A few months ago a colleague and fellow birder, showed me a photograph he had taken of a beautiful, exotic-looking bird. I was surprised to hear that it was taken right here, in the concrete jungle we call Mumbai.
The bird in question was a Coppersmith Barbet (Megalaima haemacephala).
I was even more taken aback to hear that it was a common sighting all over Mumbai. And though its numbers have dwindled, it is far for being considered extinct. In fact a Wikipedia search reveals that the conservation status of this species is of ‘least concern’!
So how is it that, as a long time resident of this city, I had never seen one in Mumbai?!
Fast forward to the present day…
Mumbai. Monday, September 10th, 2013. The monsoons were drawing to a close and it was the beginning of the Ganpati festival and a public holiday.
Over morning coffee with my wife, we decided to do a bit of birding and bird photography. (Well, actually, I decided and she reluctantly agreed to tag along!)
I shot down her suggestion that we go down to the local park. Let’s go to the nature sancturary in Dharavi instead, I said, where we’ll see a wider variety of bird species not just the regular sparrows, crows and mynas.
To which she, again reluctantly, agreed. It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy these outings. It’s just that while I’m oblivious to the slush, grime, heat, mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies, she… in a nutshell… is not!
To add insult to injury the half hour journey was made in her car.
Which is why on reaching the park it was much to her annoyance and my trepidation (at her annoyance), we were told that it was closed on public holidays. (I’m sure this is something that is unique to this country alone).
On the way back, (remember, she was still driving her car), I suggested we make the most of what was left of the morning and take a slight detour and visit the bird sanctuary at Bhandup.
This is actually a sewage treatment plant located in the backwaters and mangroves in North Mumbai. It is a great place to view many migratory and local species of birds.
I have visited this area a couple of times before and seen a lot of bird life including painted stork and flamingoes. However on this visit the water body was devoid of birds.
A nesting Baya Weaver bird, and a few handheld shots of flowers to test my new EF100mm F2.8L IS macro lens were the only consolation for an otherwise fruitless trip.
Heading back, my wife’s metronomic ‘harummmmphs’ spoke volumes. They not only summarized the morning so far, but also implied, in no uncertain terms, (as my father would say) that I was treading on thin ice for the rest of the day!
Back home, our parking slot is at the edge of a garden where there are some large trees that were replanted after being uprooted from a site marked for development. Judging from their abundant foliage most of those trees have taken root and are well on the way to recovery. One of them however is bare and obviously struggling.
As we slid into the parking space, clearly visible through the windscreen in front of me and perched on the branches of the bare tree I got my first Mumbai sighting of a Coppersmith Barbet!
A whole morning spent fruitlessly searching for birds at bonafide bird sanctuaries and the best sighting was right here in our back yard! Needless to say, even now, several days after the incident, the I-told-you-so’s are still coming in thick and fast!
Over the next few days, I did take the camera down and was rewarded with some nice shots of a pair of these colorful birds who kept returning to the bare tree probably in the process of building their nest.
Looking back There is no doubt that the barbets and many other species have always been there. It’s just that I have never bothered to look for them.
Nature’s amazing moments don’t only happen to National Geographic or Animal Planet photographers. They occur every day and its really up to us to take the time off to pause and look around.
I’m reminded of a poem by William Henry Davies called ‘Leisure’.
The fact that I can still recite it almost verbatim (with a little help from the internet) is testament to the way my late Mother dinned it into my brain as a boy with the same stubborn, repetitive persistence of a coppersmith barbet pecking into the branch of a tree when building it’s nest!
Leisure by William Henry Davies
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
One last thing…
The other downside to the entire incident, apart from the obvious ones mentioned above, were the strange looks I received from passersby.
Multiple sightings of a middle aged, supposedly busy, oncologist loitering in the car park in the middle of the day was in itself enough to raise a few eyebrows.
The fact that he had a camera fitted with a humongous lens (Sigma 150-500mm OS) was a potential two-plus-two-makes-five situation for those with an over-imaginative mind!