Sunday, November 23, 2014

This is a piece I wrote for One India, One People for their column Know India Better

A Birding Paradise…
…and how to make the most of it!

With over 1300 species of birds, India is one of the world’s most coveted destinations for bird watchers. Even bustling metros like Mumbai and Delhi boast of a count of 150-200 species!

Becoming a Bird Brain
Pack a pair of binoculars, a bottle of water, a cap. Switch off your mobile. Set out for a forest at dawn, a little before the sun is up, when the sky is faintly tinted with pink and gold. Wander into the quiet, cool shade of the tall trees, far from the madding crowd. Stand perfectly still. Hearken to the trills, twitters and cheeps of the wingéd marvels that flit about in the trees or root for grubs in the grass. Spot a bird with your naked eyes first and then use your binoculars to get a closer look.  No sudden movements or sounds. Breathe in and out softly and keep your eyes focused. You have entered the magical world of bird watching!
Birds come in every colour of the spectrum (and some hues not found in any paint box) and their melodious voices and graceful movements are a feast for the eyes and balm for the soul.  After three years spent visiting numerous wildlife sanctuaries and wetlands across India (and locally in Mumbai), I can vouch for the fact that there is no greater stress-buster than a morning spent watching birds.
India has around 1300 species of birds, some of which are resident, and others which migrate here from all over the world to feed (and breed) in the monsoon and winter months. The northeastern region has the highest bird diversity with 850 species.
Bird watching or birding has become a popular pastime in India, especially in the last ten years. The number of serious bird watchers or birders is growing and is probably in the region of a quarter of a million. Of course, considering that we are more than a billion strong, this figure is negligible compared to the millions of bird watchers in a country like the USA which has around 750 bird species or the UK which has a mere 600. Birders in these countries are usually wealthy and middle-aged and women make up more than half. They also have active associations like the USA’s Audubon Society and the American Birding Association and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (UK), that issue rare bird sighting alerts and hold regular bird watching galas such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, the Christmas Bird Count and the Big Garden Bird Watch. There are competitions too, like The Big Year in the US (a film was made based on a book of the same name), in which birders aim to spot the maximum number of bird species in a calendar year.
India has caught up. It has its own competition that kicked off in 2005, the annual HSBC India Bird Race, which is a 12-hour ‘chase’ held in different cities from November to March. In its initial editions, before it was widely covered in the media, most people thought it was like a greyhound ‘race’ involving birds!
While birding is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in the West, and in some countries like Japan and Australia as well, it is picking up slowly but steadily in India, especially among young professionals and the well-to-do. Many are in it for the fantastic opportunities for photography it offers.
There are a handful of excellent birding guides or expert birders, based in different parts of India and nature tour outfits that arrange for birding expeditions to reserves like Corbett, Dandeli, Ladakh and Bandhavgarh, as well as places like Jamnagar and Bhigwan for water birds (waders and waterfowl). Some like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) even arrange for birding and wildlife watching trips abroad.
The Basics
The beauty of birding lies in its simplicity. The hobby will not burn a large hole in your pocket unlike indulging in adventure sports or arranging jaunts to pricey resorts. Since the usual sightseeing hurly-burly is completely avoided, birding hotspots can be explored in a space of 3 or 4 days or even over a weekend, in which one can sometimes tot up a count of 100-150 species, depending on the region. If one is going to remote areas like the northeast which has an amazing number of avian species, one has to factor in more time (and money) but of course that also depends on where one lives!
Equipment consists of a pair of good binoculars that are available in the range of Rs.8000–Rs.12000.  One can also invest in a swanky pair of Swarovski binoculars which cost a whopping lakh of rupees or more! An avid birder considers that a wise capital expense because, since there are no moving parts in binoculars (except for the focus adjustment dials), they last a very long time if properly maintained.
Spotting scopes (which are a little like telescopes) are another ball game altogether. A bird sitting a mile away on a dead tree stump miraculously comes into focus in all its brilliant clarity through a scope. However, a scope comes at a steep price (upwards of Rs.12000, tripod extra!) and lugging it around can be quite painful. Usually, birding guides carry one or two spotting scopes and if a bird condescends to sit in one place for more than five minutes, then everyone has a chance to see it. This entails mastering the tricky manoeuvre of being first in the ‘scope line’!
A book about birds found in a particular region, or what is known as a ‘field guide’, is a must. There is the trusty Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds or the ones by ‘firang’ authors like Pamela Rasmussen (Birds of South Asia) or Grimmet and Inskipp (A Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent) or Krys Kazmierzcak (A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent). That will be another Rs.700-Rs.900 please! The guides are invaluable for both the novice and the expert. They feature paintings of birds in realistic colours and in various angles, including flight (which is important for identifying raptors like eagles) and details about sizes, sub-species, habitats and calls.
You must also remember to stock up on dull-coloured clothing, a hat for protection against the sun and sturdy shoes for tramping in the mud. Birds have good eyesight and bright colours like yellow, red and white are like warning flags. Earthy shades like dark brown, green and grey are the most suitable.
For first-timers, it makes sense to bird with an experienced person initially. There are Internet groups which one can join. The group sends an alert to all members whenever there is a local trip. For example, Birds of Bombay is a group on Yahoo. The Mumbai Bird Club and BNHS post regularly on it. Social networking sites are also a great way to hook up with birding enthusiasts all over India.
Right at Your Window
The best way to begin is to watch the birds outside your window—literally, in your backyard! That’s how I took the plunge after my first local group bird watching stint. You will be surprised at the number of avian species that have adapted to living in the urban jungle. Birds believe in frugality—they need some trees, a smattering of seeds, insects or fruits and a source of water. Fruiting trees like the ficus species or fig trees (peepal for instance) are bird magnets. Flowers like the powder puff and hibiscus are favoured by nectar-drinking birds. Trees also provide safe homes for nesting birds. I can guarantee that you will see at least a dozen species right outside your home if you listen and watch carefully every day for a week or two and in different seasons.
I am sure there are some species which you may have already ‘seen’ but not really ‘noticed’. These are crows, mynas, sparrows and pigeons. Do you consider them pests? Pigeons and crows probably are. Try to look at them with different eyes, the eyes of a pair of binoculars. Note the glittering sparkles of green, blue and purple in a pigeon’s neck (the correct species name is blue rock pigeon, by the way). Look closely at a house crow’s beak. Does it sport a bunch of soft furry feathers underneath like a funky beard? Have you ever chanced upon sparrows taking a mud bath? Do you know why they do it? To get rid of skin parasites! Incidentally, male sparrows are bigger and have darker markings on their wings.
Crows love to play games. You must have had one dive-bombing you as you walk on the street, or seen a bunch of them riding the roof of a city bus. A flock will suddenly erupt out of the trees, cawing madly. Then they will all settle down and be so quiet that you will hear not a peep till the next raucous hullabaloo. Truant crows have a mischievous habit of cawing outside your bedroom window at the crack of dawn, in a grating, guttural tone as if they are rolling marbles round in their throat. And if you feed them even once, they’ll be back at exactly the same time every day. They have memories like elephants, so you miss a feed at your own risk!
Mynas are chatterboxes. Thankfully, unlike the poor crows, they have sweet voices. They are pretty birds who look like they’ve dipped their beaks and feet in a bowl of haldi. They sport a scintillating dash of yellow mascara besides!
Parakeets, which are related to parrots, are city slickers. They move about in flocks and create a racket that will shame a bunch of noisy kindergarten kids. Their screeching is so loud that you can hear them even when they are flying way above you. Unmistakably green, with long tails, candy orange beaks and beady black eyes, there are two kinds—the rose-ringed which has an almost-there pale pink collar and the Alexandrine which has stylish red epaulettes.
Raptors are birds of prey (kites, falcons, harriers, eagles). They have wicked talons, hooked beaks and razor-sharp eyesight. A tumult among the pigeons signals a black kite (also known as a pariah kite) on the prowl. Crows are more courageous. They will harry the kite, boldly flying at it, till it leaves the area out of sheer frustration. Black kites are common in the big metros because they have become scavengers and Municipal dumps offer a sumptuous feast.
A surprising bird is the white-throated kingfisher. Surprising, because kingfishers are supposed to live near lakes, rivers and estuaries. This one, however, has adapted and does very well for itself, fishing for scraps in urban nullahs and rubbish tips like the black kite. Kingfishers sit in a dumpy fashion on wires and poles and a long, thick red bill is an immediate giveaway.
Flying In
Come winter and birds that live far north (in the cold reaches of northern Russia and Asia) prepare for a trip to warmer climes, to find food, breed and collect some frequent flyer miles. These are the migrants, the only globetrotters who don’t need passports or visas to fly across borders! India is a favourite watering hole for winter migrants, especially water birds and raptors. For birders the months between October and March provide a veritable feast as nearly a quarter of the 1300 species (around 296 species) throng wetlands in the coastal states both in the west and on the east, including Gujarat and Maharashtra, Rajasthan (Bharatpur and Tal Chhapar) as also areas like the Rann of Kutch and the Sunderbans, in fact wherever there are good sources of water and sufficient food. Some migrate further south. Birds also migrate within a region, from upper altitudes to lower altitudes in winter and back again in summer. Sometimes a bird which doesn’t usually come to India strays off its course and lands up here. It is then called a vagrant, a bird hobo, and you will be lucky if you see one!
Migration is affected by various factors. Scientists think that global warming has played a big role in recent years in the dwindling numbers of migratory birds. For example, the Siberian crane which was a regular visitor to Bharatpur’s Keoladeo Ghana National Park, stopped coming there when the ponds and lakes dried up in consecutive years. A prolonged summer in the northern hemisphere confuses migrant birds and they start their journey too late. When they arrive in India, they find that winter here is already over! Migrants may starve if they don’t find food at their rest stops or they may be shot down by hunters or caught in the crossfire of war (for instance in countries like Afghanistan).
Birds which are found in the same areas throughout the year are called residents. Some of the commonly-observed (widespread) residents besides of course, the ubiquitous crows, pigeons, mynas and sparrows, include the red-vented and red-whiskered bulbuls, the magpie and Indian robins, coppersmith or crimson-breasted barbets, ashy and plain prinias, tailorbirds, purple sunbirds, cattle egrets and pond herons.
How do birds know which way to go?  Some birds fly throughout the day and night and some fly over immense stretches of water without a visual landmark to guide them. Researchers think that birds orient themselves to the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth and that they navigate by the Sun and the stars.
Birding Hotspots
Avid birders travel to different places to see different species, especially endemics. Endemics are birds which are found only in a restricted area and nowhere else. For example, the Malabar grey hornbill, the Nilgiri laughing thrush and the grey-headed bulbul are endemic to the Western Ghats.
Some of the areas listed among the top ten birding destinations are: Kutch, including the Great and the Little Rann which lie in the path of migrating birds. Here one can see the Indian bustard and water birds like cranes and raptors like harriers and eagles. Going a little to the east, you have the Bharatpur sanctuary in Rajasthan, a haven for water birds. Move down south to Goa. Yes, I know you think at once of golden beaches and azure seas but Goa has eight kingfisher species, imagine! Travel deeper south and you have Thattekad Sanctuary in Kerala, famous for the Sri Lankan frogmouth and owls. Turn northwards now, right up to the foothills of the Himalayas. Uttarakhand’s Corbett National Park, Sattal and Pangot are wonderful places, not only for tigers but for birds like the ibisbill, the great slaty woodpecker and the koklass pheasant. Going eastwards, Lava and Neora in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal harbour some exotic species, for instance, the satyr tragopan and the rusty-bellied shortwing. Hold your breath, for now we enter a veritable wonderland of birds. This is the northeast. Arunachal’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and Namdapha (beware of the leeches here!), Assam’s Kaziranga and Nameri reserves and of course, Sikkim, are a birder’s dream come true. You can see birds like Ward’s trogon and the beautiful nuthatch (that’s its name, I’m not joking!).
This is definitely not an exhaustive list, for there are countless other spots all over India like Ladakh, Kashmir, the Ranganathittu sanctuary and Nagarhole in Karnataka, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and green lungs near big cities (the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the Sewri mudflats in Mumbai or Sultanpur in Delhi) which teem with birdlife.
Birding Tours
There are several groups and individuals who take enthusiasts to different birding hotspots. There is Manoj Sharma who owns Pheasant Jungles and leads tours in Corbett, Sattal and Pangot; Jugal Kishore who is a birding expert from Gujarat; Adesh Shivkar and Mandar Khadilkar of Nature India Tours in Mumbai; Hemant Ogale who runs Whistling Woods in Amboli, Maharashtra and Pankaj Lad of Canopy Goa. There are several local experts based in the metros and in the specific nature or wildlife reserves who act as both local resource persons and birding guides.
Birding tours are a class apart. Rest assured that it will not be a typical Indian ‘touristy’ thing with partying, ‘naach gaana’, ‘antakshari’ and loud chatter. Expect to awaken at 6 a.m. and drive, walk or sometimes climb, miles through the forest. Expect to go for a night walk to see nocturnal birds after a tiring day spent birding. Expect to stop every now and then and endlessly get in and out of buses, cars and jeeps when a bird is spotted. Expect very basic facilities at remote places like Eaglenest, where there is no electricity, no running water and only tents for accommodation. Expect disappointment if promised bird species don’t show up or if rain and mist drive birds into the bushes. Expect complete absorption in, and single-minded passion for, birds from tour leaders and fellow-birders.
Above all, expect a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will leave you thirsting for more, and more and more!  Expect miffed family members who cannot understand what it is you run after and why you spend tons of money on going to places featuring absolutely no mod cons. Expect curious questions from friends and colleagues who will one day tell you, strangely enough, that they have started looking at birds and regard you as some sort of avifauna ready reckoner!
Watching birds gives you that rare ‘Aha!’ feeling. It leaves you feeling at one with creation, at peace with yourself and everyone around you. It leaves you with a gleam in your eye and a song in your heart. It leaves you with a feeling of wonder that there are still some breathtakingly bright and beautiful things left. All things considered, birds make life that much more worth living.
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Do’s & Don’ts
Here are a few tips for novice birders. I would not be so presumptuous as to call myself a veteran but I have learned a little something!
·         Don’t be disheartened if you cannot spot a bird immediately. Birds normally don’t sit still in one place especially when they are foraging for food in the early morning. Even experienced birders can sometimes fail to spot a bird.  What seems like a bird may turn out to be a trembling leaf or a giant bumble bee or a dead twig! It takes plenty of time and oodles of patience, but the wait is well worth it.
·         First locate the bird by its sound. Then track its movement with your naked eyes. Lastly raise your binoculars and point them at the spot. Adjust the focus. You may have to keep shifting as the bird moves about.
·         Don’t shout or point if you see a bird that others haven’t. It will frighten the poor thing away. Quietly communicate its location using clock positions. For instance, “If the trunk of the tree is 12 o’clock, the bird is at the 3 o’clock position or at the 9 o’clock position.”
·         Use other trees or bushes to pinpoint location. “It is sitting on a branch of a tree behind that is in line with that tall tree in front of us.”
·         Buy your own binoculars and field guide. Nothing is more annoying to the others in a group than if you borrow theirs.
·         Don’t pester people around you by saying, “What? Where? I can’t see it!” Observe the direction in which everyone is looking and try to zero in. If you still can’t see it, don’t lose your cool. Most birders are very generous with their help to novices and eventually someone will point it out to you.
·         Don’t rush forward or crowd to the front. Wait till everyone is in position.
·         Don’t be selfish and keep a sighting to yourself. Share information with others, but do it quietly.
·         Don’t try to ‘flush out’ a bird from the undergrowth by crashing into it or dashing around. That’s not nice.
·         Some birds can throw their voices like ventriloquists, so the direction of the sound may be misleading!
·         Never disturb a nesting bird or try to peek into a nest or steal the eggs. Even photographing a nest is a ‘no-no’ as the flash may disturb the bird which might then abandon the nest.
·         Try to learn as much about the bird as possible after observing it by using your field guide.
·         Learn to recognise the calls of common birds first. There are websites and CDs available with recordings of bird calls. Listen and try to remember.
·         Playing back recorded bird calls or imitating bird calls or making bird sounds to lure them out of hiding is not ethical. Birds are territorial and it may traumatise them if they hear a call but don’t see the ‘rival’, or ‘mate’ if it happens to be the breeding season.
·         Water birds (waders and ducks) are easier to watch than other species since they congregate in one spot and don’t move about too much. It may be a more rewarding experience for a first-time birder to start by observing these.
·         Maintain a disciplined queue at a spotting scope. Take just five seconds to look through it to give others behind you a chance. The bird may not be so obliging as to linger there till everyone has had a look!
·         Ask questions and be curious and interested in whatever is happening around you, but at the appropriate time, not when everyone is busy looking at a bird.
·         Don’t wander away from the group or chase after a bird on your own. You can get lost.
Remember, if you see fewer birds than expected or none at all, just being in the midst of nature is in itself refreshing and rejuvenating.
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A Birding Glossary
There are some terms that birders use frequently which might sound like Greek to you if you are a fresher! Here are a few.
Flyway – A route used by migrating birds between their breeding and wintering grounds.
Frugivorous – Fruit-eating.
Insectivorous – Insect-eating.
Jizz – The characteristic qualities of a bird which make it instantly identifiable, even in flight. For example, the stout red bill of a kingfisher. Veteran birders can recognise a bird merely from its jizz.
Life List – a list of all the birds that a birder expects to see in a lifetime. A handful of birders have seen more than 8000 species of the world’s 10000, but it is an expensive, sometimes uncomfortable and time-consuming affair, turning what should be a pleasurable activity into an OCD.
Lifer – This doesn't mean a convict sentenced to life! It means the first time a birder sees a particular species of bird. One can expect to see more than 100 lifers in the northeast of India.
Mobbing – When a group of birds try to drive away an intruder especially a larger bird of prey like raptors and owls. Crows mob kites.
Raptor – A bird of prey like eagles, harriers, kites and falcons. Vultures are not considered raptors because they feed on dead meat. They are scavengers.
Skulkers -  Birds which are shy and try to hide in the undergrowth.
Trash Birds – Birds which are there in such large numbers that they become pests. For example, blue rock pigeons and crows in cities.
Twitcher – A twitcher is a birder who obsessively pursues rare birds in the hope of striking them off on his life list.
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Web Resources
One very good way of learning more about birds and birding is by visiting websites that are hosted by birders in different cities. For instance, there is Delhi birds (delhibirds.com), Kolkata birds (kolkatabirds.com) and Bangalore birds (bangalorebirding.com). There are also bird photography websites like India Nature Watch (indianaturewatch.net) and Birds of India (birdsofindia.net; indiabirds.com and surfbirds.com), facebook groups like Indian Birds and yahoo groups like Birds of Bombay and BngBirds. For bird calls go to birdscalls.info or natureclubsurat.org which also sells bird calls on CDs. BNHS and WWF also organise local, national and international trips, the information about which is given on their websites.
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Birder’s Eye View

Mohan Varadarajan, co-founder of a software company called Knolseed Technologies, is based in Bangalore. He talks about how birding changed his life.

In 2008, I was taking a sabbatical from work, and on a whim I attended a "Naturalist Training Program" conducted by Jungle Lodges & Resorts (A Govt of Karnataka enterprise). The 3-day experience was an eye-opener for me, and my first formal introduction into the wonderful world of "birding". The next few
months were exciting times. I started going out on bird watching trails in every available green patch within Bangalore (my city). I noticed birds where there were none before.  Camera-shy coucals and malkohas, leafbirds, sunbirds and flowerpeckers smaller than my thumb. Even exotic paradise flycatchers, right in the heart of the city. I found out (to some embarrassment) that everything that hovers is not an eagle. Most of them are in fact, kites. And of eagles and kites, there are many—black-shouldered, Brahminy, short-toed and crested.
And the surprises just kept coming—the precise engineering of the nests, the changes in plumage with mood and season, birds whose arrival signals the monsoon (pied-crested cuckoo), and those that depart with the winter (Indian pitta). Observing bird behaviour is a fascinating activity. The plot has all the makings of a box-office potboiler. There are the moles who infiltrate and plant their egg in another's nest (the Asian koel), the sirens who distract and destroy (the drongo, which imitates bird calls to distract and steal eggs), the mob that persecutes (crows), and the good guys (barn owls) who destroy the moles (literally).
These winged wonders have drawn me to distant places all over India, and with each trip, I've learnt a bit more about their world. I have met interesting people who share my passion for bird watching and made some good friends. And each time, I have returned home happy, but longing for more. Bird watching has led me to a better understanding of the significance of avian fauna in the larger web of life. Recognizing that our own well-being is closely linked with their survival, has been humbling.
I have come to appreciate the import of Senegalese poet Baba Dioum's words:
"In the end, we will protect only what we love.
We will love only what we understand.
We will understand only what we are taught."

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