It was a cold but sunny February day in the Great Rann of Kutch, the legendary salt marsh in Gujarat, when Atul Jain saw his 1,000th bird.
His hands fumbling with excitement, Jain, a slim, short, athletic (and balding) 46-year-old, tried to focus his binoculars on the pale sand-brown bird that an untrained eye would have dismissed as a house sparrow.
It wasn’t. The way it moved was unlike a house sparrow, although some experts believe the bird belongs to the rock sparrow or Petronia family (others classify it as a rock finch). The almost unremarkable bird before Jain was the pale rock sparrow (or pale rock finch), a species usually found only in Central and West Asia and North Africa. Jain’s sighting was a first for the species in India.
“This is an incredible achievement for an amateur birder,” says Bikram Grewal, publisher, author of numerous bird books, and arguably India’s best-known birdwatcher.
Jain’s quest to see 1,000 bird species began in 2005, at a time when there were 1,232 bird species recorded in India. Since then, the number has expanded to around 1,300, largely due to ornithologist and author Pamela Rasmussen’s research, which has resulted in several species being split into two, and also because of the discovery of two birds previously unknown to science—the Bugun Liocichla in Arunachal Pradesh, and the Great Nicobar Crake in the Nicobar Islands.
Jain started birding in 2001.
India doesn’t have the equivalent of the big year, immortalized in the movie of the same name starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin, and based on journalist Mark Obmascik’s story of the bird-spotting competition in 1998—the winner spotted 745 birds in the course of a year, a record that is yet to be broken and probably never will be. Yet, Jain’s achievement and his standing among birders in India reflects the numerical obsession that drives birdwatchers everywhere.
In the math of ornithologists, a bird in hand is definitely worth less than two in a bush.
Like Jain, many birdwatchers are “twitchers” (the word derives from the nervous twitches of well-known British birder Howard Medhurst). These people are willing to travel long distances to see a new or rare species they have never seen before (the term for such species is a “lifer”), and add to their “life list”.
The quest for numbers
There are around 10,000 bird species on the planet, and many birders have spent their lives trying to see as many of them as possible. The trend was started by the late George Stuart Keith, an English ornithologist who was the founder-president of the American Birding Association (ABA).
Phoebe Snetsinger, daughter of advertising legend Leo Burnett, spent her inherited fortune to travel the world and see as many birds as possible, after being diagnosed with terminal skin cancer in 1981. At the time of her death (she was killed in a car accident in Madagascar while on a birding trip in 1999), she had seen 8,398 species, more birds than anyone else at the time. Snetsinger’s posthumously published memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time, remains an inspiration for birdwatchers and an all-time favourite.
Then there is US diplomat Peter G. Kaestner, who served in India between 2006 and 2009 as a consul general at the US embassy. He has spotted 8,451 birds to date and is even credited with the discovery of a new species—the Cundinamarca Antpitta in Colombia—in the 1980s.
“I had not heard of Phoebe and Peter in 2005. It was much later that I came to know about them. I think a few things triggered my quest—to achieve something different from bird photographers and a craving to discover unknown places and to be close to nature,” says Jain.
In his own quest for numbers, Jain has travelled extensively around the country and in the subcontinent. He spent six days on a sailboat to reach Narcondam, an island in the Andamans, to spot the elusive Narcondam hornbill. The bird was in the news recently—the Indian Coast Guard planned to set up a radar installation on the island, but the Union environment ministry nixed the plan.
He spent 13 hours driving on a road that wasn’t from Kohima to the Fakim Wildlife Reserve in Nagaland, almost on the Myanmar border, to see three species: the moustached laughingthrush, white-browed laughingthrush and yellow-throated laughingthrush.
He camped in remote villages in Mizoram in extreme weather conditions on his way to the Murlen National Park to spot the reclusive Chin Hills Wren-babbler.
He made the trek to Arunachal Pradesh’s famed but remote Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary to see the Bugun Liocichla, Ward’s trogon and green chocha.
He took cruises to the Maldives and Sri Lanka to spot oceanic or pelagic species, including the great and lesser frigatebird, white tern and Arabian shearwater.
And he even took an air taxi to Gan, near Malé, the southernmost island attached to the Maldives, to see one bird—the magnificent white or fairy tern.
It was only after he crossed 900 sightings that he decided to chronicle his trips and calculate how much he was spending on them. “Serious birdwatching can be expensive at times,” he says. By his calculation, he spends around Rs.20,000-30,000 to see a new species. The figure rises sharply with the number of species.
Jain has had to make repeated trips to the same location to see an elusive species. For instance, he sighted the spotted creeper, a small bird named for the way it traverses tree trunks, after six attempts. He saw it at Rajasthan’s Tal Chappar Wildlife Sanctuary—one of the places where it has been recorded.
Jain, who hails from Gangapur in Rajasthan, is a senior executive with a multinational company and lives with his family in a modest south Delhi apartment that stands testimony to his love for birds.
The house is littered with books, souvenirs, lithographs, stamps, cutlery, pens and lamps with (you guessed it) bird motifs. Even the upholstery has birds on it. His prized possession is a set of lithographs by 19th century English ornithological artist John Gould. Jain also has Pigeongrams from India Post dating back to the 1940s, with the names of the pigeons—Good News and Bijli—and the addresses where the messages were delivered.
“My wife gets upset at the expenses at times as most of my salary and savings are spent on this passion for birds,” he smiles.
Jain’s other big passion is cheap street food, and he almost goes into raptures as he describes the omelette turned out by a vendor in Delhi’s Farash Khana, the dosa given as prasad at a temple in Bangalore, and the vada pao sold outside a girls’ college in Mumbai. “I want to write a book on the food served by vendors on various railway stations in India,” he says.
Meanwhile, there are more birds to be seen: the western tragopan (two failed attempts), tawny owl (one), orange bullfinch, European goldfinch, goliath heron, pale-capped pigeon, golden-crested mynah, Derbyan parakeet and the endemics of Nicobar (including the Great Nicobar Crake).
Eventually, he wants to take his number to 1,100.
He is now at 1,036.
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Some favourite places to meet birds.
• Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh: It is the most protected forest in the North-East and a great place to see rare birds.
• Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat: Being on the migratory path of birds, the Kutch gives you ample opportunities.
• Tal Chappar Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan: This small sanctuary has more birds than any other single location in India.