Birds go pub-crawling

The winged creatures are great wanderers. In the first half of March every year, they descend on the seemal and other trees in all hues and sizes to feast on the nectar of flowers, writes Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

The Himalayan bulbul
The Himalayan bulbul — Photo by Vipin

India has 1,226 species of birds. One may encounter several of them every day but it is doubtful if anyone manages to see all of them in a lifetime.

However, there is a phase of five-seven days in the first half of March every year when birds in India go pub-crawling, that, too, by broad daylight and in the open. That is the magic moment when within an hour and standing just at one spot, one may perhaps see up to 40 species of our birds.

Now these outdoors avian pubs are the red silk-cotton trees (seemal) during the peak blossom period. A mature tree is 100-120 feet tall, its bole straight as a lance and its canopy the shape of a parasol. When in full bloom, the tree has no leaves whatsoever. Its dominant height, the scarlet-red flowers against a blue sky, constant comings and goings of birds together with birdsong is an unforgettable visual and auditory experience. Birds of all hues and sizes come singly or in flocks, driven by the one common evolutionary biological urge, that is to feast on the nectar of the seemal flower. And they move from one tree to another as though wanting to relish the whole wide range of nectar flavours.

This tippler, the plum-headed parakeet, stands on its head to get rid of a hangover
This tippler, the plum-headed parakeet, stands on its head to get rid of a hangover — Photo by Besten

Birds are great wanderers and during the nectar phase many unexpected species also show up on the seemal. So, it was exciting to have chanced on both the black bulbul and the Himalayan bulbul on a seemal in a segment of Leisure Valley at Chandigarh. The blacks are the largest in size among its tribe, have a spiky feather-crest on the crown and their red beaks and feet set up a sharp contrast against the all black plumage. This lot was obviously thirsty because not only their beaks but also even chins and fore crowns were drenched in nectar.

The Himalayan bulbuls looked more sedate, even seductive with their long and pointed crest tilting at a jaunty feminine angle over the left eyebrow. What really distinguishes them are their snow-white cheeks and a sulphorous-yellow patch at the root of their tails.

Another rare visitor to the seemal was the great barbet who seldom descends on the plains. He holds your attention as much by his gaudy colours as by the raucous and loud call. He is emerald green for the better part but with a prominent chrome-yellow beak, Navy blue head and a large, cherry-red patch below the tail. Despite that, he is not easy to spot once inside foliage but no one can really turn a deaf ear to his call. One legend has it that the call in fact is a cry resulting from a spell cast on the bird by angry Gods.

The young one of the black bulbul has a blue-grey plumage
The young one of the black bulbul has a blue-grey plumage — Photo by Bikram Grewal

An ageing farmer had requested the barbet to fetch water for his ox dying of thirst. The lazy barbet lied that the pitcher had burst during carriage and to prove the point, had even wetted his feet by urinating over them. The ox died of thirst. And the Gods cast a spell on the barbet whose call sets the valleys reverberating day and night with the cry "Peeaow-Peeaow-Peeaow" (I am thirsty), repeated ad nauseam to begin with by one pair but soon joined in by all the great barbets in earshot. The combined effect is of an ear-shattering anguished wail to serve as a warning to all creatures to live in symbiosis or else face God’s wrath. Is anyone listening?

Next, the three species of resident pub-crawling mynas were joined by two starling species, which had arrived from afar. The chestnut-tailed starling, which mainly breeds in the northeast, has also established an isolated breeding population in northwest Uttarakhand. Small flocks from the latter show up here while the Seemal nectar lasts. They catch the eye with their bright chestnut tail, rufous underparts but white throat, neck and head leading to a yellow beak.

More conspicuous is the comman starling, which arrives briefly, from Central Asia and moves in large flocks, in tight flights like a mist-cloud. These coal black birds have silvery spots and streaks all over the body creating a mirage of bright stars over a dark night sky. They, too, exit from northwest India the moment the nectar finishes.

Then there was the dark-throated thrush, which winters only in J&K, northwest India and the Himalayas up to Arunachal. Chandigarh lies just outside its extreme southern fringe but occasionally just a few vagrants home onto the seemal blossoms here. Between 2001-07, I have sighted this bird only twice, once in the Rose Garden (the two seemal trees have since died) and now in Leisure Valley, which has five seemals. I failed to persuade the powers that be to undertake replacement plantation of the dead and the dying seemals despite a conducted tour to the spots in my own car. Here is a classic case of egos bigger than the 80-120 ft high seemal.

The high point of excitement and luck was the sighting of a bird that sat impassively, watching the pub-crawlers. He was certainly new to Chandigarh and had a strong resemblance to the upland buzzard. He gave me ample opportunity to photograph him from two vital angles. It will take a few months before experts pronounce their judgement on its identity.

Now, how potent is the seemal nectar? Well, from the daylong happy and unending natter of birds, the heady qualities of the nectar are fully established. I know of an Army officer who once painstakingly collected nectar equivalent of four measures of a large "peg". It had the clarity of a vintage white wine but not quite the same kick.

However, on smaller creatures the nectar does have a telling effect. I have on several moonlit nights observed fruit-eating bats alighting on a seemal. As there are no birds or other competitors for the nectar at that hour, in the event the bats do imbibe a goodly amount. So when daylight approaches some bats are so happily inebriated that they find it impossible to take to wing to their day-roost.