A Song of Bird and Rain
The South-West monsoon has arrived in the mountains in the form of rolling mists and ashen clouds, settling among the hills and trees, the muted landscape dappled with wisps and strands of clouds.
The air turns cooler, making one reach out for a soft, warm throw or a sweater. Swiftly, everything acquires a quality of dampness, along with a smear of the soothing scent of the monsoon.
Steely skies, forests more verdant, dripping with anticipation.
On such a morning, bird songs come out rather diffidently at first. There is a period of silence after the usual whimpering croaks of the grey jungle fowl. Then the sweet melody of the Tickell’s blue flycatcher is heard from quite close by – a couple are making a nest in a hollow of the jacaranda tree in the garden. They are somewhat late in making a home; their nesting period is usually just before the monsoon. There is a distant but unmistakable call: a mountain imperial pigeon’s deep, resonant hooting. It must be somewhere high up in the canopies for it to be audible so clearly. Soon, it becomes noisy: Malabar parakeets screech around their usual haunts of fruit trees, their bluish-green feathers rendered a shade of grey in the gloom; jungle mynahs squabble noisily, the Indian blackbird starts its cheerful whistles, cinereous tits that look like boldly outlined sparrows flit and chirp about busily. Red-whiskered bulbuls, that have become rather cheeky, enter the porch fearlessly, picking up crumbs and whatnots, some feeding each other, brightly warbling and singing. Oriental white-eyes, flying friskily like bees, emit their sweet tweets. Spot-breasted fantails hop about a bush, displaying flashes of their tails that look like a geisha’s fan spread in her hand.
Then, the loudest and most unusual sound of all – from the shiny-furred maroon Malabar giant squirrel, which makes a sound like that of a gaming gun! Not a bird, but just as showy!
Like a showstopper, the elusive Malabar whistling thrush begins its exquisite song, never heard as one made of distinctive notes or phrases, but rather as one with an ethereal quality. Slow, loud whistles flowing into each other form a gossamer layer of song draped over the realm of avian music, taking the spotlight. There’s nobody, I think, who wouldn’t pause to admire this mystical music, echoing across the landscape of sweeping hills and darkening clouds. The monsoon is the season of breeding for the whistling thrush. Locally, the bird is named “whistling schoolboy” in vernacular languages. Wearing a robe of glossy indigo and black, this bird sings its way through the mists, every morning and evening.
The Nilgiris region is home to a variety of bird species that are endemic, which means they cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The endemism is a result of adaptations and evolution over millions of years. This contributes to a rich and unique soundscape, consisting of diverse and distinctive sounds. One such sound is of the very special, unfortunately endangered Nilgiri laughing thrush, also known as the Nilgiri chilappan.
Soon after the whistling thrush has concluded its performance, the laughing thrush begins. This one is more like a delirious cackle, almost akin to an over-excited, animated child chortling away somewhere in the unkempt part of the garden. It has most likely come for the wild raspberries. One almost always gets only fleeting glimpses of the small restive bird – a second on the ground and another on a low branch, and then gone. But it’s generous with its music. Most other endemic birds are rarely heard in the towns.
Then there are little crimson-backed sunbirds, abundantly seen during this time. Today, they are flitting around the bright purple morning glories, making expeditious, sweet tweets tied into short songs.
It begins to drizzle, and the birds hasten with their foraging, chittering excitedly.
The rains arrive as ascending humming notes issued by the skies, building to a crescendo of gentle percussion – drumming on the rooftop, sizzling through treetops, dripping, splashing, pouring, sending the symposium of birds to look for cover. How delightful are the watery sounds carried around by the sled of rains, even if they do briefly mask the songs of the birds!
When the orchestra of rains, winds and swaying branches slowly retreat, when there’s stillness in the air and the drizzles are back, when there’s only dripping and pattering, when the foliage is returned to its full vibrancy, birds are seen and heard – scatteredly. A lone crested goshawk against the clear grey skies perched on top of a bare tree; red-whiskered bulbuls, puffed up into cute balls to keep themselves warm, silent and still; the sharp trilling sounds from greater flamebacks, the beautifully bright feathered woodpeckers.
The morning passes, with intervals of brilliant sunshine that fall on the gently rocking forest trees, and from a distance, the light reflecting off of the foliage make the trees look like they’re decked up in fairy lights; and then there are more drizzles, into a matching afternoon, the foggy, bleary landscape promising more downpour later. The mynahs and bulbuls continue with their busy foraging, and so do the songbirds. The white-cheeked barbet starts its characteristic incessant, monotonous guttural calls – put-trrr, put-trrr! – a group of jungle babblers energetically make short, squeaking sounds; the prinia makes a series of loud chirps. The red asters in the garden gratefully sway in the gentle breeze, in tune to the wind chimes. The Indian blackbird sings loudly, in its beautiful flute-like voice, rendering the afternoon air blissful. Indian scimitar babblers make their characteristic drawn-out giggles, one giggling and another concluding the song with two high pitched notes.
When it gets dark, (the grey darkens into black in this weather, no colourful art from the setting sun) there’s more music again. Noisy flocks of mynahs sail across the dappled sky; red-whiskered bulbuls squabble clamorously in their regular group meetings; the barbet calls loudly again; parakeets screech in small flocks; orange minivets chirp sweetly, showing off their stunning flame-coloured coats; a spotted dove makes a melancholy cooing sound in the background. An Indian yellow tit – a little crested bird with fashionably patterned feathers of black and white, a sleek mask of black running from its crest through its entire body, which is a shade of lime that is at the brink of over-ripening – unfolds a loop of loud cheeps, and then seems to fold them back again. Like warning signals whistled by night watchmen, a white-throated kingfisher’s call punctuates the ensemble every few seconds, while the whistling thrush, who had all the while produced a small, constant single high pitched sound like an old swing creaking lazily when played on, puts on yet another performance of haunting, undulating whistles, to conclude the day’s symphony.
Some of these beautiful creatures have inhabited the southern mountains for millions of years, and are specialists, meaning they are experts in surviving only in the region, having adapted specifically to the indigenous flora and the resulting climate. The high endemism of some of the bird species makes them very vulnerable to changes in the environment and habitat. The extensive planting of invasive species of plants, urbanisation and climate change have contributed to significant habitat loss, and hence endangerment.
The scale of devastation our species can cause to the natural world is breathtaking. What a pity to witness only a small chunk of what could be a grander, richer avian philharmonic!
Night falls. It is as dark as ink. The birds have gone for their slumbers, and the insects and frogs begin their chorus. All the creaks, croaks and croons, and drip-drip of rain water soon form a rhythm, a soothing lullaby for a good rest. A sonorous moaning sound in the distance, probably an owl, or probably not – the woods produce all sorts of eerie music at night. Some mysterious creature clambers across the roof, stopping and curiously scratching the tiles on its way. With this nocturnal white noise in the background, sleep isn’t hard to come by.