Birder in hand - the unruffled joy of bird-watching

Bijoy Venugopal
Editor, Yahoo! India Travel
When viewed from the back, the Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) looks drab and brown. When it turns to face you, it flashes its stunning bib of blue and orange. It breeds in northern Asia, Europe and Alaska and winters in the Indian subcontinent.

For birdwatchers around the world, February 16 marked two special occasions. It was the day when two major global birding events -- the Great Backyard Bird Count and Big Bird Day — coincided. Armed with binoculars, checklists and field guides, and praying to the bird gods for luck, they set off to explore the habitats around their cities — from forests and woodlands to beaches, parks, lake beds, riversides, even dumping yards — no location was left unexplored.

I have watched birds since I was five, back when bird-watchers had not yet been abbreviated to birders. My grandmother, who has a story about every bird (and nearly every living thing), got me curious in the world around me. The Golden Oriole's sweet tooth, the Crow-Pheasant's good luck charm, the Mottled Wood Owl's ominous death call at dusk, all of these stories filled up my childhood and made the birds more fantastic than they actually appeared. As I grew up, I spent long summer (and winter) vacations at my grandparents' home in Kerala devoid of television and reading matter (the books I carried along were usually exhausted on the train and within the first two days of the vacation). Boredom was the biggest motivation, and it paid off. Roaming the sprawling overgrown backyards typical of old Kerala homes, I made many discoveries.

It's a passion that has stayed with me ever since. Even today, when I travel abroad, I try and make time for a little bird-watching -- from car windows, train windows, walks in the park, and along beaches, even a trip to the zoo (in Melbourne, curious visitors have shaken their heads at me for looking in the shrubbery outside a lion enclosure). It's a hobby I recommend very highly, for it puts you in touch with the world around you and sets you on a path towards becoming a steward of the environment. Through birds, you will learn to appreciate trees, water bodies, wildlife, flowers and find joy in every kind of countryside.

Birders enjoy the luxury of walking in some very scenic locations but, be warned, don't jump into it expecting every place that birds inhabit to be idyllic. Far from it. Often, birders forsake bucolic parks and gardens and may be found oohing and aahing hunched up over filthy sewers, garbage dumps and smelly swamps. Such is our life. If you want to marry a birder, just make sure you're ready for those weekends of wading in muck. It's their glue of togetherness.

For those starting out, birdwatching doesn’t demand much. Your eyes and ears are the best equipment to develop a feel for the pastime. Discard your gadgets, put your phone on silent, and tune in to the sounds of nature. Through the din of city noises, your ears will begin to discern the call of a bird. There, a koel in passionate song. And from that distant tree, the chuckle of parakeets gossipping. Swallows astonish with their aerobatic displays and sparrows keep up a constant, busy chitter. And that deep guttural cooing -- is that a dove or a pigeon? There - did you see that tree stump move? It's a Spotted Owlet. And don't tune out the crows -- there is a range of music in their harsh cawing. Being intelligent, resourceful and full of surprising tricks, they make for great watching.

Early mornings and evenings are the best time for birding and all it takes to get started is a little patience. A pair of good birding binoculars adds a world of possibilities to the birding experience. A good field guide to birds is also important, as many species may look similar and can be easily confused. A notepad and a pen/ pencil as well as a camera are desirable but not indispensable in these days of smartphone birding apps. A good pair of walking shoes, a hat and a bottle of water are recommended. Wear dull coloured clothes as these don’t alarm the birds. Bright colours are strictly for the birds alone.

Birdwatching is a great way to train the mind and focus the vision, if you are looking for beneficial side-effects. It sharpens your powers of observation, attunes you to nature, and improves your patience.

For birders in the tropics and equatorial regions of the northern hemisphere, winter is an especially interesting time as it brings migratory birds from the cold northerly regions to the warm climes of the south. They take advantage of the plenitude of food available in these warm climates and throng every available habitat. Birders await this time of the year and set out into the field with enthusiasm.

Birders are no longer fringe elements in society. They have their own geeky patois, their fashion statement and their place in contemporary literature and pop culture. And, just so you know, birders are not ornithologists. Sorry to disappoint you (and I know you prefer the meatier jargon), but an ornithologist's work has to do with studying birds and their biology in very scientific ways. In comparison, we birders are sort of like country quacks who get out on weekends with our binoculars and shoot the breeze.

How about a book to get you started? Not a field guide, but a regular book that you won't be embarrassed to take out in a public place.

Read Birding on Borrowed Time, the story of Phoebe Snetsinger, daughter of the ad tycoon Leo Burnett and an American birder who learned of her terminal illness and spent every waking moment in the pursuit of a new bird sighting. After her cancer was diagnosed, she spent two decades travelling to some of the most inaccessible and troubled parts of the world on her mission to see every bird on earth. In 1999, while Snetsinger was in Madagascar, her van overturned. She died instantly, after checking off 8,398 species of the world's 9,600-odd species of birds known to science. It was arguably the most by any human alive.

Need more encouragement? Read Dan Koeppel's book, To See Every Bird on Earth, an equally gripping story of a man reconnecting with his estranged son through the love of birds. The Big Year, a 2011 Hollywood movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, is about two birders trying to outsmart the world record-holder in birding.

A word of caution: Beware of turning into a twitcher. Twitchers, both envied and reviled by the bird-watching community, are bird-watchers whose primary aim is to tick as many birds off their life-lists as possible. They jet-set into exotic locations, fly or drive straight to where they know a bird is found, play a call to attract the bird and, when it appears, tick it off their life-list with smug sighs of satisfaction. To them, the joy of birding, with its meditative and therapeutic qualities, is a lost cause.

Recommended starter kit for birders:

  • Binoculars (10x magnification recommended) - here's a useful guide to selecting birding binoculars
  • A handy, updated field guide to the birds of the Indian Subcontinent (the most popular are the ones authored by Krys Kazmierczak and Grimmett and Inskipp)

Useful web resources

For bird identification through photos: 

For identifying bird calls

Xeno Canto

For making bird checklists

Enjoy some of our birding photo-galleries:

Where have all the sparrows gone?

The Fantastic Flamingos of Khadir Island

 A Birder's Paradise in Mangalajodi, Odisha

 Birdwatchin in Munnar, Kerala

In the wild, wild Andaman Islands, India


Bijoy Venugopal is Editor - Yahoo India Travel and founder-editor of the nature blog The Green Ogre. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, as well as his personal blog, Afoot


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