January in Delhi, as in the rest of north India, is a bitterly cold month with mist and fog hiding the sun. Every morning, the sun rises quietly, a pale reddish-gold sphere, and tries to make a brave attempt to shine but soon a cruel grey curtain crawls out of nowhere to cover it and we are back to shivering as we huddle around electric or wood fires. The streets turn quiet as soon as the sun makes a hasty retreat after a failed attempt to brighten the day, and a cold, silent dusk falls all over the city. It seems as if a huge net of frozen mist has been sent down from the skies to cover its trees, gardens and homes. You wonder if this is the same city where hot dusty winds will blow in four months’ time and the same weak and pale sun will blaze ferociously on every blade of grass and turn them white.

The trees are not very happy as the new year dawns since they have not seen sunlight for the past few days. But the birds, always looking on the brighter side of things, cannot stop singing. They like the cold weather since there is plenty to eat and they can build up their strength for the nest-building days to come.

The tailorbird calls out in a high-pitched tone as it flits about restlessly, searching for something to eat. For a bird which is so tiny, it has a really loud call and you will hear it long before you can spot its green feathers amongst the foliage. Most people do not believe it is this tiny green bird with a long tail which is making this loud noise and keep looking for a bigger bird.

The tailorbird was made famous by Kipling in his stories as Darzi, and to live up to its name, it stitches up leaves with its sharp pointed beak to make a nest. It is almost impossible to find its leafy home even if you are standing right next to it. Our clever darzi chooses two or three pliant leaves and makes a little cone by stitching them up with thin yarn or grass and then places a soft feathery woolly nest in the centre. But since he cannot stop boasting about how clever he is – a bit like a fashion designer – you can sometimes find the nest by listening carefully to its incessant chatter and following the sound.

A tailorbird built a nest in a flower-pot in my veranda last year and I thought it was very silly of the bird to place its nest in such an unsafe position. I could not help it since the leaves had been stitched so carefully and two tiny eggs had already been laid by the mother bird.

People passed by the nest all day, we sat and talked right above it, the floor under the nest was swept and the flowerpot was watered. Nothing damaged the nest, and one day two little fledglings hopped out. They quickly learned to fly under their parents’ careful supervision and then the entire family flew away. Before they left the mother bird gave me a sharp look which said, “See, I am not as stupid as you thought.”

With the garden now ready with a rich selection of winter flowers full of nectar, the Purple Sunbird is cheerful as there are plenty of tiny insects to eat. A sudden flash of olive green and purple means the Purple Sunbird is here. The male is singing because he is happily anticipating the new glossy, metallic-purple plumage he will acquire for the breeding season. The female, a greenish-brown bird, watches him with quiet disapproval as she looks for food. I have a feeling she thinks the male spends too much time preening his feathers and she has to do all the hard work. Both have long pointed beaks which they dip into flowers to sip the nectar and help in cross-pollination.

The female will start her nest-building activities soon and the male, afraid to get his glossy new feathers dirty, does nothing to help her. She tirelessly collects bits of grass, fine twigs and dried leaves to construct an intricate nest which has a tiny porch above the entrance to keep out the rain. Once she has finished building the nest, she very cleverly camouflages it with cobwebs, bits of bark and caterpillar droppings. One may well be fooled into thinking, on seeing this nest, that it is a clump of rubbish hanging on the branch, blown in by the wind. I once sat all morning under a sunbird’s nest which had been built on a low branch and never realised it was its official residence till it flew out suddenly. The bird must have been waiting for an hour for me to leave and then finally got fed up and flew away, just the way we often try to dodge unwelcome guests who had overstayed their welcome.

The male sunbird does help to feed the fledglings but still takes time out to polish his beautiful breeding plumage which will soon disappear after which he will become a plain bird again. However, if you look closely, you will see a faint streak of purple to remind you of its former good looks.

Despite the bitterly cold and foggy mornings, this is a good month to head out to the open fields outside Delhi and then beyond to the vast Sultanpur lake where flocks of migratory birds are wintering. Most of them have flown a long distance from their breeding grounds in Central Asia, Tibet and Ladakh, braving hostile humans, freezing temperatures and icy storms. They start arriving in Sultanpur by September and are well-settled to celebrate the new year with us.

Excerpted with permission from Sunbirds In The Morning, Grey Hornbills At Dusk: Nature Rambles Through Delhi, Bulbul Sharma, Speaking Tiger Books.