Mumbai Bird Race – A Day Out in the Concrete Jungle

I am not a bright-eyed early riser at all. The idea of starting the day at 5 am makes me want to roll over and hit snooze till the next morning. You can be certain of my loyalty and love towards whatever it is that can drag me out of bed at daybreak.

At the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning, my husband and I stumbled out of our bed to join a group of birding enthusiasts on a mission to spend an entire day in a community exercise called the Mumbai Bird Race.

Started in 2005, the Mumbai Bird Race has grown into a nationwide event across 13 cities. Bird Race is a dawn to dusk bird-watching event where the participants try and record as many species of birds as possible in and around the metropolitan region. Each team documents their sightings on the eBbird monitoring app, where they record field observations and submit detailed checklists. Data collected in eBbird is analysed by experts to track bird movement and habitat distribution.

In Mumbai, the race took place on February 2, 2020 and saw over 300 participants who covered the various birding hotspots across the metropolitan region and spotted 192 species. This figure tells a poignant story of urban bio-diversity struggling to survive in an anarchically sprawling megacity like Mumbai. The figure, which is the lowest in 16 years since Bird Race began, is an indicator of an unhealthy ecosystem stifled by the country’s breakneck development agenda and habitat destruction.

Besides being a fun weekend activity, Bird Race aims to bring individuals together for the greater purpose of conserving birds and perhaps influencing policy that impacts their habitat and bio-diversity.

Wings of Manori

We met our team at Marve jetty and took the ferry over to Manori, our first birding ground of the day. It was birder mode from the second the ferry touched down. The cool winter morning was a pleasant setting for a long walk that took us past picturesque creeks, fields, mangroves and villages. Eight Mumbaikars – fledgling to seasoned bird watchers – inconspicuously peering at the mud flats, squinting up at the tree tops and down amidst reeds, examining a distant flutter through the binocular were not common sights for the locals who seemed rather amused.

We were greeted by a flock of little-ringed plovers foraging on the mudflat, occasionally running with small fast steps making them appear like tiny rolling balls. These winter visitors with striking black-and-white head and breast patterns were feeding alongside another busy flock of small waders, the little stint. I was particularly excited to see the plovers as it was a lifer for me. The word ‘Lifer’ in birding refers to a bird when it is seen and identified by the birder for the first time. And you know, firsts are always special.

Little-Ringed Plover stops to pose for the camera, Manori, Mumbai Bird Race 2020. Image credit: Vinod Acharekar

Like soldiers on the lookout, we continued to scan the area. The ubiquitous black kite looked majestic as the first rays of the sun peered from behind. The twittering of purple rumped sunbirds, the mellow songs of white-eared bulbuls and the far-reaching metronomic call of coppersmith barbets drowned out the urban noise of bikes and cars as we walked down the narrow village pathways.

A coppersmith barbet on Subabul tree, Lokhandwala Lake at Mumbai Bird Race 2020. Image credit: Vinod Acharekar

Our itinerary included long halts at two nearby watering holes. Waterbodies are perfect places to view birds up close as they dunk in for a drink or dive in for a catch. Little did we know that the first stop, Manori Talav, was not a watering hole for animals but a pool where the villagers bathed and washed their clothes. Consequently, chemicals in soaps and detergents had perhaps contaminated the water to a point where only cattle egrets and other urban scavengers like crows and pigeons came to dip their beaks. With some “tch tch” and disappointed head shakes we walked on.

Also read: An Unforgettable Trek to the Swamimalai Temple

A clearing opened up on our left to reveal another waterbody which appeared more like a run-off from the adjoining fields. This waterbody sans any aquatic vegetation was not a suitable habitat for ducks, geese and waterfowls as these species feed on aquatic plants. Nonetheless, it brought solace to other birds. Three fork-tailed black drongos frolicked in the water, diving and exhibiting, calling and enticing, begging for our attention.

With all the cameras pointed at them, the drongos put on an impressive show followed by a game of dive and seek by two wary golden orioles. The cameras and binocs soon turned to a flock of chestnut-tailed starlings gracefully dancing above us before landing on a gorgeous large tree. They instantly buried their heads into the bright flowers that were in full bloom, probably for nectar. Vinod Acharekar, our team leader and a wildlife enthusiast, later told me that the tree is called Palash.

Chestnut-tailed Starlings feeds on the flaming blooms of the Palash tree, Manori at Mumbai Bird Race 2020. Image credit: Vinod Acharekar

I learned that the Palash tree, with its irresistible bright orange-red flowers, are honey traps regularly visited by birds for nourishment. In the process the birds unintentionally act as its chief pollinators, thus maintaining a balance in ecosystem. What a beautiful marriage, I thought.

As we turned to leave, a grey wagtail popped up on a stone close by, cheerfully pumping its tail up and down. The grey wagtail with its lemon yellow under-tail and dark grey upper parts is undeniably more colourful than its name suggests.

A Grey Wagtail pops up to bid us goodbye, Manori at Mumbai Bird Race 2020. Image credit: Vinod Acharekar

An oasis in Lokhandwala

Tucked away on the edge of a bustling suburban Mumbai is a lesser known birder’s paradise called Lokhandwala lake. One year ago, I stood here staring at a few ducks swimming amid plastic bags and religious offerings, unaware that these ducks had flown all the way from Europe and North America to spend winter amongst us. I now know that they were Northern Pintails who left soon after and haven’t been spotted at the lake since.

I have, however, spotted many other feathered beauties on this lake since then and I find birdwatching perpetually interesting now. Bird expert and naturalist Sunjoy Monga, who is also a co-ordinator of the India Bird Race, has recorded around 122 bird species over and around the 4.5-acre freshwater lake.

After a long drive, we pulled into a dusty lane, dug-up in turn by Adani Electricity, MCGM and heaven knows what else. A mixture of woodland and mangrove, the lane leading to the lake is a hotspot of sorts as it is known to have surprised birders with sightings of an elusive Asian paradise flycatcher (White morph) and Asian koel amongst others.

Brief snatches of bird calls and songs of ashy prinia, oriental magpie robin and the Blyth’s reed warbler managed to cut through the noise coming from massive garbage trucks mindlessly tearing past the dirt path parallel to the lake on the other side.

Interestingly, the path leads to a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) garbage segregation unit and has been aided multiple instances of illegal debris dumping. Garbage and debris dumping are the biggest threats to mangroves and wetlands across Mumbai.

An Asian Paradise Flycatcher (White – male) in his habitat, Lokhandwala Lake at Mumbai Bird Race 2020. Image credit: Vinod Acharekar

The origin and ecology of the lake is also an interesting tale. The water body was created after a wall blocked a creek from the sea during the construction of a road to the electricity sub-station in the late 1980s. With the growth of aquatic plants over the years, the pond evolved into a bio-diverse wetland.

Today it’s a bird-watching hotspot but continues to suffer human abuse and indifference. Along comes summer with soaring temperature and the lake dries completely to reveal the cracked bed with layers of religious offerings and plastic wastes. The dabbling ducks and other water birds that call Lokhandwala lake their home fly off in search of temporary homes until next monsoon. The birds return when the lake fills up with water.

A Marsh Harrier hovers over the Lokhandwala Lake. Image credit: Vinod Acharekar.

As you might have guessed, I am a regular at this lake and so were a few other members of my team including Acharekar. Depending on the time of the day one has the pleasure of witnessing some fascinating avian behaviour such as; a pair of coppersmith barbet taking turns to chisel a nest-hole on a Subabul tree at the lake entrance, a wary rufous Asian paradise flycatcher taking quick dips in the water (roughly eight times), a marsh harrier ravenously hovering over the lake while the ducks below squeal nervously, a pair of bronze-winged jacanas cautiously foraging on the aquatic plants at the corner of the lake, this year’s winter visitors – Garganey, common teal, Northern shoveler and mallard – blending in and swimming alongside resident ducks like Indian spot-billed, lesser whistling teals, common coots to name a few, and my national geographic moment of spotting the small but formidable predator, Shikra, launching itself from thick foliage to grab and devour its evening snack – bats.

An Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Rufous – male) takes quick dips at Lokhandwala Lake at Mumbai Bird Race 2020. Image credit: Vinod Acharekar

While some of the above-mentioned sightings are from recent visits, most of these were also sighted during the race. Northern pintails among other previously spotted migratory birds eluded us. There could be many reasons for the change in migration pattern and trends. A long-term study could help us understand the changes.

As my mind wandered to the absentees, an iridescent green bee-eater flew close and made its presence felt. As the name suggests, bee-eaters feed on bees, not exclusively though. Here at the lake, they are often seen munching on dragonflies.

Winter visitor, Common Teal, sunbathing in Lokhandwala Lake at Mumbai Bird Race 2020. Image credit: Vinod Acharekar.

After observing the peripheries of the lake for a few hours we settled ourselves on the bank of the lake. As we sat there staring at the ducks under a hot mid-afternoon sun, listening to every chirp and flutter, admiring every colour, I noticed the calm and light on everybody’s faces. It had been a productive day and we closed our checklist at around 70 species.

Aditi Pradhan is a bird-watcher and film production consultant from Mumbai.

Featured image credit: Vinod Acharekar