Of Birds and Forests

Design: Shaurya Rawat and Hardhik Pinjala

Editor: Siddharth D P

An abode of a plethora of talents, hobbies and pursuits, seldom are ardent enthusiasts of nature found in insti, a campus known for its wilderness and wildlife. Amateur birdwatcher and aspiring naturalist, Sathya Priya is a third-year student[1] of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her typical mornings are spent looking at birds, insects and observing plants near the residential or SAC areas. For six-year-old Sathya Priya, seeing a tailor bird’s nest with leaves sewn into a cradle was the defining moment that started her ever-lasting comradeship with nature. Growing up without a television, she resorted to observing nature, watching birds and exploring taxonomy. She affectionately recalls the joy she got from memorising the binomial nomenclature and identifying birds with their scientific names.

A juvenile Scaly breasted Munia – inside insti in the prosopsis  bushes on the way to the Watsa stadium

From her numerous visits to organic farms, she started appreciating the interconnection between biodiversity and the different aspects of human life. In her school, Sathya Priya along with her friends started an aspiring naturalist club. They wandered around on their cycles looking for different species of birds and insects. She talks about the excitement and happiness that she felt after identifying a particular species and says that she felt like the next Charles Darwin. Vividly remembering the time she saw a black and white kingfisher in her 8th standard, she narrates it as an otherworldly experience.

She adds that “Birding became a way of constantly having attention to everything happening around you”

Red whiskered bulbul – a resident bird found behind SAC

It was looking at several different worlds and understanding that the space one occupies is not their own and that every action is accountable.

For instance, about five species of birds started nesting in her small garden after her household switched to home-made fruit vinegar for surface cleaning instead of chemical products. “


With its rich biodiversity, characteristic of the Coromandel coast, insti is a haven for bird-watchers and has reported over 186 bird species. With the help of Professor Susy Varghese, she got in touch with other seasoned birdwatchers and naturalists on the campus. She says that 

Chennai has a lot of dedicated bird-watchers and amateur naturalists and the citizen science data[2] collected by them are extremely important in studying biodiversity outside the few fragmented protected areas.”

She usually goes bird-watching with a notebook, a pair of binoculars, and sometimes with her Canon DSLR camera and uploads the data into sites like eBird. According to Sathya Priya, all that is required for birdwatching is a lot of enthusiasm, patience, and a zeal to find new things. Back in her hometown in Trichy, she says that about fifty bird species can be spotted along the stretches of Rettaivaikkal canal. 

Malabar whistling thrush – favourite bird of Sathya Priya

Her favourite hangout places in insti to observe birds are the marshlands behind SAC, where on an average day, she can spot a minimum of thirty bird species; near the Sri Durga Peeli Amman temple, where a lot of bird-calls can be heard in the mornings; Madras Avenue and other places near the Guindy national park compound. However, Sathya Priya doesn’t restrict herself to birds and loves observing any non-human life forms and tries to understand the behaviours and the various interspecies interactions happening around the natural world. She also emphasises the importance of striking a balance between scientific temperament and romanticism as both independently don’t give an empathised connection to nature. During the migratory season between the months of October and March, she regularly goes birding and at other times, she can be seen observing butterflies while summers are spent observing flowering trees, moths and other insects. 

In her 2nd year, she volunteered at the Youth for Conservation Action Network to educate school students about the environment and conducted workshops at Vana Vani Matriculation Higher Secondary School inside campus and her old school in Trichy. 

In the past three years, she has gone for twelve surveys conducted by the forest department in the forests of Tamil Nadu and the Western Ghats.”

She describes these surveys as her own off-beat getaways. The surveys last for about four days during which they trek into deep forests looking out for, observing, and recording birds. Even though the surveys are organised by the forest departments of the respective states, the observations are done by experienced or amateur naturalists. Having gone on a survey to the rainforests in Silent Valley in Kerala without an umbrella or leech socks, Sathya Priya vividly recollects trekking for 20km during the monsoon of July looking for birds

The survey team got stranded due to a small landslide and had to trek back through waist-deep water in heavy current.”

Reminiscing about surveys as platforms for meeting interesting people and for their enlightening adventures, she feels melancholic about being in quarantine and such activities being put on hold. At her home, other than the five nesting birds, she is regularly visited by a sunbird every morning that hits her window at a particular time. 

For her, birding is a way of life, a stress buster and a recreational activity. But she aspires to be a naturalist and wishes to pursue a career related to the environment and sustainability. Having observed around 400 bird species, one of her biggest wishes is to observe all the species of birds in India. In the near future, she wants to clean the polluted Rettaivaikal canal in Trichy. Sathya Priya says that one day, she wants to build a small forest with natural vegetation and a small space for herself within it. 

Recently, she and a couple of her friends started a pan Chennai naturalist network for nature enthusiasts between the ages of 13 and 25.

Lynx spider feeding a Tussock moth (inside the campus at Madras Avenue

With this, they aim to become a strong voice for Chennai’s environment through biodiversity data-driven citizen science movements by contributing to the study of rapid evolution of species adapting to urban areas and look forward to inspiring school and college students about the natural world.

Signature spider female – spirit animal of Sathya Priya




[1]Sathya Priya was in her 3rd year at the time of the interview with T5E.

[2]Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur (or non-professional) scientists (Wikipedia).

MyIITM series narrates and features out-of-the-ordinary interests and hobbies that students have taken up in IIT Madras. Do you know someone we should feature? Let us know! Mail us at [email protected].

-Series by Siddharth D P

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