It’s almost time for the winter migrants to start their long journey back to their summer homes. The image that this evokes in our minds is of large flocks of waterbirds and little birds with colourful plumage. We almost never think of the little brown birds in the shrubs as participants of long distance migration, a marvelous feat that inspires our own desire to explore the world. Yet there’s a little not-so-brown-as-much-as-green bird that visits farms, gardens and secondary forests in south west India every winter, all the way from north west Siberia. It makes its long route through eastern Europe, central Asia, west India and finally to the south over a couple of months, settling down by november. By mid-april it starts the journey back, stopping for a few days every now and then, reaching its arctic home by mid-June. Looking at it, you wouldn’t think it. It’s not quite as easy to look at it either. Flitting quietly through leaves, true to its leaf-warbler roots, its dull olive green body with a grayish underside is barely noticeable. When someone does notice it, it’s likely to be dismissed as a garden variety LBB (little brown bird) of little consequence.


Greenish Warbler – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya


Regardless, the Greenish Warbler must have a colourful life. Its plumage may be dull, but it’s seen more of the world than you or me. It has a repertoire of songs in its kitty for the breeding season but at other times, the chee-wee calls are sweet and energetic but hard to tell from a host of other little birds that go chee-wee. Chee-wee is the sound equivalent of olive green plumage. For an avid traveller who has seen half of the northern hemisphere before it turns a year old, it has a strong sense of personal boundaries. When it arrives in the gardens and groves of southern India, the chee-wee chatter is at its loudest. It is said that individual warblers keep coming back to the same patch of territory every year and stakeout their patch with calls, driving away intruders and rivals of their own kind. Once they have camped out, the calls become infrequent.


Blyth’s Reed Warbler – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya


The Blyth’s reed warbler is similar in this aspect. I think of it as the browner version of the Greenish warbler. Like the Greenish, the Blyth’s migrates from Eurasia and spends its winter exclusively in India.Despite its name as ‘reed warbler’ it finds comfort in trees and flits up and down branches, flicking its tail sharply.

Knowing a bird’s migratory habits opens a whole new level of awareness of our surroundings. After I learned these fascinating details of warbler migration, I noticed my ears became alert to conspicuous calls on trees outside my window that show up around November. Before, I would simply enjoy them as ‘birdsong’, now I track the bird that makes it. It is invariably one of the warblers, declaring they are home again, shooing away intruders. They are also sticklers for routine. I once surprised a friend who spotted a warbler when I said it was Blyth’s reed without so much as looking at it. How did I do that, he asked, clearly I was some kind of warbler expert. Hardly.

Take me to a new spot and point at a warbler, I couldn’t tell a Blyth’s from a Booted from a Sykes’ warbler. Then how did I do it? I knew my warbler’s territory and his habits. He came to the same branch of the same tree at the same hour every day. I’d noticed it for so long, I could tell the time of the day just by his arrival at his favourite spots. It’s details like these that keep birders hooked to their hobby – you come for the brilliant plumage and stay for the daily habits of ‘little brown birds’ that somehow entwine into your own routines.