Outside my window, for, alas I do not have a balcony, stands a forty-year-old Indian almond or the more locally known, jungli badam tree with his sturdy trunk, and even more sturdy branches that flare out to create a triangular shape. The leaves emerge at every terminal, hence its name Terminalia catappa, and graceful inflorescence hangs from the ends of its branches. The real show-stealer is of course the fruit and the nut of the badam tree. Both, a coveted delicacy for the numerous life forms that throng this magnificent tree. It is a tree that has stood in the building garden and witnessed many upheavals in the area. It has withstood torrential rains, floods, and redevelopment drives. Though I have stood here at this window over the last five years carefully documenting the various life forms – birds, insects, butterflies, squirrels, and fruit bats visiting the tree, it was only with the lockdown that the tree became my constant companion. As days passed into months, I was able to record the changes in the tree, and the life that visited it.
With the lockdown, the city went suddenly quiet, cars went off the roads, workplaces shut down and an eerie hushed silence ensued. My jungli badam tree gave me some solace. The daily drama that unfolded in its midst was for me, a most exciting adventure. Some thieves lurked in its leaves, lovers coyly made out in nest cavities, killers, and murderers kept a lookout for a juicy snake or lizard that climbed up the trunk, juveniles poked around the flowers sometimes sucking the nectar from them, sometimes eating them. Not a single hour passed without an incident occurring in the nooks and crannies of this tree. Come rain or shine the tree was a stage for romance, melodrama, and crime.
The Terminalia catappa is a generous tree and is bountiful in flowers and fruit. A rich floral world where various forms of life congregate. This is the latest picture of the tree in the September rains.
The jungli badam tree is monoecious; that is, it has both female and male flowers upon its branches. The inflorescence of this tree attracts various butterflies, flies, and other creepy crawlies.
The Alexandrine Parakeets, named after the Greek king Alexander the Great who introduced this species into Europe are frequent visitors to this tree, flying together in groups they alight on the treetop and forage on the badams, prizing them open with their pincer shaped beaks. It isn’t surprising that they are coloured in the hues of the tree itself considering they spend so much of time on badam trees. I am reminded of the bhakti and Sufi poems that sing of the oneness of color with the beloved.
The Purple-rumped Sunbird (male) is a tiny little bird barely ten centimeters long and weighs just around seven to eleven grams. It is smaller than the house sparrow. He comes to forage on the insects on the tree and sometimes to dry his feathers.
The White-throated Kingfishers with their large red bills are deadly hunters. She [both sexes are similar] perches upon the highest bare branch of the badam tree sometimes early in the morning soaking up the sun, surveying her territory, or sometimes late in the evening just before sundown for a last snack of the day. She sits patiently, unperturbed by the garrulous parakeets or the meddlesome crows, in Zen Buddhist meditation. Looking, observing, watching every breath.
The Asian Koel (female) is skulking in the branches of the badam not because she is looking for food or a mate. She is making sure that her children are doing fine in the crow’s nest where she has laid her eggs. You see, the koels are brood parasites. They do not build nests but rather lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, sometimes destroying the host’s eggs. She hasn’t abandoned her fledglings though. On the contrary, she keeps a keen eye on them and the foster parent. Parenthood is rather weird for this species of bird.
These are a pair of Indian Golden Orioles. They arrive on the jungli badam tree in mid- September after their breeding season is over. The male is bright yellow with a red bill and red iris, the female is pale yellow and more streaked in the underparts. Both emerge in the mid-afternoon and lurk in the undergrowth, furtively looking out for predators. They visit the tree one after the other carefully coordinating their journey from one tree to another. They dart out from the tree leaving a flash of yellow and a plaintive song behind. I hear their song often but rarely see them. I’ve nicknamed them the peele nawab and his begum.
The Common Tailorbird with her rufous forehead and forecrown is a regular visitor to the jungli badam tree. She looks for flying insects and dragonflies to munch on. Somedays I’ve seen a couple have a massive argument on the tree. Each one shrieking its little lungs out to get a point across. I mean seriously what complaints would they be having – “There’s not enough cotton to make our nest soft or the worm that you got our baby was oversized, you could’ve choked him.”
This House Sparrow couple came to the badam tree after one stormy day when it just wouldn’t stop raining. But when the clouds eventually cleared and there was a bit of warm sunshine, they dried their feathers in the sun. They looked so smug on a Sunday afternoon, preening themselves, soaking up the sun.
The Oriental Magpie Robin (male) is our morning alarm and resident singer. He chooses the highest branch, settles himself, and begins his upbeat song and the song goes thus “how could you have done this to me …” He must out-sing every bird in the neighborhood. Compulsive, ever hopeful, and bright. Does he have any listeners I wonder?
The Indian Grey Hornbill with his prominent blackish casque made his appearance only once and he came alone. Perhaps he was checking out the tree to make a nest cavity? I had hoped that he would make his nest in the badam tree like the coppersmith barbets and then I would have eavesdropped on yet another adventure of romance, nest building, and the little pitter-patter of wings. I keep my fingers crossed.
There are many more birds that come to the tree. The Red-vented Bulbuls, Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Scaly-breasted Munias, Rose-ringed Parakeets, White-browed fantails, Coppersmith Barbets, and Mynas come often. Some to partake of its fruit or the insects hovering on the flowers. The tree offers a home, food, and romance to all its bird visitors.
When the air cleared in the lockdown after vehicular traffic and industries came to a grinding halt, people swore that they could see Kanchenjunga from Goregaon. Some posted pictures of the Eiffel tower visible from Bhendi Bazaar. I can certainly say with confidence that I got to see my desi birds of paradise, sitting at my window from Kandivali.
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