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Beautiful Neighbours

  • Occasionally, Nature’s tidings offer relief from the horrors of an urban meltdown.  For instance, in the neighbourhood of Palam Vihar in Gurgaon, thanks to the efforts of Dr Sonal Malhotra, residents are beginning to appreciate a variety of beautiful birds who visit them.











    Ashy Prinia

  • Dr Malhotra, a microbiologist, has been documenting  birds for more than five years. He has been photographing them at different locations in Palam Vihar while tracking them through the day and sometimes at night as well.














  • There are more than 80 different species of birds who are regular visitors to Palam Vihar, he says. There are many which are, in fact, permanent residents. Being territorial, they choose to stay in certain trees and stick to locations. He has more than 5,000 pictures of these birds and a small selection appears along with this piece.











  • Dr Malhotra is 50, thickset and rides a bicycle. When he was teaching in Ethiopia, he would ride uphill to take classes and that ensured he stayed fit and just the right weight at 70 kg. Back in Palam Vihar, and staying with his parents, he has been fattened on “Mummy’s paranthas”.

    But he is nimble and persistent. More than skill, photographing birds requires reverence and genuine respect for their ways. If you admire them, they will admire you back. Dr Malhotra has got what it takes for such an esoteric equation. He is a birdman — a natural and intuitive insider to the avian world.




  • He carries a camera, wears a cyclist’s helmet, and when out at night uses a light strapped to his bicycle. He has a quiet and unobtrusive manner that allows him to access the habitats of birds without disturbing them.


    Tracking birds means going to great lengths to find them on trees and in open plots. In a Gurgaon neighbourhood like Palam Vihar it can be hazardous. While trying to get close to a Purple Sunbird in an open area behind the Palam Vihar Vyapaar Kendra, he ended up being bitten by a stray dog who found his movements suspicious.



  • Over time relationships have been built between him and the birds. There are individual birds he can recognise, having sighted them multiple times. It is almost certain that the birds recognise him as well. But there are also some very rare sightings, like the Black Winged Kite, which, Dr Malhotra says, he has spotted only twice.











  • New birds also come to his notice — such as a family of Speckled Owlets who inhabit the hollow of a tree near the Mother Dairy booth. When he first sighted them, the family consisted of the mother, father and two babies. Now the babies have grown up.


    When he visited the owlet family one night, they were missing from their usual tree and he thought they must have moved on. As he proceeded on his cycle and took a few pictures, he suddenly heard an owlet make a loud chirring sound. 





  • “The owlet had seen me,” says Dr Malhotra with a knowing chuckle. “They have very sharp hearing and can pick up the sound of a camera’s shutter. The owlet had also almost certainly seen the light from my cycle.”


    Palam Vihar tends to attract birds because it has a lot of trees, open spaces and mostly low-rise structures. It isn’t the concrete jungle that the rest of Gurgaon has been transformed into. Palam Vihar is also just a couple of hours from the Basai wetlands and the Sultanpur bird sanctuary. 





  • So, birds have found it easy to adopt the neighbourhood and move into natural habitats among human beings. As of now, there is space enough for birds and people. Perhaps it is an example other areas in Gurgaon could follow to restore the balance with Nature.













  • Civil Society chanced upon Dr Malhotra some years ago when he was out birdwatching. Recently, Civil Society organised a presentation by him on the birds he had been watching, their sounds and behaviour patterns. This is a first step in getting to know beautiful neighbours and make living in Gurgaon less onerous.