Loud, ridiculous, scolding calls of Rufous Treepie wake me up from the cozy, quilted sleep in the winter mornings. Parrots make a ruckus outside on Arjun trees, adding further to the chaos of late mornings. Sparrows are my day long companion whenever I peep out of the window or venture out of my home. Deep, long cooing of Koel, in the beautiful evenings of summer, competes with torrent of sweet, inquisitive, innocent words emanating from my Jr Chatter-Box called Tanmay. As I hurry to wind up the day’s last chores after kids come home from their evening adventures in park, all stained with mud and dirt, Owl, high up in my building, announces that ‘day’ has just begun.
BIRDS! These small, delicate, feathery friends are always around us –at home, in the park, perched atop wires on highways, in farms, in our cities and villages and wherever we travel- jungles, lakes, rivers, sea, mountains, mangroves to deserts. And yet I knew so little about them.
After marriage, when Manish and I started travelling together, we always spotted birds which we have never seen before. But we did not know how to learn bird-watching. We always thought that we will have to make a birding trip to some Bird sanctuary to identify and to know more about birds. Years passed and we did many trips to far-flung areas of our country, always stumbling upon one or the other bird everywhere, burning with a desire to know more about them. Till 2007. A chance meeting with two very prominent birders from Kolkata in Sikkim opened a whole new world for us.
In this article I will share what I learned from them and what I learned over the years.
Disclaimer: This article is meant only for the beginners and restricted only to observing and identifying birds.
WHERE DO WE START?
This is the very first question that comes to a beginner’s mind and we took it wrong for many years.
You NEED NOT go to any special place TO BEGIN. Birding is best to start in your own local park. There are at least 30 birds very commonly found in the parks of Delhi-NCR. In fact, if you start in a sanctuary and you are as novice as I was who knew nothing more than parrot, pigeon, sparrow, dove, crow and peacock, chances are that birding will look difficult rather than enjoyable because of the sheer variety of birds which look all so similar to a novice eye.
Start with House Sparrow. Observe closely. You will find that there are two kinds of sparrows- one with grey crown(head) and black throat is male sparrow and the other, less beautiful ( it is only in humans that female is more beautiful than males) one is female sparrow.
Then there are pigeons and doves. Moving on you will notice that there are two kinds of pigeons –the ubiquitous pigeon perched on electricity wires is Rock Pigeon and the one living on big trees is Yellow Footed Green Pigeon.
As you will make your inventory of these 20-30 birds you will learn a lot about birding. Then wherever you travel- from Himalayas to the Sea, from desert to the forests, cities or villages, just get out of your hotel in early morning and take a small walk to look for local birds. There is always some nature walk-easy to moderate to difficult- near most of the places. Many places keep a check list/photo list of birds found in and around. For example, Anil Farm House in Gujarat had a Board pinned up at the reception showing the birds which prompted us to take morning and evening walks along the river to look out for birds, although it was not a birding trip. Similarly we spotted Eurasian jay while trekking at Chaukori, while Asian paradise Flycatcher was spotted while boating in Saattal. As you start birding, your eyes and ears become adept at observing birds wherever you are. Then of course there are specific birding sites and sanctuaries where an organized birding trip can be very rewarding.
Coming back to our city park birding, how will you know that this green pigeon like bird is Yellow Footed Green Pigeon?
A faster and easier way is to hit the trail with an experienced birder. However it is not always possible to have an experienced birder by your side. And even if you have a birding guide, you will not be able to recognize that bird again if you don’t know what to observe and how to identify it.
This brings us to our next question.
WHAT DO WE NEED
Only two things:
1. Binoculars – to observe the birds.
2. Field Guide- to identify what you observed.
In fact you don’t even need binoculars to begin your city parks excursions, but you will need them soon enough. So let me discuss a few things about both.
Binos come with numbers like 7*50, 8*40 or 10*50 and like that. The first number is the magnification; what you see is that many times larger than you would see with your naked eye. The second number is the large front objective lens in mm. Greater this number, more the light captured. Higher number such as 10*50 means high magnification and a lot of light let in. But they have some disadvantage- 1.They are heavier than say 8*40, and 2.they magnify the movement as well. On the other hand 7*30 will be light but will not have sufficient magnification and least light let in. A good option for beginners would be to go for 8*40. As you become serious birder you may go for 10*50.
Another thing to consider is a good wide and comfortable strap because you will be carrying a considerable weight around your neck for hours.
You need to have a good field guide all the time with you to identify the birds. A field guide is a book with pictures of the birds and concise information about their identification, habitat, and distributive maps etc. the two most handy and useful books are-
1. A Field Guide to the Birds of India by Krys Kazmierczak
2. Pocket guide to the Birds of Indian Subcontinent by Grimmet, Inskipp, Inskipp.
(Another very good book, although not a field guide at all, but a very good read nonetheless, is “The Book of Indian birds “by Salim Ali.)
A guide book has various plates showing illustrations of all the bird families. The accompanying pages to these plates have a brief description of those birds like main identification features, habitat, their songs, resident or migratory status and so on. The book by Krys Kazmierczak also has distribution maps along with the plates, which I find very useful.
So now you have a bino and you see a bird. How to identify that bird? That is where a field guide comes into play. But how to use the field guide? I will take both the question together after familiarizing ourselves with most general topography of the birds.
BASIC TOPOGRAPHY OF BIRD
It is always good to invest some time to learn basic topography of the bird. It will help you in observing and then describing properly what you have observed, which eventually is going to be most important in identifying birds.
Start with the Bill(Beak) and move clockwise and try to memorize the various parts comparing them with your own body parts- Upper and Lower bill (mouth), chin, throat, breast, belly, legs and then vent and tail.
Now start again from the Bill and move anti-clockwise- forehead, crown, nape, back and rump.
Also try to memorize the eye and head region. Again if you will keep your own face in mind it will be easier to remember these terms.
As you spend more time on birding,you can learn much more about topography of birds.
OBSERVING/ FINDING THE BIRD.
Observing any bird is the most exciting part of birding!
Observing the bird satisfies our primal hunting instincts- you hear a call and become alert, move very quietly in the direction of the call, your eyes rummage through the field of view, suddenly something flutters and hides away and the chase begins. You duck under the hanging branches, crouch in the mud field, stretch your neck impossibly upward if your kill sits on the top of a tree or just hide yourself to wait for the prey to come back. You spot your kill and shoot it; it lands there in your eyes or your digicam and the prey escapes unhurt.
Most of the time all this hunt start with bird’s call itself. Then look for the movement. Always pay attention to a bird’s call and soon you can tell from the song itself which bird to look for. Sometimes a bird itself shows up right in front of you.
When in woods, choose some spot and stay there, look at the shrubs, broad leafy trees, dense trees, tree canopies, as different birds occupy different place even on the same tree.
The second most exciting thing about birding is identifying the bird you have observed. It satisfies the most advanced feature of our race-the cerebral activity. We need to recall what we observed and then leaf through the book to identify it. To learn the process of identifying birds let us have a look at these two birds very commonly found in Delhi-NCR city parks.
The first thing we as a beginner see is color. In first appearance both the bird look predominantly green. Closely observe the birds to take note of the color of beak, tail and coverts. Look for any special coloring/pattern/stripes on any body part.
For example, B1’s head has a coppery tinge, its throat is bluish and it has a black eye-stripe.
B2 has a red patch on forehead and some red and black stripe on throat as well. It also has a prominent white patch above and below the eye.
Now if we try to identify by colors alone, it is a challenging task because there are many green birds on the first page of the guide book.
Another tricky thing about colors is the effect of light. To further complicate the matters many birds show different colors during breeding and non breeding season.( Look at Cattle Egret’s photos above)
Shape and Size of the Bird:
While looking at the birds, take note of its size. B1 appears to be the size of a sparrow while B2 looks bigger than sparrow but smaller than parrot.
Note whether it is plump (B2), skinny (B1), short or long etc.
As an example we can notice following features in B1:
It is short and slim, has a pointed bill and a long tail with antenna like projection.
While, B2 has chunky body, strong and stout bill and short tail.
Time to look at the field guide. I am using the one by Krys Kazmierczak.
Its first page, as shown above, illustrates a representative bird from all the families. Looking only by color we find that plate 43, 44, 51, 56, are all green. But when we consider the shape we find that both B1 and B2 do not fit to plates 43 and 44. That reduces the choice to 51 and 56. Considering the shape of beak and tail, B1 exactly fits to plate 51. But B2 may either be 51 or 56. So we take a look at plates 51 and 56.
Considering all that we observed in colors, nothing on plate 56 resembles B2. That reduces our choice to plate 51 only. Again look at plate 51. B1 looks like 1-6 of the illustrated bird so it is a Bee eater. B2 looks like 12-16 of the illustrated birds which establishes it as a Barbet.
Now we have reached to the last step of our identification hunt- to find which particular Bee Eater and Barbet. If you are able to take good photograph your task becomes easier. You can look at the bird again and again and find the exact bird. But photographing the birds is a difficult task, especially for a beginner. Let us assume the two cases –when you have photographs and, when you don’t have.
Using the Photographs–
We observe that Bee eater has a coppery tinge on head which reduces our choice to 1, 4 and 5. But 1 has vivid, contrasting colors while this bee-eater has only green plumage. That reduces our choice to 4 and 5. Upon close observation we find that it has a bluish color on the throat which puts it to be 4a- Green Bee-eater (race Ferrugeiceps).
But what do we do when we do not have good photographs and we could not observe it in good details to take down the notes. Or take the case of Barbet. Even after having the photo one may confuse it to be 12, 14 or 15a. Ask yourself –where are you?
Where are you?
In your local park, near a water body, up in Himalayas or North east or down to the coastal areas. Habitat plays a big role in identifying the birds.
Continuing further with our example of Barbet, it could be anyone of 12-16. To further narrow down the choice I read about their habitat in the book and I find –
12 is found in Hill Forests.
13 is found in Wooded areas.
14 and 15 are found in open woodlands, parks and gardens.
16 is found in thick broad leaved evergreen forest.
As I found this bird in park, my choice now gets reduced to 14 and 15.
One more tool to use!
Look at the distributive map of this plate 51. It shows 14 to be widely distributed throughout India while 15 is restricted to Western Ghats and parts of Sri Lanka. Therefore it has to be 14- Coppersmith Barbet.
1. Early morning and late afternoon are great time to see birds when they are most active.
2. Calibrate your bino to your personal view settings.
3. Locate a bird first with your naked eye and then look closely with your bino.
4. Carry a notebook to note details of the birds that you cannot identify.
5. Wear neutral colored clothes.
6. Avoid large groups.
7. Walk very quietly
Many a times we take the recreational activity itself as a task. We travel and spend all the days in following the sight-seeing points without actually ‘seeing’. We eat grapes without even feeling the first crush of texture, the squeeze of juice, the sweetness that spreads to our whole mouth and then to our pran. So is the case with birding! We are birding to enjoy. If a bird’s activity looks interesting to you, spend your time there. Don’t rush to add more to your bird checklist.The moment we stop ‘seeing’ the bird or ‘hear’ them singing and concern ourselves only to deciding whether it is a sparrow or a Prinia, we defeat the very purpose of birding.So………