Stopping by the Woods on a Sunday Morning by Salim Ali

The island of Salsette, the potential Greater Bombay, is a  veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For the greater part of the year it sleeps under the drab mantle of desiccated grass and  dustladen foliage, which is only lifted here and there in patches  as the hot weather advances, revealing gorgeous tints of  scarlet and orange as the various flowering trees, the silk  cotton, the coral and the butea (palas), blossom forth in masses of living flame.

But what a transformation the first few showers of the monsoon bring about. It is as though some magician had, by a pass of his wand, instilled fresh life into every object in the countryside. The grass springs up everywhere, and with it a  host of innumerable monsoon weeds, till soon, the whole landscape becomes one great fantasy in green.

Pools and puddles begin to form. The bull frog awakens to the song of spring after his protracted underground slumbers, and his croaking fills the air as he joyfully serenades his lady love. Soon she will lay her eggs in some sequestered pond, where a few days later innumerable multitudes of tadpoles will emerge to carry on the race and save music from extinction.

We shall select some Sunday morning late in August for a jaunt into the exquisite country surrounding the city. The heaviest blast of the monsoon is blown over, and we may now look forward without undue optimism to fine weather. The air is delightfully cool, the sky thinly overcast; banks of threatening nimbus drift across the heavens resulting only in occasionaldrizzles which help to subdue the uncomfortable steamy vapour that begins to rise immediately after the sun peeps out of his cloudy veil.

We leave our car by the side of the road, and loading ourselves with haversacks containing some sandwiches, a water bottle, specimen tubes and a camera, we commence the trudge into the interior. Creepers of that magnificent lily, Gloriosa superba, aptly named, are growing in every hedge. A few of the flowers are out, though the majority will bloom after a couple of weeks. Every monsoon, this creeper springs into life from the bulbs lying latent underground from the previous session.

The flower itself is a picture of loveliness, yellow, red and green. The delicately shaped tapering leaves terminate in tactile tendrils which readily entwine themselves round any object that comes within their reach. Would that colour photography were easier of attainment! No ordinary photograph can ever hope to do justice to this exquisite flower.

The gloriosa lily is, as it were, part and parcel of.the suburban countryside of Bombay in the rains. Large numbers of a wild gentian are also out infyie swampy grass fields now, while clusters of the dazzling red ixora flowers are present on all sides. Everything is calling out to the naturalist; would that this state of loveliness could survive the months to come, of dust and heat and desiccation.

We follow the path leading into the “hinterland”, the main object of our ramble this morning being to locate birds’ nests. We turn our footsteps towards the hills, on the other side of which lies beautiful Tulsi lake hemmed in by verdure which might rival in magnificence that of any tropical rain forest.

The monsoon is the breeding season par excellence of insectivorous birds, and also of the numerous others who, though when adult, subsist principally on grain, yet require soft food in the nature of juicy grubs and caterpillars to nourish their young in the nest. Owing to the sprouting of fresh grass and vegetation, the caterpillars, which also appear at this time in devastating hordes, find easy sustenance. Thus, it is in birds that Providence has devised the most efficient automatic control agencies. Were it not for the check exercised by man’s feathered friends at this crucial period, a time would soon come when not only crops but all vegetation would cease to be. Such is the astounding rate at which insects multiply that no power
of man’s invention alone would ever be capable of stemming the overwhelming tide of their numbers.

There is warbling and song on every side; courting and nest-building are in progress everywhere, and a few early birds are already catching the worm, that is to say, those who have already undertaken parental cares are now busy feeding their chicks.

Finding a nest in thick cover is by no means a simple matter. There are people who will cover miles of a morning in the most promising-looking country and complain to you later that they did not come upon a single nest; that, as a matter of fact, there were no nests to come upon. Happily, there is a knack in locating birds’ nests, and to hope to come upon them accidentally is futile. If this were not so, it would result in a very serious menace to the birds and be a grave impediment to their success in rearing families.

Nests are protected from their enemies either by being built in such secluded spots that without a clue of some sort, no one would think of searching for them there; or they are built of such material and design and with so much cunning and camouflage that to the untrained eye they either become totally invisible or entirely unsuspicious looking objects.

The nest of the purplerumped sunbird, common almost throughout India, affords a case in point. It is a pendulous pouch attached to the tip of an outhanging twig of the beror babool tree, seldom more than eight or ten feet from the ground. The material employed in its construction is fine rootlets, and fibres, and the whole thing is so untidily plastered over on the outside with all manner of rubbish – spiders’ egg cases, pieces and shreds of pith, bark and paper, strings of caterpillar borings and droppings, and so on – as to resemble to perfection a mass of rubbish, and least likely to attract the attention of the casual passerby.

The simulation is further heightened by the fact that the entrance to the nest – a round hole near the top of the pearshaped structure, surmounted by a tiny little porch – is always on the inside, i.e., facing the tree, and therefore concealed from the intruder. Such camouflaged nests usually get detected only on account of the movements of their owners, their comings and goings with building material or with food for their young or, otherwise, by their inordinate fussiness.

The trick of locating nests, therefore, lies not so much in traversing miles of likely country as in keeping an ever-watchful eye as you slowly saunter along, and patiently waiting for the birds to give away their secrets of their own accord.

An insignificant little brown and white bird, somewhat smaller than a bulbul, silently slips off a karonda bush at our approach, and flies into a neighbouring tree whence the field glasses disclose his apparent anxiety. This behaviour is distinctly suggestive. We walk upto the bush and peer inside.

A pleasant surprise is in store.

There, concealed from view by the large green leaves and almost in the centre, is a deep cup made of rootlets and grass, slung hammockwise between the stems of two monsoon
plants. It is plastered on the outside with a supply of cobwebs. The cup is so deep that we have to bend right over for a view of the contents. It holds three beautiful roundish eggs, yellow-white in colour, with fine ruddy specks. Having photographed the nest, we withdrawn behind a neighbouring bush and await the return of the unidentified proprietor.

Finding the coast clear, our friend approaches, he is too cautious to fly straight up to the nest. Alighting on the further side of the bush, he hops from twig to twig, peering through the tangle to assure himself that the danger is past. Soon, he comes into full view and in the twinkling of an eye, slips in and is settled on the eggs. Binoculars now disclose his identity.

He, or it may be she, for both sexes are alike and take part in incubation, is the yellow-eyed babbler, a chestnut brown bird with white underparts and a conspicuous white streak over the eye. Close relatives of the well-known “seven sisters”, yellow- eyed babblers go about in small parties, searching for insect prey among bushes and under fallen leaves. During this, their bridal season, the males constantly clamber up to the exposed tips of bushes and tussocks of grass, and burst forth into a pleasant little song of several loud and melodious notes.

Leaving the yellow-eye to its parental cares, we proceed on our way. A great commotion set up by a pair of fussy little tailorbirds draws us towards the thick tangle of a large-leafed creeper. The anxious couple hops around us from bush to bush, expressing the deepest concern in a series of alarmed”pit-pit- pit-pits”. Their antics lead to a search which is soon rewarded by the revelation of that beautiful little sartorial masterpiece, the tailor’s home.

A large pendant leaf is folded round in the shape of a funnel, and neatly stitched with thread of vegetable down along the edges. Within the cone so formed is a regular cup of fibres lined with cotton and down. The nest is fresh but empty, but we soon discover a trio of fluffy chicks, stumpy-tailed little mites, who have obviously just made their debut into the world. They sit huddled together on an adjacent twig, too innocent yet to have learnt anything of the wiles and treacheries of the world, and so, are perfectly fearless and confiding. Unfortunately, the light is far from satisfactory, and we have perforce to resume our tramp without having used the camera.

The tailorbird is one of our three commonest warblers, and certainly the most accomplished nest-builder of them all. The other two are also tiny birds of about the same size with longish, loosely-set tails, and are known as the ashy wren- warbler and the Indian wren-warbler respectively. Both these are also busy with family cares at the present time, and, as a matter of fact, we have not far to go before we alight on a nest of the former.

It is on the farther side of a nullah that lies across our path. We catch a glimpse of the occupant as he takes off from a chunk of the large leafed monsoon weeds now so abundant everywhere. Marking down the spot, we wade across and bend low to have a good look under the leaves. There it is, a structure not unlike the abode of the tailorbird, which, to our delight, contains three tiny, polished, brick red eggs.

The remarkable thing about this nest is that it hangs directly over a used cattle path, on which the hoof marks still show – muddy puddles indicating that cattle have just gone over. Each time an animal passes this way, the nest must be brushed aside and shaken violently. The bird is undoubtedly an optimist; but it has at least the courage of its convictions, and is now well on the way to bringing up a family, mischievous herd boys permitting.

That dainty little fairy waltzer, the fantial flycatcher, whose cheery song and lively movements delight every resident of Bombay fortunate enough to posses a garden, has also turned his fancy to thoughts of love. In a lime tree growing in a semi-deserted garden, barely at a height of four feet from the ground, a marvellous little cone-shaped cup, two inches across, is marked down by following a bird carrying off a caterpillar. It is well plastered on the exterior with that approved cement of bird architects, cobwebs.

Three little baby birds occupy this nest. They are nearly full-fledged and will sally forth into the world in a day or two. Everybody acquainted with the fantail knows what a fury it can become when its nest is in danger. The parents promptly launch a violent attack, pecking at our hats and uttering feverish chucks of irritation, which, no doubt, are far from complimentary language.

The harmony within the fantail household is an object lesson in domestic give-and-take. We are astonished at the way in which three strapping, grown-up, hungry chicks can accommodate themselves amicably in this diminutive domicile. They are packed so tightly together that two of them have their wings hanging over edges of the nest.

The common iora’s nest is a very similar structure to the flycatcher’s, with this consistent difference that while in the fantail’s nest, strips of grass and rubbish are left dangling below, the iora’s is well rounded off at the bottom, loras also nest at this time of the year. They usually select a crotch formed by horizontal or vertical twigs, building skillfully around them so as to incorporate the supports into the wall of the nest.

The cup is composed of grass, fine roots and fibres, and here again, cobwebs play an important role in the lacing. In addition to binding the material firmly together, cobwebs serve as an efficient waterproof covering to prevent the water from seeping in through the sides of the nest. When the bird is sitting on its eggs, the plumage of the back is frowzled out and raised to form a dome. The fluffy feathers of the lower back, moreover, overhang the sides of the nest, the tout ensemble forming a most effective protection against the heaviest monsoon shower.

Birds are loath to allow their eggs to get cooled. While we are getting the camera ready to photograph the nest, the sitting bird is alarmed and leaves. Presently, a drizzle intervenes, the hen iora takes up her position on the eggs regardless of our proximity, nevertheless keeping one eye intently on our movements.

Although male bayas (weaver birds) have begun to don their nuptial garb about the time of the rains breaking and quite a number may be seen playing at nest construction, they hardly give serious thought to parental responsibilities till the monsoon is well advanced. Around the end of August, operations begin in earnest and work is in full swing everywhere. Unlike the sunbird, the lion’s share of the work appears to devolve on the cocks. The hens make their appearance on the scene only at a later stage. Their arrival invariably causes a great flurry amongst the lovelorn swains,whose strutting, impetuous advances must be quite embarrassing to the fair ones.

It is getting late in the afternoon, and we are a good way off from the car. Our way back lies through patches of open grass-land, where the cattle from the neighbouring village are turned out to graze. Amongst these we find numbers of large white birds with long slender necks and pointed dagger-like bills. They run freely in and out of the animals feet, darting forward every now and again with lighting rapidly at the insects and grasshoppers disturbed in their progress. These are the cattle egrets, found in attendance on village cattle all over  India. They are now in their breeding livery; golden on the neck and the back.

A monsoon ramble through the woods will delight anyone who has the eyes to see and the soul to wonder at the romance and charm of this other world within our world. The electrification of the suburban railways has now thrown the delightful country in the environs of Bombay within comfortable and speedy reach of everybody. To the lover of the out-of-doors, the opportunities are such as might rightly be the envy of the less fortunate dwellers of almost every one of the
other large cities in the country. Yet, how few are there who will sacrifice their Sunday morning sleep.

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