The Little Brown Jobs that flit about in winter

Winter birds are tiny tornadoes that teach us that size does not matter. They tell us that life is all about moments, even if they come in small doses.

Neha Sinha
| Updated: February 1st, 2021

Come winter, and tiny little tornadoes are in our gardens and parks – hopping between bushes, hurtling into branches, and whizzing out of sight. You can see these birds well only if they decide to pause for a second, between all the crazy energy they flourish in. Like little dogs diving from the carpet to the sofa to under the table before you can make out where they really are — these birds will go among trees, between grasses and under bushes with  giddy, maniacal moves.

And when they pause, you can make out the colour, the beak and the tail. Or maybe not. Because initially all tiny birds look the same. They are what we birdwatchers call the ‘Little Brown Jobs’ or LBJs. But the LBJ of winter is not the same as any little bird in other months.

In winter, tiny warblers come to India from Central Asia. They are the size of a sparrow, and have long legs and thin beaks. They make an excited buzzing call that may sound like an insect or frog chirp. I’ve seen moths and butterflies that are the same size as warblers – some are even bigger than the birds! But despite their tiny size and nervous disposition, the warblers are champions. Not only do they make its way through long distances to winter in India, but are also found in cities, where they put up with loud sounds and things that are thousand times bigger—cars, trains, buses, trucks and buildings full of confusing, flashing lights.

On a winter morning, I was looking at a Shahtoot tree. The leaves of the tree turn a fresh green-gold at this time of the year. The tree looks like its ready to dance in its leaf-sequins. The sunshine feels crisper in winter, the light feeling like its coming through a thick, kind glass pane. The golden leaves of the shahtoot were moving in the champagne sun and gentle wind. Or was it the wind? Because there was something else in the leaves– a greenish-brown bird, the size of the leaves. This was an LBJ I could name – the Hume’s leaf warbler, winter visitor that bird lovers eagerly look out for each year.

winter birds

Other little visitor birds also grace our lands. On fields and dry scrub land, the Siberian stonechat – both male and female – will sit comfortably between thorns. Near the Najafgarh lake in Delhi, agricultural lands stretch out. At this time of the year, you can see a flame amidst the soft browns of winter fields. The flame is the male Siberian stonechat – with a warm yellow throat, and an upright posture.

You can notice other small birds too, many of which are resident in India.

Oriental white-eyes have all the energy of LBJs, but are coloured olive green, with a sharp white ring around their eyes. If you have a bird bath, you may have an entire flock of white-eyes dipping in and out of the water. They look like leaves when they are still, and little rockets when they fly.

winter birds

This January, I sat soaking up the sun in my friend’s garden. I wasn’t the only one drinking up the warmth – so was a solitary white-eye. It had no bursts of energy, no flock to keep it company, no twitches of movement. It sat quietly on a creeper twining around a wall-grill. I had never seen such a quiet white-eye. Perhaps it was so undisturbed on that lawn that it forgot to be a little jumpy bird.

At that moment, I could have been the little bird and the white-eye the writer observing its subject. I knew the spell would break and the bird would fly. But there was enough time to bring out my camera and take many photographs, unlike many other small birds I have missed. The cold air, the heady sun and the white-eye’s gaze were a little poem to not just being in the garden, but also to being present in the moment.

For all the moments I have spent with LBJs, I have learnt that size does not matter. That day I learnt that the length of moments don’t matter either.

Life is all about moments, even if they come in small doses.