning dry in non-monsoon or summer season), sources of water bodies, drainage outlets et cetera.

If the zone of influence of the wetland is encroached, then the wetland often ceases to exist. With rapid real estate development in National Capital Region, Bhadkal, Damdam and Surajkund, lakes have had their zones of influence gobbled up. A result today is that these lakes have shrivelled up, and for all purposes behave more like land than wetlands. This is likely to further impact the rather desertified, dry Aravali stretch and Haryana’s low water table.

Given the Chennai and the Srinagar floods, are we going to break down the roads, houses and flyovers that we have built over canals, swamps and drainage streams to stop the floods of tomorrow? While the past cannot be undone, surely the future can be better.

If you look at satellite maps of the Great Northern Plains of India, you will see strings of wetlands and wetland complexes, like beads on a necklace. This is the North Plain, where much of our food is produced. Attracted to wetlands, and wetland complexes, each year, tens of thousands of water birds, ducks, cranes and others sweep down on them.

‘Barren land’ for housing

Look at the same bodies in peak summer, and these wetlands are dismissed as “barren land” or wasteland. These are then earmarked for quick housing all over the country (the Commonwealth Games village complex on Delhi’s Yamuna river bed, and Bengaluru’s numerous lake-sides) for compensatory afforestation schemes, and for non-wetland purposes.

Wetland governance needs to involve the community, because of the very manner in which wetlands are being used today. In Srinagar’s Dal Lake — which incidentally, has been built over, shrinking from over 75 square km to about 18 sq km, important stakeholders are traditional horticulturalists and vegetable growers.

In a meeting and site visit there last year, I was told that ‘organic’ flowers and produce — cultivated over generations with no fertiliser or chemical input — are no longer so organic. This is because the lake is so choked with sewage that the bounty is no longer clean. Much of the wetland’s zone of influence is encroached, even as sewage is continuously going in.

Both the Wetland Rules and the International Ramsar Convention say that wetlands which are ‘of outstanding natural beauty’ are to be protected. Unfortunately, many would have us believe that this is a whimsical condition divorced from reality.

Wetlands are not lands waiting to be colonised. Perhaps, real estate and ‘development’ plans would prefer it more if wetlands could float in the sky like rainclouds, thus giving a clear field for colonisation of ‘land’.

We do not need more floods to recognise the ecological and ecosystem services that wetlands provide. What we do need is zonation that clearly sets aside drainage systems and zones of influence in town and city planning. In the case of wetlands, the cost of policy inaction would create a thirst that no engineering would be able to replace.

This first appeared in The Deccan Herald 



Little Sparrow

What are your fondest memories of sparrows? I’d love to hear your memories, do leave them in the comments below.

I had just reached home from school, and he was sitting there, eyes glittering, cheeping at me with all the painful anguish of a little one with a little voice.

The sparrow looked suited and booted, like he was wearing a very black tie over a ruddy brown coat. In all my school-child importance, I had imperiously flung my bag aside and was ready to peel off my sweaty nylon socks so I could put my feet up on the sofa. I owned the drawing room: it was my grandparent’s drawing room, but unlike the school, I could do what I wanted here, and for a few hours each day, this was my kingdom. The old ceiling fan, cavernous coir sofas, oil paintings on the wall, a stack of curios on the old bookshelves – this was my empire. But the sparrow kept cheeping. He had an important message for me. The window was not open enough for his mate to come in, especially when she was carrying twigs. They had important business to do: a house to build behind my grandfather’s handmade oil painting. The sparrow wife, her mouth full, stared at me balefully from the branch of a scarlet bougainvillea.


Each summer, the sparrows made their nesting preferences clear, asking for space. Sometimes, they would nest between the tube-light and wall. Many years, behind paintings. And most annoyingly, on the cup the ceiling fan hung from. Coming back home on hot summer days, I could arrogantly peel my hot socks off, throw away my bag with practised carelessness, but I couldn’t put the fan on, for more than speed “2”. The sparrow couple were always around, feeding their chicks in the ceiling fan. I had my heart in my mouth each time the female sparrow would dodge the whirring fan; I admired her grudgingly even as sweat ran down my face.

Sometimes the sparrows would quarrel. Sometimes they would fly away for longish periods and I could hear the chicks yelling their protest. They seemed to be such noisy children, like me. The drawing room was no longer just mine. The hot summers were a bit hotter. But I had company. And I had surprise, with the sparrows pulling a variety of unpredictable capers all afternoon long.

Today is World Sparrow Day. The most natural reaction would be to assume that the sparrows are still around. But they’re almost not. March 20 is remembered as World Sparrow Day as sparrows – especially house sparrows – are declining everywhere. What happened? When did it happen? How did the charm of cheep-chirp leave our lives?


There are so many reasons: with insecticides being used everywhere, soft-bodied insects, the young sparrow’s food, have disappeared. In our extreme manicuring tendencies for perfect, manufactured order, grass – which supports nesting material as well as insects – is being mowed too short in lawns.

In residential facades, ledges, of no use to anyone but a little bird, have gone out of fashion and are being replaced by sleek modern buildings. Inside our houses, windows have been shut and ACs have been switched on. The oil paintings still hang, but there are no sparrows to flit behind the paintings.

All over the world, there are assorted movements to bring house sparrows back. In some places, architects are leaving bricks missing, so sparrows can have a nesting place. In others, parts of gardens are being left wild, for grass, insects, and sparrows. In India, a massive movement to give sparrows a space in gardens, homes, and hearts, is ongoing.

Today, sadness washes over me for the sparrows. I hope they will come back. Once, they took over my kingdom – and our collective afternoons, so many vestiges of domestic existences. Today, we ask them, beg them, cajole them, to return. So many sparrows have been lost in the humdrum and banality of urban life. But what we have lost, in the companionship of a little, stubborn, brave bird, the “nanhi gorayya”, is incalculable and perhaps much worse.

A version of this appeared in my column for India Today’s DailyO.

Photos: Neha Sinha

On World Wildlife Day, One Wish.

It’s World Wildlife Day today.

Many of my readers ask me, what is my favourite animal, or species?

There’s never an easy answer to that question, but this World Wildlife Day, I have a wish.

Not only for the most endangered and imperiled species. But for the most common ones.

Let’s keep our common species common.

When I was growing up, the little House Sparrow was a constant companion. It loved nesting just above our ceiling fans, or behind paintings. It didn’t mind the people in the family, at all. Slowly, the House Sparrow started disappearing.

And there are other birds, once ubiquitious, which are slowly fading. The Munia is one of them.

A little Munia, on a little branch. Unbearable brightness of being! Photo by Amitabha Bhattacharya.

The Munia is poached and traded for the wild bird trade (more on that here). Living off grassy areas with low bushes, various sorts of Munias are also under threat from habitat loss. Their hard-grassy habitat does not look impressively ‘green’ and does not even get noticed when it’s gone.

Other birds that you will find all over the semi-urban/ country landscape are Black-necked Storks, Painted Storks and Openbill Storks. Painted Storks particularly have a habit of transforming a wetland with their bright colours and joyous numbers.

Painted storks and cormorants in foggy, smokey Delhi. Photo by Neha Sinha

Common birds don’t steer conservation budgets. We like them, but like a favourite piece of furniture, we also take them for granted. My simple wish for World Widlife Day is: keeping the common birds and animals, common!

How much poorer would we be without them?!

A path through a wild woodland, and through our hearts.
A path through a wild woodland, and through our hearts. Photo by Amitabha Bhattacharya