Each morning, Delhi-based architect Niyati Satsangi rushes through her household chores so she can watch her favourite couple, the purple sunbird pair, build a nest in a secluded spot in her balcony. Satsangi spends nearly an hour quietly watching the birds as they weave the nest on a bushy bougainvillea creeper.

Satsangi is new to bird-watching, something she started doing only after the 21-day lockdown was imposed across India on March 25 in an effort to stop the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic. “I find it very meditative and will hopefully take it more seriously,” she said.

Satsangi is not alone. There are a bunch of people who are waking up to a host of sounds they didn’t pay attention to before. They have started to hear what they describe as “melodious loud whistles or koo-el” or the “keek-keek-keek of the Asian koel” and the “monotonous kutroo-kutroo of the brown-headed barbets”.

For these newly-initiated birders, mornings are drowned in the squawking of rose-ringed parakeets and the long wails of the Indian peafowl. Afternoons are brought in with the sharp metallic “hook hook” rap of the coppersmith barbet. People may be confined in their homes, but their surroundings have become sources of ornithological marvel. What has brought about this surge in bird watching?

“We are used to waking up to the sounds of our water motors, vendors or incessant horns. With everything quiet now, these bird sounds have become more audible,” said seasoned birder Gireesh. Gurgaon-based birding expert, Kanwar B Singh, who noted that April is the peak mating and nesting season.

Rose-ringed parakeets. Credit: Gireesh

Challenging times

Delhi is a birding hotspot with over 300 species around the city. For a first-timer like Satsangi, there’s plenty to look forward to. But how are seasoned birders coping? Those who are addicts, the ones that can be spotted with a pair of binoculars permanently slung around their necks?

For Gireesh, living on the fourth floor and the undisturbed view of mulberry, neem, peepul and semal trees – which are known as bird magnets – have proved to be a boon. “Scanning these trees the other day, I saw a few eyes staring at me and realised I was looking at ten pairs of green pigeons, who were delicately plucking at the semal tree,” he said.

Meanwhile, Singh enjoys the view from the 26th floor of his high-rise. With the best aerial view in town, he says he can literally look at birds in the eye. He has spotted 35 bird species so far, including the steppe eagle and a crested serpent eagle. Singh, who runs a popular birders’ group on Facebook, recently invited people to record bird sightings and sounds from their homes and post it under #BalconyBirding.

He has been posting photos and descriptions of bird sightings on the group every day. “Most serious enthusiasts don’t watch birds from their homes. So I thought why not challenge that norm? It encourages social distancing and when you start identifying bird calls, you can add a lot to your list of species. And it gets people’s minds off the pandemic,” he said.

The challenge, however, is also meant to encourage the newly-initiated. “On my society group, I am sharing one bird every day with description and pictures, from birds that are part of my list mostly,” he said. “That way many people over these three weeks will get to know birds around their homes and enjoy their company during the lockdown.”

Brown-headed barbet. Credit: Tapas Misra

Singh’s challenge has encouraged more than 200 people to follow suit. In the lead is Delhi-based Brigadier Arvind Yadav. He has spotted 46 bird species in the concrete hub that is Dhaula Kuan. “My residence at Dhaula Kuan is a wooded green area and home to a lot of backyard birds,” said Yadav. “And its proximity to the Golf Course gives it an additional advantage to spot birds.”

He added: “Some species are on reverse migration – returning from wintering areas of South and Central India to Europe and Siberia. It’s interesting to note that there is a whole ecosystem surrounding these birds. Snakes and spiders that have become more visible too.”

Purple sunbird. Credit: Tapas Misra

Some rare sightings by Yadav include a ashy drongo, rosy starlings,a red breasted flycatcher, a large billed crow, a lesser flameback woodpecker and a common woodshrike. He attributes their sudden appearance to the lockdown. “[Earlier] nature couldn’t match the pace of human development,” he said. “But now birds are bolder…This is breeding season also. Their courtship activities as well as nest building activities are smooth without disturbance.”

View from above

Avid birder Rajiv Ramaswamy started made a similar initiative, asking his colleagues at the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development to send him two-minute audio recordings and photographs of birds from their balconies.

“I have got a lot of balcony audio recordings, plus 20-odd photos to [identify] from people who are non-birders,” he said. “The [Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development] has now promoted this activity by making it an open challenge for the youth to participate in.”

Ramaswamy’s surprise lockdown bird is the long-tailed shrike.

Some watchers are natural list-keepers. Mamta Muttreja says that of the 1,200-plus species native to India, she’s spotted 644 from her 18th-floor terrace. “Since the day I discovered bird photography and bird-watching in middle of 2015…this passion has kept me sane, safe and hopefully of sound mind,” she said. Her personal discovery has been the brown rock chat, dusky craigmartins and house swifts.

Another satisfied birder is Tapas Misra. He is happy that he has plenty of greens around his home and he can continue his hobby. “This is the time for nesting of red vented bulbul, common tailorbird, purple sunbird, [and] sparrows in my apartment,” he said. “It’s lovely to see a song and dance sequence attached to each couple.”

The Nature Conservation Foundation, under its Early Bird project, offers an online series for children and amateur birders. “It’s a myth that one needs to go far in the wilderness to experience nature. You can feel one with nature within the confines of your home,” said Misha Bansal, Project Assistant at Early Bird.

The foundation is a non-governmental organisation that distributes educational modules to children. “The Early Bird series covers balcony birding, bird-related games, sessions on sketching birds, bird behaviour and ecology in general,” said Bansal. “These modules are suitable for beginners, kids and also educators who wish to spread the joy of appreciating nature.”

Silvia Mukherjee's sketch, capturing the mood of her birder husband Christy Bharath.

In the midst of the happy new and not-so-new watchers, Christy Bharath is a dissenter. He says lockdowns and bird-watching are not a good combination. “For me, the best part of birdwatching is the effort that goes into it,” he said. “Waking up early in the morning to go to where they are, listening to their sounds...I don’t experience any of that from my balcony.”

But he added: “It’s great that balcony birdwatching is being promoted on Twitter. If anything, it will at least make people aware of their feathered neighbours and how our actions affect their daily lives. Plus, ‘watch birds and chill’ is a much healthier mission statement than ‘watch Netflix and chill.’”