Capturing various moods of birds in suburban shimla

Birding Encounters

We were staying at a nature retreat set amidst pine and oak trees and surrounded by a mixed forest, in the hills around Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. It was an amazing destination for both amateur birdwatchers and for a birding aficionado. The verdant, sylvan surroundings in the Himalayan ambience were home to many different species of birds. Spring, autumn and early winters are the best times for rewarding sightings.

My happiest moments were when a flock of laughing thrush cackling, suddenly descended down just in front of me.
During my staycation in the hills, I was blessed to sight these beautiful creatures time and again in their various moods; about 35 different species of birds out of which 25 I managed to capture through my lens, a mere 300 mm.

How I wished I could have done more justice to the documentation and photography of the Himalayan birds; in the serene and pristine environment, surrounded by deep valleys and rising hills where the end of a day was also tranquilly beautiful with mesmerizing sunsets and radiant moonlit nights.

My meditation was putting feed for the birds and watching a yellow billed blue magpie as it glided elegantly from the deep forest onto a pretty birdhouse vantagely placed on a pine just outside my cottage. It was indeed a delight watching it pick up a biscuit crumb, spilling some grains with its feet as it darted onto a neighboring higher branch safe from predators.

In November we found teeming bird life with juveniles creating a merry havoc. I met many such winged friends here right from 7 to 11 in the morning and again from 4 to 6 in the evening.  All the birding spots were closeby, the birds congregating either on the bird houses strategically placed or on the Wild Himalayan Cherry Tree, drinking nectar from the flower with darting movements and stretched necks or across the slopes behind my cottage where a group of pheasants clucked around as they searched for seeds and insects on the ground.

My work sessions were often interrupted as the staccato beat of a green woodpecker beckoned me or I remembered I had to collect some cracked corn and peanuts from the kitchen to replenish the birdhouses!

I am sharing below some of my birding encounters and experiences with pictures.

White Crested Laughing Thrush

It is pleasantly vocal. The rufous plumage and its snowy raised crest bestows it a crowning regal look. With its black eye-mask, flitting around with dance-like movements, presents me with the impression that life for laughing thrushes is a perpetual masquerade ball.

All through November, early morning, braving a bracing chill, I ventured out of my cottage and scattered grain seeds on the ground at the base of a pine tree. Without fail a flock of laughing thrushes would soon arrive and gleefully go about picking an early breakfast. I always think of this thrush as a happy and friendly bird.

Owls are mostly solitary and nocturnal birds of prey typified by an upright stance, a large, broad head, binocular vision, binaural hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight. Since owls have fixed eye sockets, which means their eyeballs can’t rotate, these birds have the ability to swivel their heads 270 degrees in each direction to see what’s around and behind them. A group of owls is called a “parliament.” This doesn’t leave much to imagine!

Asian Barred Owlet

During my early morning walk, I sighted this cute diminutive owl perched serenely high up on a pine tree just outside my cottage. The owl is both feared and embraced. The vahan of goddess of wealth, the Owl denotes wisdom. On the other hand, the Owl also represents Alakshmi, the polar opposite of Goddess Lakshmi. In our culture the owl also denotes stupidity. Traditionally, many Native American Tribes considered owls to be a symbol of death. Hearing an owl hoot or screech was a bad omen. In Greek mythology, the goddess Athene was thought to symbolize wisdom and was often depicted with an owl nearby. The Greeks also thought owls had some sort of inner light that let them see at night.

Russet Sparrow

A casual mid-morning glance out of the large window of my cottage, in between a tepid session of stock trading, favored me with the sight of a russet sparrow sitting placidly on a gnarled branch. I was lucky that the back of my cottage overlooked a forest where the trees were frequented by many birds. There were more such sparrows on the ground. It was a pleasant vista as childhood memories of the chirupping of the ubiquitous (then) house sparrows popped up. 

The russet sparrow, also called the cinnamon sparrow because of its color, is a passerine seed-eating bird but it also eats berries and insects, particularly during the breeding season.  It has a thick bill, is small in size with a body length of around six inches. Its plumage is mainly warm rufous above and grey below. 

Rufous Sibia

This is an attractive orange arboreal (living in trees) bird with blue-tinged wingtips and a black, weakly crested head. Its song is a pleasant-sounding series of notes on nearly the same pitch. The Wild Himalayan Cherry Tree is called Padmakh in Hindi and Pajja in the local dialect. 

Red Billed Magpie

I have hazy childhood memories of reading stories about magpies and the myth surrounding their thieving characters and the truth about their animated chatter.
However it was only in 2003 (nearly 30 years later), when hiking in the Himalayan foothills, that I had my first (which I remember) enthralling sight of a flock of red billed blue magpies, elegant in flight with their long tails and cackling away happily. Though their call, a high pitched whistle, when by themselves is completely different from the merry raucous when in a group.

Now during my recent two month staycation at suburban Shimla in Himachal Pradesh in November and December 2020 I saw many of these bright blue, white bellied, black headed, red billed essentially arboreal birds, enchanting as always. Post the nesting and breeding season, I followed their initial life journey as they grew from juveniles to young adults. I also put up a bird house in the pine tree in front of my cottage which these fellows started frequenting – many a time bullying away the bulbuls, tits, thrushes and nuthatches true to their aggressive nature – preferring the apple peels and biscuit crumbs to grains.

My daily meditation was spending many long minutes with them and trying to capture their various moods as they glided across the trees in the forest behind my cottage, often in a hide and seek playful spirit.

Lesser Yellownape

A post lunch impromptu whim pushed Ranjana and me on the trail to a nearby hilltop. After about 15 minutes we found ourselves walking through a quiet forest stretch with the rays of the afternoon sun shining through the branches forming entrancing patterns on the ground. As I stopped for a swig of water to wet my parched throat, I heard what sounded like a woodpecker on the trunk of an oak tree. I looked around and up expecting to see a common Himalayan woodpecker but instead was rewarded with the sight of a Lifer – A Lesser Yellownape! 

This is a type of woodpecker which is a widespread and often common breeder in tropical and sub-tropical Asia, primarily the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Its colorful yellow crest bobbed incessantly as it worked dexterously with its beak foraging for a delicious meal. The primarily greenish avian, at times lost between the leaves, was rather oblivious of my presence and I was gifted with an extended leisurely sighting.

Scaly Bellied Woodpecker

The scaly-bellied woodpecker is large in size with a green back and has a distinctive scaly pattern running from the belly to the tail. The males have a red crown and females have a blackish one. Other features include a large pale bill and a black cheek stripe.

I found this woodpecker within the campus in the barbecue area and it offered a clear sighting, my vision unhindered by branches and foliage, as it was perched on the lower part of a pine tree. The other woodpeckers I have sighted here are the Grey Hooded Woodpecker, Himalayan Woodpecker and Lesser Yellownape.

Grey Faced Woodpecker

Another one from the one of my favorite families – the woodpeckers. This is a distinctive medium-sized woodpecker with a gray face and a thin black moustache stripe. This grey faced woodpecker (also known as grey headed woodpecker) looks to be a female as it lacks the red forehead patch which males have. They have uniformly olive green upperparts. It has a shorter neck, slimmer bill and slightly rounder head than the green woodpecker.

The Himalayan Woodpecker

The Himalayan Woodpecker is a species of bird in the Picidae family. This was the most commonly found woodpecker at Park Woods. However it generally perched on the higher tree branches making a clear sighting difficult at times. It has a black back, a white patch on the shoulders, and white spots on the flight feathers. A distinctive black stripe runs around the ears to the base of the bill. The top of the male’s head is red, while the female’s is black. I saw solitary ones in the mixed forests here along the trunks of pine and oak trees. 

Between feeding (on insects), rapid rolls of drumming (to advertise their presence to others) and excavating nest cavities in dead or dying trees (as the wood is softer), woodpeckers can peck up to 20 times per second and 10000 times in a day.

Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch

A nuthatch is a small passerine with a short tail, powerful beak and stocky body.

This one used to frequent a tree just outside my cottage and looks to be a juvenile as it has a white head instead of greyish. They are pretty fearless and can hence can be often watched at close quarters. That is how I also noticed the backward pointing toe (heel, ankle) that many birds have. 

Nuthatches are known for their abilities to grip a tree bark as they walk up and down, and around trunks and branches and to hang upside down on the underside of tree limbs as they forage for insects and seeds. The  name nuthatch is derived from nut hacker, reflecting the bird’s method of opening up nuts and seeds by jamming them into a crevice then hammering at them.

Blue Whistling Thrush

I would be drawn towards this loner by its loud and long human sounding whistle. A juvenile and an adult frequented the area, one often found foraging on the ground for insects while the other could be spotted serenely perched on the fence after having picked wild berries from a tree. Though the thrush sounded pleasant enough, I don’t know why but it somehow always projected a forlorn and plaintive feeling to me.

Royal blue in color, contrasted with a yellow bill, it has the first speckled bird I saw, this one easily identifiable by the white spots on its head, back and wings.

Scarlet Minivet

The scarlet minivet is an eight inch passerine bird. It is extremely frisky and forages on the higher branches. This nature and its small size makes it not very easy to photograph. The black upperparts and scarlet underparts lend it a brilliant appearance, always a pleasure to feast one’s eyes on. Though not  very clear I did manage to get a colored silhouette of this attractive bird in between multiple sightings. 

Article Authored By: Achal Bindraban.
Page Design By: Ranjana Achal.
Pictures By: Achal.

Cinerous Tit

Cinerous tit is a small black, white and ashy bird about 15-20 cm (6″-8″) in size. It is cute without any crest on its black hood, the face accentuated by a white cheek patch and the black wings stylishly edged by white narrow bands. I was lucky to get a clear shot. It is found mainly in light woodlands. 

Bulbul

Bulbul is a name for the most generic songbird I have heard since childhood. It is a shame I never noticed the red whiskered bulbuls which used to frequent our huge garden when I was a kid. From the bulbuls I have sighted, the sweetest songlike sound I would say is of the Black Bulbul. Our very own Sarojini Naidu was once addressed as Bulbul-e-Hind in the Indian Parliament.

A Himalayan Black Bulbul diving to pick a berry.

The Himalayan Black Bulbuls were easily sighted at the forested nature resort I was staying in. They were clearly identifiable by their short dark crest and red beak and legs. The ones here had slate grey plumage. Though small in size their long tails and elongated beaks give an impression of a larger bird. I frequently saw these sweetly noisy birds in groups frolicking between broad leaved berry trees.  


Outlined against the cerulean sky at dusk, the bulbul silhouettes took a strangely surreal beauty on the bare branches. 


White Eared Bulbul

The white-eared bulbul, or white-cheeked bulbul, is a member of the bulbul family. It has a black head, small crest, white patch on the cheek and a grey body.
Charmingly camouflaged by Pajja Flowers, (Wild Himalayan Cherry) the reason why the floral bunch wasn’t blurred while taking the shot.

Himalayan Black Lored Tit

Himalayan Black Lored Tit veiled by pine needles! Just the right one for a futuristic fashion show with its springy crested head and a yellow and black face. As the cinerous,  black wings stylishly edged by white narrow bands.

Treepie:

If you want to see a charming (debatable) member of the crow family, look out for the treepie. It is a Corvidae, a common bird and almost everyone would have seen it. Largely found on trees, mainly oak and rhododendrons, it can now also be discovered in broad-leaved urban foliage. It looks like something between a crow and a magpie and can be distinguished by its hooked beak, long tail, colored feathers and metallic call.

Rufous Treepie:
Where I was staying, the Rufous Treepies would regularly frequent the birdhouse. They would aggressively swoop down scaring away the smaller avians and pick the grains and crumbs rowdily. Though its colors varied from shades of black to rust to dark blue to white, I wouldn’t term it as a colorful bird because of a lack of bright hues.
Grey Treepie:
Less abundantly seen than the rufous, this arboreal creature is also known as the Himalayan Treepie and I found it on a pine tree. The main difference seemed to be the lack of cinnamon tones.
No, we didn’t get to see four and twenty blackbirds but just one. For the flock, I revisited the nursery rhyme and also the Poirot murder mystery in the evening in the cozy confines of my cottage! 

Grey Winged Blackbird

On the way to the dining machaan Ranjana all of sudden spotted this male and managed to capture it with her tiny camera. Since then I always remembered to pick up my Nikon D5600 / 70-300 mm even when we went for meals or a casual stroll. The grey-winged blackbird (Turdus boulboul) is a large forest thrush. The males are black and the flash of silvery plumage gives them a distinguished look. Their orange beak and white eye-rings cut away the camouflage in the forest and undergrowth. The females are brown. Endemic to the  Himalayas, in winters these birds migrate to lower altitudes.

Grey Hooded Warbler

The grey-hooded warbler is a species of the leaf warbler. It is a delicately beautiful, small (around 5″)  arboreal warbler with a greenish back, lemon-yellow underparts, a cinder-gray head and white eyebrow stripe. Somewhat similar a to yellow-bellied warbler, but has a yellow throat instead of white.
I used to meet this restless passerine at lunchtime darting around on the trees just outside the dining machan overlooking the valley. Lucky that I used to carry my Nikon D5600, 300 mm. Initially I was vacillating with regards the passerine’s identity between a oriental white-eye and a yellow-bellied fantail (also very briefly flirting with the idea that it might be a common chiffchaff) but a majority of birders on forums emphatically asserted that it was a Grey Hooded Warbler!


Kalij Pheasant / Red Jungle Fowl

I was staying in a forested area in the Himalaya Foothills for sometime. The first birds which I often woke up with were the big boys and girls – a mixed flock of Kalij Pheasants and Wild Red Jungle Fowls. Foraging busily in the ground, these skittish pheasants would vanish in the undergrowth, scuttling and taking short, low flights as soon as they saw or heard me!


Kalij Pheasant

The male Kalij Pheasant is larger than the female and more colorful with bluish plumage and white scales on the lower back. It has a scarlet wattled face with a regal backward pointing finely feathered crest and a bluish white hooked beak. The females are brownish and relatively smaller in size.

Kalij Pheasant (Female)
Red Jungle Fowl
Kalij Pheasant (Male)

Red Jungle Fowl

Wild Red Jungle Fowl

The Wild Red Jungle Fowl is difficult to photograph as it keeps bobbing its head constantly while looking for food. It is a beautiful bird with a rainbow of colours ranging from tomato red to tangerine to teal to aqua to rust to black with long black feathers at the back as long as its main body. I learnt a couple of interesting facts about this bird. One that the chicken was domesticated from the red jungle fowl about 8000 years ago. The second that wattles and comb help it in heat regulation and reddishness indicating good health. Read about it, you may find this grain of knowledge interesting.  

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