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Posted at: Feb 10, 2019, 1:18 AM; last updated: Feb 10, 2019, 1:18 AM (IST)

The armchair nature lover

You don’t have to travel or trek across miles to see a variety of species of birds, bees, butterflies or anything else that crawls, flies or moves. For the discerning, a spot in the sun in your own backyard can provide all this and much more if you have the eye to spot it

Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

The green patch in the forecourt of the house, slightly larger than a basket ball court, is a favoured space for a modest and daily congregation of birds, bees and butterflies. Over time, these denizens have come to understand that the combination of thick hedges on two flanks and on the third, the canopy of dense foliage of a row of close knit trees, creates rich source of daily sustenance, a safe getaway from predators and comfort for midday roost. 

When we dropped anchor in Chandigarh about two decades ago, we were welcomed literally at our doorstep by a pair of magpie robin; perky, pretty, cocky and yet, most trusting. The bird’s black and white plumage is so neatly piled that the mind at once associates it with a gentleman, immaculately dressed in smart black tuxedo and snow white, starched shirt! The robin delights in sunshine and shade, hops about under shrubbery and trees, pauses for a moment to sip water and flies to a low perch in quest for insects on the ground. The robin is one of the best avian songsters of urban India where early in the morning and again in the evening the cock bird perching on gate-posts or roof-tops or from the top most boughs of trees, holding itself erect, tail cocked and jerked upwards, wings slightly drooping at the sides, pours his heart out in soulful song.

I don’t know Cameron Wilson’s inspiration but the verse he composed fits the magpie robin, admirably:

“They flicker down
And cast a magic spell
Told me secret things...
Of the music in white feathers,
And the sunlight that sings
And dances in deep shadows...
He told me with his wings.” 

Now, in sharp contrast to the refined and reclusive persona of our “live-in” magpie robin couple, the jungle babblers are utterly plebeian; untidy plumage, frumpy looks, uncultured sidelong scrutiny of all things as they hop about and altogether, scatter brained behaviour. Conforming to their vernacular name sathbhai or “seven sisters” in English, possibly because almost always, in sorrow and joy, they move in groups of five to seven, cross-talking all the while, in noisy gibberish like street urchins.

But they have a charming trait of preening each other’s plumage of ticks and lice. They choose a sunny spot where the group goes to ground in a tight huddle, fluff their plumage upwards, droop their wings and in total, deathly silence they preen each other in right earnest. This is the only occasion that these happy-go-lucky birds fall into coma-like silence!

Unlike most other avians where the parents alone encourage and nudge the fledgling to its first flight, for the sathbhais it simply has to be a group chore to encourage the novice to attempt its first flight. As may be imagined, the encouragement turns into a wild, noisy cacophony which more often than not, leaves the fledgling utterly bewildered.

Now, in one spot which has good amount of indirect sunshine, the cluster of delectable culinary herb, chives, was abuzz one midmorning with “worker” honey bees. Their presence baffled me as there isn’t a honeycomb within a two-kilometre radius for sure. So, here was the classic display of the infinite perseverance of the “worker bees” of a honey bee colony, in successfully scouting for and ultimately foraging nectar. 

The scouting chore is performed singly. Any worker who spots a nectar source, at once communicates the direction and distance to co-workers by what we have come to recognise as the “waggle dance”; the scout flies around in a circle if the nectar is close at hand or a figure-of-eight when farther afield. And the direction that the scout was moving while waggling, indicates the path to nectar in relation to the sun; so touché, to the smart and much-hyped GPS guidance systems!

On a good day, that is, mild sunshine, moderate temperature and absence of breeze there is every chance of having around a dozen species of butterflies flitting in and around the magical green patch. But in times of sudden temperature drop in winter months, it is not uncommon to spot a butterfly seeking shelter under the veranda. And that is how, a common evening brown butterfly drifted past my chair and attached to the wall, a mere two feet away affording me a fortunate opportunity to witness the intricate, zoological structure of her wing-span. It is by no means among the rare butterfly species but certainly a cause for excitement to admire it from up so close. 

But a leap-of-the-heart moment was the first sighting of the gossamer, velvet smooth beauty with white and blue iridescent, bold oval spots over pitch black wings fringed by white streaks but sadly with an unimaginative name, great eggfly!

A great pity that in the scheme of nature, a vast majority of butterfly species should have a life span of a mere two to four weeks but then the wonderment of nature-at-work brings to fore these ethereal creatures fail-safe, speedy procreative genetics which maintains optimum population and provides mankind one of the most pleasing sights on the Planet Earth.


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