The sun burns off the last of the fog, and I wonder whether the haze was pearlescent winter mist or charring smog. The retreat is like a cover being pulled off from a magician’s show: bright things begin appearing from the grey winter sameness. We begin to see the yellow beak of the Bar-headed goose which has flown over the Himalaya to India. Next to it is another visitor, orange-beaked and pink-legged, the Greylag goose. The geese are incredibly noisy and animated. We watch with smiles and silent nods—the wetland on the edge of Delhi is full of international visitors. Busy wading birds puncture the ground with their long, fine beaks. Some of them let out a delightful, piping call. You have to look closely, and the details emerge slowly, like a prism in a kaleidoscope. There are plovers, stints and shanks, and energetic wagtails flitting between them, wagging their tails like puppies. Time has stopped, and memories come rushing back. There is a kind of abundance here that reminds me of childhood innocence: there are so many birds that I might begin believing that life will always be awash with plenty.
On a dry branch above the bushes is a bird that looks like a flame—it has an orange breast and a black head. It holds an upright, good-boy posture that suggests it might say “Ma’am, I have the answer”, any second. This is the Siberian stonechat, in India from Central Asia. And then, there are the people: a group of birdwatchers looking up at a pylon, where a stern, forbidding looking bird perches. With a beak and a long gape line which is yellow, the Steppe eagle looks like its smirking at a private joke, even as its sharp eyes scrape the landscape for prey.
In his delightful book, The Living Air, author Aasheesh Pittie writes about repeatedly watching small waterbirds—a pair of dabchicks—in a pond. He relishes the act of repetition. Seeing the subjects many times is almost an act of prayer, and it makes the birds dearly familiar. Conversely, so much of safari culture is about seeing that which is novel: a tigress nuzzling her cubs, a lioness harrowing a wild-eyed deer, a rare bird in perfect light. Yet, everyday birdwatching is often about relishing the ritual of sameness. Seeing the same place or the same bird, in a manner that’s intimate, even if quotidian.
And then, the migratory season arrives. This is the season we are currently witnessing, and it’s all about joyous celebration. Quiet, mundane places transform into noisy pit stops. Beaks shovel previously hushed waters, and talons grab those beaks. The migratory Eurasian marsh harrier comes to India to hunt waterfowl. Watching it hover over waterbirds like coots is a natural history sight. The bird pins its gaze on the fowl below, its eyes fierce and concentration acute. It wheels in the air, turning its body expertly. Below, the coots are in a frenzy. It is as if they believe the wheel above their head is the pre-determination of death. They flap their wings and move their legs at once, electrified, terrified. They shuffle forward in groups, each bird looking exactly the same in looks and behaviour, using sheer numbers to confound the predator.
The busiest season for birdwatching is now. In many places, wintering birds stay for over two months, and at least a month of birdwatching still remains. Watch them as often as you can, for as long as they are here. Here is how.
Go to a wetland near you in the morning or when the sun emerges. Pause and look through binoculars or just your eyes. Remember birdwatching is more a marathon than short sprint. Your patience will be rewarded and details (and beaks) will emerge. Join online groups like IndiAves or Indian Birds, which have birdwatchers of every feather, amateur and veterans.
Second, prepare yourself to be surprised. It’s not necessary you will always see every kind of bird, or the rare one everyone seems to spot. You may not get the species of your choice, but you will certainly witness a wide range of behaviours that will surprise and interest you. I have watched gentle coots confound that bolt from the sky, the mighty harrier, in a way that seems subversive; I have seen small Plum-headed parakeets fight off much larger Oriental honey buzzards.
Third, take notes. Journaling what you see will help you piece together a vision for the land and water. Noticing behaviour, and then taking notes, is a way to understand connections in the wider natural world. For instance, thorny bushes are loved by shrikes, because they use thorns to impale their prey. Can we feel excluded if we are in the middle of a web of connections? Here comes the most interesting part of birdwatching—it teaches you how to spend time alone, but it never leaves you feeling isolated.
In 2022, the Global Biodiversity Framework was decided by 188 countries. These are 23 targets for a sustainable planet under the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity, and most are to be implemented at once. A target of great interest is on maintaining cities as blue (wetland rich) and green (forest/tree rich) zones. Blue and green spaces—beyond malls, sidewalks and airports—should become the identity of cities. This year, India sent nominations for Indore, Bhopal and Udaipur to be accredited as “wetland cities”. To be judged by Ramsar, the international wetland convention, the accreditation promotes the wise use of wetlands. This is a definition that includes the conservation of wild birds. At its heart, it is also a recognition that a wetland, and by extension the city it is in, is for more than people.
Blue and green zones and wetland cities provide an opportunity to plan a different kind of smart city. One which ensures that the wild is never too far from us; which presents an ecosystem-based approach awash with better air and water.
That day in the cold, I watched a beautiful black and white bird with a long, upcurved beak. The beak culminated in a precise point—what started as a scythe ended as a needle. This was the Pied avocet, another winter visitor. It moved its poem of a beak in a left-right, left-right motion. It was unlike the stabbing-feeding motions of the other wading birds. Watching the avocet felt meditative, even trance-like. As I watched, I reflected. Breeding areas for migratory birds are warming, and migratory birds are likely to suffer declines. This made looking at the avocet all the more vital, urgent and precious. A little corner in the mud had just become part of a superhero story. The edge of my city was not just a pit stop, but also a refuge; I was watching a climate change survivor.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author of Wild And Wilful: Tales Of 15 Iconic Indian Species. Views expressed are personal.