The haunt of the urban naturalist

Wild pockets exist within our cities, enduring in the undergrowth of house gardens and in the canopies of the city’s avenue trees. The urban naturalist has to find a way to peek into the treetops to discover this hidden upper realm. It is disheartening to see how wilfully we eradicate these pockets of wild and pour in ever more concrete for roads and skyscrapers. The only advantage to living in one of these concrete monsters that crowd the cityscape is that I have a view into the canopies of the surrounding mango and jamun (Syzigium Cuminii) trees. From my lookout post, I can see high-flying butterflies patrolling these sunny haunts. Some of them like the striped lime-green Tailed Jay butterflies are so feisty they even chase away their tiny sunbird neighbours.

Male purple sunbird

And the sunbirds what glorious little sun-catchers they are _ glossy, iridescent feathers ghosting sunshine as they flit about, hovering among the leaves of the few remaining trees. It’s as if they were still flying among their old wild tree homes. You can’t but admire their tenacity. I have a beautiful Bauhinia growing on my terrace. Resident and any visiting sunbirds to the area are attracted to the big magenta orchid-like blooms. A sunbird will perch and dip its long curved beak into the centre of the flower to sip up nectar with its long needle tongue. If there is no perch then the sunbird will hover like hummingbirds, but not for long, before it has to perch again.

Here in this western corner of India on a spur of the Western Ghats 18 degrees above the equator, we went through bit of a cold spurt that caused the mango trees to joyfully flower all at once. Sitting at my fifth floor window looking out into the canopy, I was suddenly awash in an ocean of delicate fragrance. It was the scent of the tiny cream and pink flowers of mango trees wafting suggestively in the breeze. But these sprays were not propositioning me, they were calling to the bees and all other winged pollinators who had the equipment to receive these subtle signals. And oh how the bees responded _ little yellow and black striped ones, giant ones with tan and black abdomens, more little ones with black, white and light blue stripes. I wish I knew all their names.

Wet in the rain, a red-whiskered bulbul sits among dead mango flowers

The flowers have all died back now, withering en masse in bunches of limp brown, and miniature green mangoes have started to form from the fertilised baby bumps of the female flowers. In this part of the world, mangoes are big business. In the hottest months of the year in April, May and June, different varieties ripen one after another, are harvested and the streets will then be full of mango vendors. Balmy, mellow sunset flavours lie in wait for you in May and June, as you cut into this plentiful fruit in the clammy heat of Indian summer.

Baby green mangoes

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4 Responses to The haunt of the urban naturalist

  1. Lovely photographs and descriptions! I’m always amazed at how nature finds a way to adapt to city environments when given the chance.

    In our area raptors perch on the electricity poles watching for prey, and little birds perch on top of lit billboards for warmth during winter. I’m pretty home-bound at this stage and have found taking the time to look at what is going on in our garden and neighbourhood has resulted in the most amazing finds.

    • an earthian says:

      Thanks so much. The way our city is wiping out every sign that there ever were gardens and avenue trees, I fear there will be nothing left for native animals and birds to adapt to in 10 years. Our city raptor is the Black Kite, a big dark brown bird with a curved yellow beak that likes riding thermals and sitting about on cell phone towers and lightning rods.

  2. Yes, it is fascinating and very heartening to see birds, mongoose, butterflies and plants survive in the cities. I think seeing such pictures and reading about them, would also mean being aware that they exists, and what they need to exist… this might make more of us want to save them and hence think before pouring concrete into their habitat.

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