They aren’t much to look at, but it just excites me to be around them,” says Nikhil Devasar. No, he’s not talking crudely about girls. He’s discussing one of his favourite birds: the sandpiper and its drab, grey plumage.
BIRDS AT CAMP CORBETT,KALADHUNGI,INDIA
Various birds including Leafbirds, Spot Winged Starlings and Purple Sunbirds feeding on a bush in Jim Corbett National Park (Courtesy: YouTube)
The 39-year-old, New Delhi-based textile manufacturer has a funny addiction: he’s hooked on birds.
The sport, so often associated with fussy old British women and men bogged down by binoculars, has now become the favourite activity of wildlife conservationists, outdoor adventurists and anyone willing to raise their glance a few branches higher. All it involves is scientific observation, quiet morning walks and careful study of “the Bible” aka The Birds of India by Salim Ali.
Isaac Kehimkar—general manager of programmes for the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS)—says awareness has grown thanks to the Internet, and technology helps spur interest of young people. “Now, with all the digital cameras, people can go out, photograph a bird, post it on the website. It’s become a global sport.”
The rise in interest comes in part from city clubs popping up in every major metropolis in the country, Internet sites spreading the word through postings and chat rooms, yearly counts organized by scientific groups—encouraging laymen to assist science for the day—and the excitement caused by the discovery last year, near Dehradun, of the first new bird species in 50 years.
The Sarus Crane is the only resident breeding crane in India
When professional astronomer and birdwatching hobbyist Ramana Athreya found and reported the Bugun Liocichla, a brightly-coloured laughing thrush-like bird, in December 2006, people around the world wanted to come to India to see its wealth of birds.
The sport requires very little training. Kehimkar recommends getting a good birding book, such as Ali’s, a pair of binoculars, with “at least 7x45 or 8x40” power, and starting out by looking for sparrows, crows, and parakeets around the city.
With 1,300 species in India and a strong migratory pattern each winter, birders have endless opportunities to hone their skills. Along with the elusive Bugun Liocichla, birders look for the Siberian Crane, the Purple Sunbird or the Green Magpie. The goal is to spot “lifers”—a bird you’ve never seen before.
The best birdwatching for migratory birds is from November to February, anywhere south of the snow-capped Himalayas. Most birders prefer to head out at dawn, hiking near watering holes or through bird sanctuaries, keeping their eyes peeled for a flash of colour and their ears open for a bird trill. When a bird is spotted, the mental list starts getting checked off: What colour plumage does it have? How is the beak shaped? What other birds does it look like? Who does it sound like? Are there any interesting markings?
Then, the birding book is pulled out, facts checked and compared and the right species settled on. Does it have the red facial markings of a Painted Stork? The black underwing feathers of a Siberian Crane? The white outer tail feathers of the large Grey Babbler?
Migratory cranes use the Sultanpur sanctuary as a watering hole
It’s a giant I Spy game you can play all day, every day.
Many birders started watching birds because of a fascination with wildlife. Devasar, for example, spent much of his youth visiting all the National Parks in India in search of ever more exotic wildlife. But when his job in New Delhi began tying him to the city, he realized he didn’t have to go far to find a wildlife experience: “Birds are everywhere.”
Hari Sridhar, 25, is studying in Bangalore for a PhD as an ecologist, with a focus on birds. He wasn’t drawn to birds until he realized “you get to see them do a lot of things in the field. If you study elephants, you see them once in two or three days. If you study frogs or insects, you have to trap them under glass. Birds you can watch any time.”
Anshuman Verma, 32, works at Microsoft in New Delhi and often joins the Delhi Bird Club on Sunday morning walks. Ten to 15 members head out to different birding spots around the city—such as the Okhla Bird Sanctuary or the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary—and spend the morning identifying birds. “It almost comes down to a picnic.”
The sport relies heavily on sound ecosystems; so many birders either start as wildlife protectors or become one in the course of their love for the sport. The Delhi Bird Club, a free online society headed by Devasar, sets up Sunday walks for members, but doesn’t leave birdwatchers in the realm of voyeurs alone. “If we see wetlands being threatened or a bird sanctuary being overrun, we have to get involved,” explains Devasar. “We can’t help but want to protect the places.”
Soumya Prasad, an ecologist, says she was impressed by the birdwatching lobby in Bangalore that asked the forest department to look into the development of Lake Hebbal in North Bangalore. The forest department then issued a show-cause notice to EIH Ltd, which runs the Oberoi Group of hotels, for violating the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, after development potentially damaged the habitats of local birds.
Though some birdwatchers will say the sport isn’t about competition, others will fiercely assert that it is. Lists are meticulously kept of what birds have and have not been spotted. Copies of Ali’s book are carefully marked as a bird is spotted and catalogued. And debate and some bragging pop up on online discussion websites.
Most posts, though, on websites such as www.delhibird.net and www.surfbirds.com, or e-groups such as orientalbirding on www.groups.yahoo.com, simply pass on the excitement and direct other birders to the spots.
On delhibird.net, for example, Sheila posts: “Then Jan halted us in our tracks, all gossip and idle talk stopped, binoculars were placed on eyes and excited cries of where? where? where? resounded—he had just heard and seen a Bristled Grassbird! The scope was focused, everyone queued up, (the) book was studied, every feather, colour, note was discussed and the bird, oblivious of all the commotion it was causing, continued to sing lustily. It seems to have returned to its favourite spot—the reeds in front of the Black Francolin tree.”
Birdwatching has dramatically changed because of the Internet as it allows like-minded people to flock together. Along with e-groups, city dwellers can sign up on networking sites such as the Delhi Bird Club in the Capital or BNHS in Mumbai. BNHS—a 5,000-member group—has a small yearly fee of around Rs500, and often organizes field excursions for members in Mumbai, as well as outstation visits to sanctuaries around the country. In December, 40 members of BNHS will be visiting the Kutch region in Gujarat to see the start of the winter migration.
Now, HSBC India has begun to sponsor birdwatching at its most competitive: the India Bird Races (www.indiabirdraces.com). The next race will be in Hyderabad on 2 December, with races in Pune, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore—among other cities— through February. The dawn ’til dusk event takes place on a Sunday in various cities around India, and each team of four has one object: Spot the most species in the city in one day.
Bangalore is also encouraging birdwatching by creating food and water centres for birds at parks around the city. The centres are to sustain the bird population of the city and encourage people to take an interest in birds.
Prasad says: “It takes very little to get people interested in birdwatching. You just show them a sparrow and they’re off.”
In birding, two heads are better than one. Log on to find a birdwatching friend
Delhi Bird Club
The free New Delhi-based society offers online discussions and photograph postings, as well as walks every Sunday.
Bombay Natural History Society
Become a member with Rs50 as joining fee and Rs500 for 12 months. Apart from receiving the quarterly magazine, ‘Hornbill’, members can participate in the many programmes offered by BNHS, such as their birdwatching camp in Kutch, Gujarat.
A free website, members can post messages and attend monthly walks around Kolkata.
Birdwatchers’ Field Club of Bangalore
It meets every second Sunday of the month at 7.30am in the Lal Bagh Glass House. Membership is free.