Backyard birding in Chennai gets a fillip at this time of the year

 Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

The migratory race of the Orange-headed Thrush that Chennai plays host to in winters

A couple of days ago, looking up towards the sky, around dusk, to see (mostly) flying foxes, parakeets, egrets and pigeons, from a mid-city Chennai terrace, a falcon, an unusual sight in these parts, zipped across overhead, snatched a small bird  (or bat), with its talons, (spectacularly) mid-flight, before disappearing from view. The event lasted less than a minute, and it was too dark to make out any other features, except to make out that a bird was a mid to large sized Falconid. Could it have been a Peregrine Falcon, resident or migratory race, both of which have been recorded from within Chennai? Or a rarer passage migrant (Amur Falcon for example)? While still early for bulk of the winter visiting and passage migrant raptors, passerines and shore birds in Chennai, early September marks the beginning of the season, when the city’s urban gardens and wetlands, plays host to an interesting variety of avian visitors from afar.

Indian Pitta are always a delight to see, and often quite vocal at dawn and dusk

While in Chennai, I am especially partial to the convenience of backyard birding, weighing the impressive, ‘winter’ diversity of birdlife in the grasslands and wetlands around the city (or should have been, but now bang in the middle of it, thanks to the sharks (no offence to the nice kind that inhabit oceans), who manage to convert water into land), against the traffic and pollution, that one needs to grapple with, on the way to anywhere that resembles a pleasantish natural area, within a couple of hours from the city. Besides, some of my best birding moments have occurred while glancing groggily at a backyard green-space, with a newspaper and a morning cup of filter coffee for company, when ‘something unusual’ (hard to explain this any other way) would hop into the periphery of my vision. These high intensity birding efforts (yes, because I would then have to frantically rush inside to find a pair of binoculars before the bird rushes off)  have produced, not only the regular winter migrants like the Indian Pitta, Orange-headed Thrush, Brown Shrike, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Asian Brown Flycatcher but also relative rarities like Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Green Leaf Warbler, Forest Wagtail, Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher and even a Slaty-legged Crake! Pittas, always nice to see, and Asian Brown Flycatcher, tend to stick around, if they find the buffet of insects etc to their liking that is, but the least expected and longest staying visitor, turned out to be the rare (in these parts), Slaty-legged Crake, happily spending a couple of months, skulking in the low bushes along the compound wall! It also helps that as a family of nature enthusiasts, it is not just my groggy, peripheral vision that picks up these shapes, and it has often been my father’s in which such happy matters have come to light. While not in the (at least mine) backyard, but rather at the superb Huddleston Gardens of Chennai’s Theosophical Society, one of the city’s finest green spaces along the Adyar Estuary, I have come across rarities like Chestnut-winged Cuckoo and Ashy Minivet, lifers at that time and birds I have not seen anywhere else since. Although I have not been as lucky, others have also recorded seasonal visitors like the lovely Black Baza, Indian Blue Robin, the rarely seen Malayan Night Heron and Tickell’s Thrush, among others, in the city’s green spaces.

All told, this is the time of the year to look out for, look forward to, the dash of variety that these avian visitors provide, few of them here to stay put in the green spaces around Chennai, but many on their long haul from the Himalayan region to the jungles of Sri Lanka (the same species also head to the mountains of south India, but I understand the migratory path is different for those populations).

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