Tracking The Seasons In An Urban Jungle

Sometime before the days have fully shaken off their winter chill, the light Bangalore breeze begins to carry some new scents with it; scents that I have come to associate with summer. I don’t know what they are, but my imagination helps me a little and I’ve settled on flowers getting ready to bloom, new leaves slowly unfurling and the promise of a light drizzle when the days warm up too much.

Winter had brought some visitors from the temperate regions: birds that flew long distances in search of warmer weather and more food. Like people exchanging news about where the rains first arrived, the online birdwatching community of Bangalore begins to swap emails about the first winter migrants. The arrival of spot-billed pelicans, pittas arriving exhausted and falling off trees, European marsh harriers gliding over the city’s water bodies. There is considerable excitement when somebody spots a passage migrant - birds that pass through India on their way to another destination. Or sometimes, worry that the number of migrants has fallen in recent years, with the lakes of the city disappearing.

 Some of the visitors to the Champaka Tree

Some of the visitors to the Champaka Tree

If excited notes about sightings of winter visitors are not enough to make me twitch and want to go say individual hello’s to all the new birds, the eBird portal, which is a citizen science initiative for birdwatchers, is abuzz with sightings. I pore over these to select the destination of my next birding jaunt, exclaiming now and then to whoever is listening about the different kind of birds people have seen. Meanwhile, I hear some new calls in the tamarind tree outside my house. The ‘chuck!’ of the Blyth’s reed warbler, the ‘chi-su-wee’ of the green warbler. These chaps will stay a little past winter. I will hear their calls even as I start to grumble about how warm the days are growing.

The Asian koel who had been silent during the winter, starts its loud routine of calling repeatedly until it reaches fever pitch in the early hours of the morning. The fading away of winter is also the time when many trees demand my attention. I stand under the Sterculia tree in my institute one morning to marvel at how its bright red seed pods look very much like macaroons. Apart from the seeds, it is completely bare. Just ten days later, I am surprised to find it grandly decked with the delicate green of its new leaves. This then progresses to a lush, jade foliage. I find that this quick change often catches me unawares when I don’t watch it very closely. This happened with the Pongaemia trees too; I was caught by surprise one morning to find them all cloaked in a bright green.

 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

While some trees sprout new leaves, I’m treated to a slow rain of seeds and leaves of other trees, which either spiral, drift or float dreamily to the ground, sometimes reflecting the sunlight. The Bangalore breeze happily carries these along with it and deposits some on my balcony and window sill.  I feel a strong urge to sit under one of these trees and contemplate, in the way of a zen Buddhist, about the transience of life. Every time I find the helicopter blade-like seed pods of the Mahogany tree, I throw it up in the air and watch it spiral down. I wonder if it is because these seeds can be easily dispersed by the wind that trees like the large-leaved Mahogany which have their origins in far off countries still persist.

 A cattle egret before and after it sports its breeding plumage

A cattle egret before and after it sports its breeding plumage

Soon after this the great flower extravaganza of Bangalore begins. And I am at a loss to decide which tree I should be enchanted by. Should it be the the Tabebuia, or Pink Poui, whose pink flowers look very much like the cherry blossom? Or the lavender Jacaranda whose flowers carpet the road outside my house? Definitely the delicate white flowers of the Champak tree? I am easily intoxicated by its fragrance. I decide to be a fickle lover instead, and let myself be charmed by all of Bangalore’s flowering trees in turn.

 

I find that this quick change often catches me unawares when I don’t watch it very closely.

 

The months leading to the monsoon are the breeding and nesting season for many birds, which I find very entertaining. Male birds put in a lot of effort to woo the females. Often the males are the more colourful of the two sexes and during the breeding season the difference between their plumage is even more stark, with the males molting and developing brighter and different colours or longer feathers. It is generally thought that it is the most fit males that look the most dapper, since it is energetically quite costly for the male to maintain his resplendent plumage. Some birds even perform a solemn display for the scrutinising females. The Bengal bushlark flies about 10 metres into the air and then slowly parachutes down with wings outstretched, uttering a shrill call while doing so.

 Mating display of a Bengal bush lark

Mating display of a Bengal bush lark

And then I see birds flitting about carrying nesting material. We had a purple sunbird nesting in our garden one summer. Its nest was an oblong structure hanging from a branch, made of bits of grass, twigs and cobwebs. I was most curious and tried approaching it one morning, but the male suddenly flew to a tree next to me as though to distract me and began calling and hopping around agitatedly. I  thought it was best not to be too nosy and tried watching the male and female visit the nest with food for the fledgelings. As Salim Ali writes, ‘both sexes share domestic duties’.

Each season brings something new to marvel at and be a part of. There is so much more I haven’t written of. Like the migration of swarms of butterflies to the Western Ghats and the return of their progeny to the plains of southern India. Or the garden lizards that are easy to see basking in the sun on winter mornings. But with the changing climate, these phenomena which closely track the seasons will begin to change. And everything that depends on it will either have to adapt or lose out.  I wonder if our cities, with its insatiable appetite to grow will make this easy.

Illustrations by the author.

Join a growing community of birding enthusiasts on the Bangalore birds group. Get access to resources to keep track of the birds you spot at eBird.

Anisha is an alumna of the WCS-NCBS Master's programme in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. She is currently a researcher with Center for Wildlife Studies. She likes plodding through forests and watching savanna skies. You can follow her here.