As the heavy rains finally took a break this last week in Kochi, the sounds of birds took over. I searched for the birds the calls belonged to but only came across the omnipresent pigeons. It’s the breeding season for many birds and often a break for birdwatchers, explains Mittal Gala, birdwatcher and project coordinator of Bird Count India.
“Many birds breed during the monsoons but while we might not spot many of them, one can hear them as they get very vocal during this time. Many also develop a bright plumage and build beautiful nests during this season,” Gala tells Lounge.
As we talk about the common bird types, Gala mentions ashy prinias, which are commonly found in people's gardens. “They just need a small patch of greenery and you will see some of them, as well as scaly-breasted munias, which are smaller than sparrows, and have a scaled pattern on their belly. These are grain-feeding birds, and you will see them carrying strands of grass to make nests. They carry these strands using their beak so it looks like a trailing green ribbon,” Gala laughs.
Monsoon and birds have a unique link, something birdwatchers have often marvelled about. The birds, while nesting and breeding, display special physical characteristics during the monsoon, such as bright feathers or loud calls. It’s the season for looking at re-discovering familiar birds and spotting migratory ones. Gala talks about some of the monsoon birds that birdwatching enthusiasts can look for.
One of the most well-known birds associated with monsoons is the pied or Jacobin cuckoo, often touted as the harbinger of rain. These birds are native to Asia and Africa. “Pied cuckoo is a classic example. It’s one of the popular birds, not just among birdwatchers but also among the wider public because of its inclusion in Indian folklore and poetry where it is often referred to as chatak,” Gala says.
It’s a black and white bird and its distinguishing characteristic is the crest on its head. According to mythology, chatak’s calls are said to announce the arrival of rain. The pied cuckoo is mostly spotted in the southern peninsular regions, says Gala. In southern India, it is a resident bird and in the rest of India, it is a migrant species. According to a blog post on the Bird Count India website, pied cuckoo is mostly absent in central and northern India in the dry months of January to May. In late summer and early monsoon, one can start spotting them.
This bird is also one of Gala's favourites. “We get one population from Africa so it’s exciting to see a migrant bird that has travelled all the way to India every year. Also, it’s a brood parasite. It lays eggs in other birds' nests, mostly babblers' nests. I have seen a group of babblers feeding a pied cuckoo chick, which is twice their size. It’s kind of funny and also feels so special to watch,” she says. These birds are usually found in peninsular regions.
These birds are also breeding during this season and are easy to spot because they nest in colonies and build beautifully structured nests. They are more common in peninsular India. “Throughout the year, these birds are not really seen but during the monsoon season, the males develop bright, sunflower yellow plumage to attract the females. Their nests are dome-shaped with a hanging tube-like entrance, which makes it easy to spot,” Gala says.
One doesn’t have to travel far to spot baya weavers as any place with shrubs and some thorny tees might be home for some of these birds, she adds. In contrast to baya weavers that nest in colonies, another weaver bird prefers not to do so. streaked weavers can be spotted as a pair or two in reeds, close to wetlands. “They may rest within the grass growing in the reeds. So, one has to know how to look for these,” Gala explains.
Sunbirds mostly need a few flowering trees to build their nests, which are known to be quite shabby, Gala says. Although these are difficult to spot, they are also brightly coloured and the males often engage in territorial calls and you will often find them chasing each other. “One might find sunbirds throughout the year but if you know their calls, you might be able to spot them, especially during monsoon."
A common sunbird in India is the purple sunbird. According to eBird, the breeding male is metallic blue and purple with maroon feathers on the breast while the females are olive and green. These are seen in pairs and they feed on nectar and also insects.
A water bird, pheasant tailed jacana breeds during monsoons and builds their nests on floating vegetation. Interestingly, they are not related to the pheasant family despite their name. “During the breeding season, they develop tail feathers that grow long and resemble the tails of the pheasant,” Gala says. It’s a lot of fun to just watch them tend to their nests and chase away other birds, she adds.
These small, bustard-like birds are one of the bird species that are severely declining, Gala says. “During the monsoon season, the males do a leaping dance where they jump up and down in the grass. It’s the courtship ritual. The dance is beautiful to watch,” she says.
Birdwatchers travel long distances to see lesser floricans, which are rarely seen the rest of the year. “People travel to Shokaliya in Ajmer, which is one of the strongholds of the species to catch a glimpse of this bird,” Gala says.
Those interested in travelling can also go to Bharatpur in Rajasthan, a popular wetlands, to see painted storks and egrets in the monsoons nesting on the trees. People might be able to see about 100 or 200 birds nesting.