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Birdwatching in an Urban Environment is Possible

By Jagath Gunawardana

To many in Sri Lanka, bird watching denotes a long excursion to a far-off location to observe some unusual, illusive and rare birds. But, unknown by many is that all areas of the country, including busy and urbanized cities, still support a lot of wildlife, especially birds.

This situation is even true for Colombo. My bird list for Colombo has over 100 species, including seabirds and other rare species. But, any home garden in any township will definitely harbour several species of birds, and the larger and more foliaged the garden is, the more species it will have.

Our own home garden has been the habitat for over 25 species and the total number recorded is 42 species. A short time spent looking around in a home garden will be not only be relaxing and refreshing but also educational.

Most common birds in home gardens

It will surprise many to see the birdlife in a home garden is quite different to the bird life that is seen in an urban setting. A bird watching session will show the difference between the places as well as the differences between the perception of urban bird life and the real situation in the garden. A good example is crows.

Sri Lanka has two species of crows, and the Grey-necked Crow or House Crow is the commoner in all urban areas. It is readily distinguished by its smaller size, with a grey head and neck and the rest of the plumage black. The Jungle Crow or Black Crow, which is larger and shaggy in appearance, is totally black.

Although the House Crow is seen all over town and in busy thoroughfares, it is not common in home gardens and could well be absent if the house does not throw garbage in to an open place. The presence or the absence of crows from a garden is an indication of the state of things; the less crows or their absence meaning it is clean and devoid of open garbage.

A bird that is always found in home gardens is the Common Tailor Bird. A small active bird with a rotund body, cocked tail and a brown cap and green upper parts, it is seen amongst bushes and foliage and can adapt itself to live in a small place. An insectivorous bird, it lives in pairs in a well-defined territory, which means the same pair can be seen in the same area of the garden every day. The male is quite vociferous, especially in the mornings.

It builds a nest by weaving broader and larger leaves together and using any plants in the garden, including prized plants such as Anthuriams, Agloneamas and Philodendrons. The margins of the leaves are weaved together with fibre and it usually uses plant fibres.

In urban settings, this adaptable bird will use any material at hand and use thread, hair of dogs and cats, human hair and even cigarette filters and stitching materials. Since they take great pains to conceal the nest, it is rather difficult to spot one, even from close quarters.

Another active and vociferous presence is the Common Babbler or Pale-billed Babbler. It is also referred to as Seven Sisters, which is a misleading term for two reasons. That is because a flock has both males and females and the number could be anywhere from five to 11.

Every flock has their well-defined territory, which is guarded against neighbouring flocks by resorting to shouting matches when it is violated by another flock. It hops on the ground searching for food and can often be seen associated with Palm Squirrels. They nest in a thicket and the whole group assists in nesting and feeding young.

Thriving on fruits and flowers

Sri Lanka has four species of barbets and at least two are seen in home gardens. They are mainly green-coloured, and thus, are camouflaged amongst the foliage. One of them is the commonest endemic in the country, the Small Barbet or Crimson-fronted Barbet, who is heard more than seen. The Brown-headed Barbet is the largest of the four and feasts on fruits such as papayas and mangoes.

It is also vociferous and has the characteristic call that has given the Sinhala name Kottoruwa. In some rural areas the other endemic species, the Yellow-fronted Barbet, is also seen and the smaller and pretty Crimson-breasted Barbet is also seen in the gardens of the dry zone, especially if there are suitable tall trees.

The Red-vented Bulbul known to many by the Sinhala name Konda Kurulla is another bird that is becoming common in all urban areas. Although a fruit eater, they have got used to feeding on leftover food and readily comes down to the ground to engage in feeding. It has also acquired the habit of nesting inside houses, wall-brackets and lamp shades, providing some with opportunities to watch birds inside their homes as well.

This habit has saved them a lot of effort and ensures the young are safe from predation. This habit, coupled with the habit of feeding on leftover food, has contributed to the increase of their numbers in urban areas and is seen to be breeding throughout the year in urban settings.

The presence of one or more flowering plants will draw the attention of Sunbirds. Sri Lanka has three species and all three can be seen in home gardens, although the Purple Sunbird is absent from much of the low country wet zone areas. They are always active, flitting from branch to branch, taking up odd postures to reach flowers and flying from tree to tree and keeping in touch with loud calls.

The largest of the three is the Lotens’ Sunbird that has a long de-curved beak and the males in breeding plumage displays from any vantage point available, often from antennas of houses. All three build small hanging nests, the nests differing in shape and size according to the species.

The Tickell’s Flowerpecker or Small Flowerpecker is also seen commonly in home gardens, and is a grey bird that is somewhat similar in appearance to the sunbirds, although having a short and curved beak. This is the smallest of all birds found in Sri Lanka.

The term kingfisher usually denotes a bird living along water bodies but the commonest of the seven kingfishers found in Sri Lanka, the White-breasted Kingfisher, is one that is found often away from water bodies and is another bird that has adapted well to changing conditions.

It is often seen perched atop antennas, which are good vantage points to spot prey. Though a kingfisher, it feeds on a large array of land-dwelling creatures, including insects, worms, centipedes, lizards and snakes that are found in the garden. During the breeding season, their loud calls and courtship displays can be observed easily.

The Black-headed Oriole, also known as the Black-hooded Oriole, is another colourful bird in the garden with a back head, black and yellow body and a red beak. It is always active, flying from tree to tree and searching for prey. It has a number of loud calls that are uttered periodically to keep in touch with one another. The nest is like a small hammock, strung between two branches on a high tree.

Songsters and migrant birds

The best songster amongst the garden birds is the Oriental Magpie Robin, another bird that is often found hopping on the ground. It is only the male that sings and it is only in the breeding season that it resorts to the singing of continuous songs.

However, it is yet another bird that thrives on human presence and has extended the breeding season which makes it possible to hear the singing during most of the year. It is an early riser, starting singing from around 4.30 a.m. in the morning and continuing till darkness.

The smaller Black Robin has vanished from many urban areas but is still a presence in some home gardens, hopping around actively and cocking its tail up to show the rusty-chestnut feathers beneath the tail.

Migrant birds start coming in from September and there are a few that take up residence in home gardens. The Forest Wagtail is one such bird that can be seen in shady areas of the ground, always walking along with the tail wagging from side to side. A tall tree will attract a Brown Flycatcher, which comes rather later than the others.

It keeps to the taller branches and can be spotted by listening to the characteristic call. The Indian Pitta and the Brown Shrike can also be seen in some places. The Blyth’s Reed Warbler is a migrant that keeps to the thickly foliaged bushes and is known by the loud call that is uttered periodically, but difficult to spot due to its retiring and shy nature.

These random examples were meant to show that there is a lot of birdlife around us, if one can spare at least a few moments to look around. It does not need the resources or the time commitments of a long foray to the wilds. Observations can be done at any free moment, or whenever one spots an interesting bird or hears a call. A more useful and methodical way is to devote some time daily to watch and record the species seen.

A notebook will help to keep records, may be double as a sketchbook, and in time would record a lot of useful and important knowledge as well. A camera will also be of help to record and even to aid in the identification of the species, but is not an essential piece of equipment. With time and interest, bird watching will lead to include other areas of interest, such as writing, poetry, photography and sketching to cite a few.

Just like the other type of watching nature unfold itself before our eyes, it is interesting and educative as well as relaxing to both the body and mind. courtesy: Ceylon Today