Urban Jungle

In the Heart of Suburban Mumbai, an Oasis for Birds and Birders

Despite the concrete jungle around, Lokhandwala Lake in Mumbai’s crowded Andheri suburb hosts a healthy diversity of avian species

Text and photos by Shashank Birla

The alarm rings at 6 am. Two alarms, lest I hit the snooze button on one. I quickly put on a comfortable T-shirt and track pants, grab my backpack, and leave. No, I don’t have the discipline to undertake morning jogs, but inspired by a piece on ‘patch birding’ by Sejal Mehta, I have decided to return to my birding backyard.

Located at the edge of the bustling suburb of Andheri, Mumbai, is a tiny treasure trove for birders known as Lokhandwala Lake. When I had undertaken a course with BNHS to learn about birds, it is here that I spent a few days every month for a year, trying to understand its abundance and diversity of avifauna. The lake is close to a garden (where those disciplined morning joggers go about their routine), and only a 10-min drive from my home.

The path to the lake (right) is a short walk from the garden and main road (left). It is surrounded by woodland and mangroves that are part of the larger Lokhandwala-Versova mangrove belt, stretching over 300 acres by some estimates.

Regular Crew

At the entrance to the lane I unpack my binoculars and camera, and start to walk at a slow, measured pace. While the lake itself is a hotbed of activity, this woodland-mangrove mix is known to thrown up a few avian surprises of its own. (In the right season, you might even spot the Indian paradise flycatcher here.)

Much before you see the birds, you hear them. At first, it is the steady chorus of two species, the “ki-li-li-lee” of the black kite and the harsh cawing of the house crow. Both have profited from human presence, and thanks to food from a dumping ground nearby, they dwarf other species with their abundance. Their size is an added advantage, helping them dominate other birds in the competition for feeding and breeding space. When I used to bird here a few years ago, I wondered if their abundance would harm the local diversity. It is a question I am yet to answer.

Glossy ibises are often seen as dark shadows in flight. If you’re lucky, you might spot them feeding near the lake’s periphery in the day, and witness their beautiful, iridescent plumage.

Senior birders like Sunjoy Monga (author of Birds of the Mumbai Region) who have been visiting this space for over 10 years inform me that their species checklist touches about 122. (In the last two years, my own checklist stands at about 84 species). They also say they have witnessed a decline in diversity, and species that were common are now rarely spotted. For instance, the fastest bird in the world, the peregrine falcon is one such species.

However, any concrete answer requires long-term research and can’t be judged purely on checklists. A classic example of this is the house sparrow, which many believe is endangered, but may have simply shifted to more conducive habitats (I see quite a few in this area).

Melody Makers

Moving further in, other birds make their presence felt. An Asian pied starling perches on a nearby branch, a species with a remarkable origin story. It is believed a consignment of caged starlings was brought here in the 1970s, but escaped and have since colonised large areas of the city. The Alexandrine parakeet, a larger version of the widespread rose-ringed parakeet, is another example of this phenomenon. The cousin of the Asian pied starling, the common myna, is a native species that is commonly sighted.

Children delight in observing red-whiskered bulbuls (left) for their appearance and melodious singing. The black drongo or kotwal, is favoured by birders for its defensive strategies. It’s also the reason species like orioles, flycatchers, babblers, and sunbirds are often seen in close vicinity to drongos.

I hear snatches of the songs of a common tailorbird, and an ashy prinia, diminutive residents of the area, which remain hidden for the moment. A clearing opens up on my right and it affords an expansive view of the freshwater body that is Lokhandwala Lake. I see four spanking new benches and the ground freshly bricked.

The history of Lokhanwala Lake is an interesting one. It is not a natural water body, but a rain-fed lake formed after a depression was created here, during the construction of the road to the BSES electricity substation in the late 1980s. Over time, a variety of aquatic vegetation mushroomed on the surrounds, creating a thriving wetland.

Wetland Wonders

This morning, I am greeted by a large flock of lesser whistling ducks swimming peacefully, their high-pitched squeaks and whistles drowning out the crows and kites, at least in this area. They are accompanied by the larger Indian spot-billed ducks, fewer in number, and busy feeding on the vegetation growing on the lake’s surface. Though they are resident species, their numbers change depending on the weather and the lake’s depth. During particularly harsh summers, the lake dries down to a few large puddles, and the ducks have to look elsewhere for a temporary home until the monsoon.

Lesser whistling ducks (above) and Indian spot-billed ducks are resident species at the lake, seen early in the morning and at sundown.

I am unable to see any migratory ducks during this time of the year, not even the garganey — usually the first to arrive and the last to leave — but this is compensated with my sightings of resident species, such as Eurasian coots and common moorhens.

A harsh “chrrrr” from a bushy patch nearby, tells me that there is at least one winter migrant in the area: a Blyth’s reed warbler. From experience, I have learned that I am unlikely to see this skulking species, though I manage a brief glance on my binoculars as it flits among the bushes. A white-throated kingfisher perched on a stump in the distance, and a small blue kingfisher zipping over the surface of the lake, add dashes of colour to my morning. A group of yoga practitioners have also set up by now, and the scene is a peaceful one. Man and nature coexisting in harmony.

Garganeys (left) are a migratory duck species that visit India in winter, flying annually from their breeding grounds in Eastern Europe and Siberia. The quiet of the lake is a peaceful space for community initiatives such as yoga and meditation.

Surprise, Surprise

But this lake has faced a few threats in the last few years. The most prominent among them is garbage disposal: plastic, ceremonial offerings, packets of food waste, empty bottles etc. Despite awareness drives and dustbins being placed near the lake’s viewpoint, some visitors still throw refuse into the lake. There have also been cases of illegal fishing and mist-netting (when nets are staked to poles and held vertically to catch birds), but luckily these have been nipped in the bud by local authorities and vigilant citizens.

Irresponsible disposal of trash influences the composition of the lake, and the steady aggregation of organic and inorganic pollutants could result in oxygen depletion, thus harming the lake’s biodiversity.

I slowly make my way out, spotting two more avian species: the red-whiskered bulbul, which gave itself away with its melodious calls, and the black drongo (another local migrant) being mobbed by a black kite. In fact, it is often the other way round, as drongos are well-known for mobbing birds of prey as a defensive tactic. You never know when you might see a curious natural history moment when you’re birding.

The Mudflats

With the sun out, I have one more detour in mind: a small bridge, only a two-minute drive away, which overlooks a swathe of mangroves and exposed mudflats. The tide timings are conducive, and sure enough, I see a few birds as I walk along the bridge.

Mudflats are an important natural habitat of Mumbai’s coastline, attracting avian species including the famous flamingos that visit Mumbai every year.

As the habitat changes, so do the species. This ecosystem has mostly waders, which are birds that specialise in feeding near beaches, mudflats, and other coastal habitats. The most easily spotted are the black-winged stilts, dainty birds with a black-and-white plumage and long, red legs that give them their name. I also see the common redshank, little stints, common sandpipers, lesser sand plovers, little ringed plovers, and a solitary common greenshank.

These species can be a bit hard to identify at first and can be a bit intimidating to novice birders. With practice, one begins to see the defining features (such as the broad, white edge on the wings of the common redshank in flight, or the prominent yellow ring around the eye of ringed plover). This makes the job somewhat easier, but it is not true for all species. Be patient. Bird identification is a skill best cultivated steadily over time, and perhaps never truly mastered.

The Asian koel, like other cuckoo species, is a brood parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. The similarly sized house crow is a prime target of the Asian koel.

With the sun now well and truly and out, I continue to scan the mudflats and the mangroves, hoping to catch a sight of one of the winter regulars: the majestic greater spotted eagle. Alas, it is not to be. Either the species hasn’t arrived in the area or is soaring somewhere else. As I head back to my car, to my surprise, I spy, a male Asian koel placidly perched out in the open atop the mangroves. Whenever I have visited this area I have heard this bird, but seeing it is a special treat.

I don’t see any uncommon species, but it’s still a productive birding experience: just under 30 species in about an hour. Plus, I thoroughly enjoy reconnecting with my ‘patch’, before the daily office grind. That and the serenity one experiences amidst wilderness, even if it is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city. These are things we must be thankful for, and work towards preserving.

Getting There

Lokhandwala Lake: This is a short walk from a main road, locally called ‘Lokhandwala Back Road’. The closest Metro Stations are DN Nagar and Versova (both 15 min by road). The closest railway station is Jogeshwari (20 min). Auto-rickshaws and local taxis ply between the stations and the entrance to the lake path.
Take the road on the left of the lake, as the one on the right is fenced and does not afford a clear view. Further in, this section is used as a dumping ground for trucks carrying waste.

Mudflats: To visit the mudflats, proceed on the main road towards Millat Nagar, until you reach a bridge across the Mogara nullah. The viewpoint of the mangroves is to the left of the bridge. Be sure to visit during low tide, as it is most productive for birding.

Tip: It’s advisable to only visit these places in daylight hours.

Shashank Birla

is a naturalist, photojournalist and founder of the safari tour outfit, Wilderlust Expeditions. www.shashankbirla.com

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