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A Winter Vagrant In A Sacred Forest

A Winter Vagrant In A Sacred Forest

Sutirtha Lahiri writes about his visit to Mangar Bani and an extremely rare sighting of the Song Thrush, a bird that breeds in Europe and migrates to Africa in the winter.

Mangar is a large stretch of the Aravali hills on the southernmost tip of Delhi. Photo: Sutirtha Lahiri.

“How can a bird like that possibly end up at a city like this?" I wondered, as I waited for Pritpal sir to pick me up from the metro station. It was early morning, and the roads were already jam-packed with cars, with high rises looming in the background. Weak sunrays filtered through the haze that has become characteristic of the National Capital Region, and I could see a few people wearing pollution masks. Very soon, I saw the familiar face of Pritpal sir waving at me from his car, and together, we made our way to Mangar.

Mangar is a large stretch of the Aravali hills on the southernmost tip of Delhi. Situated along the busy Gurgaon-Faridabad Highway, this is the only remaining forest stretch that still comprises native tree species. Legend has it that a few centuries ago, a hermit by the name of Gudariya baba came to Mangar, and preached the need to conserve the forest area. The locals held him in high esteem, and have ever since been the guardians of the forests, bestowing on it the status of a 'sacred grove'.

When it comes to bird diversity, the place exceeds all expectations, frequently revealing birds that are new to the region. Among the recent records are the Large-tailed Nightjar, Indian Pitta, Marshall's Iora, Black-throated Thrush, Scaly Thrush, and Orange-headed thrush. Today, however, we were in search of an even rarer bird. A few days prior, a group of birders had reported sighting a Song Thrush, a bird that breeds in Europe and winters in Africa. Supposed to be a vagrant, this bird was first (and last!) sighted in India in 1981 (Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir). Naturally, the sighting at Mangar came as a pleasant surprise to birders, and it was too much for me to resist.

"What is it about Mangar that attracts so many birds?" Pritpal Sir asked, as we drove on the highway. Vast extents of dry, rocky hills covered with Acacia and Mexican Mesquite (an invasive species) trees had replaced the urban landscape. “Maybe it falls on the migration route of many birds,” I conjectured, not really sure why this place has such great bird diversity. We now entered the village of Mangar. The narrow lanes and farmlands were surrounded by rocky hillocks towards which we veered. Crossing the village, we drove on a stony road leading to the patch where the bird was sighted. The road meandered through two steep hills, with a couple of xerophytic trees jutting out of the rocks. A small flock of White Capped Buntings took off from the road as our car approached. We pulled over and were met by Dr. Yogesh Parashar, a senior birder. “All three of the thrushes are here!” he exclaimed, as we got out of our car. Apparently, they had had good sightings of the three species of thrushes, including the Song Thrush. This was good news! “Just be patient. The bird will come out of hiding soon,” Yogesh sir added, before leaving.

Song Thrush breeds in Europe and winters in Africa. Supposed to be a vagrant, this bird was first (and last) sighted in India in 1981 (Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir). Photo: Sutirtha Lahiri.

Under the uniform canopy of acacia trees was abundant leaf litter, ideal for a thrush that hunts for prey amidst the fallen leaves. The first bird we came across on our walk was a beautiful Orange-headed Thrush, busy foraging a few metres away from us. Red-throated Flycatchers were ubiquitous, and so were the highly vocal Chiffchaffs. A Brooke’s Leaf Warbler, a winter visitor to Northern India, gave us a good show from a close range. Very soon, it was the Black-throated Thrush that obliged. Keeping its distance, but never really intimidated by our presence, the bird foraged amidst the leaves, hopping around on the ground, the flying to a treetop, and back to the ground again. The crisp December air felt good as we walked through the area, evading fallen branches with deadly thorns, which, if we were not careful, would bore through the thick soles of our shoes. A couple of Black-winged Kites took off from their perch, while the ever-present camaraderie of warblers watched over us from the safe confines of the trees. But there was no Song Thrush in sight.

All of a sudden, out of the corner of our eyes, we saw a movement. "Hide behind the tree," sir said, and so both of us silently took cover behind a Babool tree, waiting for the source of the movement to reveal itself. Sure enough we soon found ourselves looking at a thrush unlike any we had ever seen before. Its olive brown upper parts contrasted well with the dark spots and markings on its breast. The Song Thrush foraged right in front of us, hopping around impatiently, while two elated birders pursued it with stealth. As fast as it had made its appearance, the bird put up an instantaneous disappearing act, typical of most birds (my fellow birders know the feeling!)

During the course of the day, we saw the bird on several occasions, sometimes foraging alone, at other times in the company of other thrushes, and once being chased by a highly territorial Black-throated Thrush! I couldn't fathom how the bird possibly ended up so far from its usual feeding grounds, and that too, in a place like Mangar. Maybe it got blown off by strong winds, or maybe its faulty navigation system brought it here. Or maybe there is indeed something about the place that attracts such rarities. I don't yet know the reason. As we made our way back home, we passed by large stretches of such 'thrush-like' habitats. "Imagine the species lying in one of these patches. I'm sure there are many more to be discovered," sir said.  I had to agree.

A third year zoology undergraduate student at Hans Raj College, Delhi University, Sutirtha Lahiri has been deeply interested in wildlife since his school days, and enjoys birding, trekking and exploring new places.

Author: Sutirtha Lahiri.


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