How to birdwatch5 min read . Updated: 16 May 2015, 12:03 PM IST
Shoba Narayan starts a four-part series on birdwatching
Shoba Narayan starts a four-part series on birdwatching
It begins with a pair of binoculars; and a balcony, if you have one. If there is some greenery visible from your balcony, even better. But you need binoculars to begin this voyage. Mine are Bushnell binoculars from Amazon for about $35 (around ₹ 2,250).
They have a magnification of 10x50, which didn’t mean anything to me except that it seemed better than the 8x40 advertised by other brands. I use them every day, except when I’m travelling, and I’d like to use them then too. The Croma chain sells pocket travel binoculars for under ₹ 1,000. I am considering buying a pair.
My birdwatching happens around 7am, when the sun is up. I have a cherished morning routine. I usually begin by sipping lemon water or orange blossom water (from Muscat) as I make filter coffee. Naturopathy says that beginning the day with water and some sort of citrus is a good idea, and I have been doing that.
I like making filter coffee. We use Cothas’ coffee powder with an 80:20 ratio of coffee to chicory, available at Thoms bakery and supermarket, my local grocery store in Bengaluru’s Frazer Town. I prefer stainless steel tumblers at home. They help froth my coffee. Recently, a friend gave me some Black Cat Classic Espresso beans from Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago. If I am by myself, I go to the trouble of grinding fresh coffee beans and savouring their aroma in the morning quiet, as I make myself an espresso.
Coffee and binoculars in hand, I walk out on to the terrace. Across the road is an army cantonment with lots of trees. This is my ecosystem; one I have come to know very well. Friends have asked for a birdwatching primer, and that is what this attempts to be. I’m writing it with the zeal of a convert. Most of my birdwatching friends have done this for years. They are too advanced to give—or even remember—basic instructions such as these.
Essentially, what you do on your first day is to sweep your binoculars from tree to tree to figure out your baseline: a tree that attracts a lot of birds. My baseline tree is a tall Millingtonia with fragrant white flowers. This is the tree that I train my binoculars on first thing in the morning.
Usually, there are birds on it—parakeets, kites, crows. This tree gives me something to see every day. When you see your first new bird, one you cannot identify, it is a seminal moment, for this is when your birdwatching journey begins. You have to train your binoculars on that strange new bird and notice its markings.
What colour are its wings? What colour is its chest? What size is it? Does it have a long beak or a short one? Does it have any streaks across or above its chest, eyes or back? How long is its tail?
Once you have memorized these markings, you have to identify the bird. This is what I do. I type what I see into Google Images: “small bird, white chest, green wings, Bengaluru", or something like that. Several images appear. I keep scrolling down till I identify the bird.
My first was a White-cheeked Barbet (Megalaima viridis). Only it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw what I thought was a White-cheeked Barbet, only to discover that there was a similar species called the Brown-headed Barbet (Megalaima zeylanica). Identifying subspecies is a whole new game and we’ll get to that.
I spend 15 minutes on this in the morning and 15 minutes before sunset—give or take half an hour depending on bird activity. This is not because the birds are most active at this time, although they are, but because it’s easier for me to stand on my terrace for extended periods of time when the sun is not beating down hard.
At first, even holding the binoculars at eye level for more than a few minutes was challenging. Now, I’m used to it. Bengaluru ornithologist M.B. Krishna showed me the right way to hold binoculars. Essentially, you keep your elbows down, not raised at the side.
I have a simple goal: I want some sort of “wow" effect. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before. It could be a close-up of a male Asian koel as it emits its mournful call: koo-ooo. Or it could be two golden orioles pecking each other mid-flight. The best part is that nature usually delivers. Every day so far, I have seen something that catches my breath. I lose myself for 15 minutes as I scan the trees with my binoculars.
A Brahminy Kite flew towards me from the horizon one day. The flap of its wings was rhythmic; its movement through the clear blue sky, slow and majestic. It looked lonely and somehow profound as it made its passage across the sky. I stood still and watched unwaveringly.
Pariah Kites—Krishna says Black Kites is as racist a term as the previously used Pariah Kites, so I have gone back to calling them that. These kites—Milvus migrans—are common in my neighbourhood.
I see them in the sky all the time, usually a dozen of them, flying high or low. For some reason, the trees in my neighbourhood don’t support the Brahminy Kite, so when they are visible, it is usually a heart-stopping sight. In Kerala once, I found tons of Brahminy Kites in the sky and on trees. A dime a dozen.
On that morning, I followed this kite with its white chest and brown wings etched against the blue sky till it was out of sight. Where was it going? Why was it alone? Who was it searching for? What was it thinking?
Lost in these thoughts, I forget who I am. Connected to the flight of that Brahminy kite, I lose track of the mundane minutiae of my life. For that moment, I am linked with nature. I am linked with innocence and divinity. That noble kite takes me to a higher plane.
It is for this reason that I watch birds.
Next week, I will tell you more about how to do this.
Shoba Narayan has been watching birds for over a year. This is the first in a four-part series on birdwatching. Write to her at email@example.com
Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns