Ghumakkar Insights – Let’s Go Birding!

'Browny Fish Owl' in flight

‘Browny Fish Owl’ in flight

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.

Indian Roller ( Jim Corbett national Park)

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.

'Crested Serpent Eagle' at Jim Corbett natinal Park

‘Crested Serpent Eagle’ at Jim Corbett natinal Park

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.

Ashy Prinia(Local Park)

Immature juvenile of Ashy Prinia

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.

House Sparrow- male

House Sparrow- male

House Sparrow- female

House Sparrow- female

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.

Common Redshank (Wetlands,CHILKA,Odisha)

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.

BINOCULARS
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.

FIELD GUIDE
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.

'Cattle Egret' in breeding plumage at city park- Delhi

‘Cattle Egret’ in breeding plumage at city park- Delhi

'Cattle Egret' in non breeding plumage

‘Cattle Egret’ in non breeding plumage

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.

IDENTIFYING BIRDS

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.

Bird- B 1

Bird- B 1

Bird B2

Bird B2

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.

Synopsis of all species in 96 color Plates

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.

Plate 51

Plate 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!

Distributive Map of Plate 51

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.

BIRDING TIPS
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

ENJOY!

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………

'Red Jungle Fowl' at Jim Corbett

‘Let yourself go! Indulge in Colors!

HAPPY BIRDING!

33 Comments

  • Anupam Mazumdar says:

    Hi Jiashree,
    This one is as though i am reading some encyclopedia book or bird zoology in school. So much information about birds, almost covered everything.

    Thanks

    Regards
    Anupam Mazumdar

  • well . so much full of knowledge. I think i dont need any other information on bird watching.This post was super. all of us knows that u and Manish are a speclist in the ghumakkar field but in this story or insight u achieve the heights of ghumakkari. we enjoyed so much . your write up and photos were cool.these photos can be include in a exebihition. I dont have so many words .

    pls ignore my gramatical mistakes . i m trying to write in eng also.

    • jaishree says:

      ????? ???? ????? ?????? ?????? ??? ?? ?? ??, ?? ???? ??? ???? ????????? ?? ???????? ???? ??. ???? ??? ?? ????. ???? ???? ??? ??? ?? ?? ??? ???? ????? ??. ?? ?????? ??????? ??.
      ??? ?????? ???????? ?? ?????, ???? ?????? ?????? ??? ?? ???????? ???? ???.
      ????? ?? ?? ??, ????? ??? ????? ?? ???? ??.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    A primer for all intending bird watchers, Lots of useful tips and advice. Great pictures too. Your knowledge of the subject shines through in the authoritative way you have expressed yourself. I am planning to take a printout of this article to keep with me for reference when I go birdwatching.

    You advised wearing neutral coloured clothing; you need to be more specific. Do you mean colours like beige, brown and green? What about colours like black, blue or patterned clothing?

    I differ with you regarding the sparrows; I thought that the female sparrow looked better than the male but because beauty is a subjective quality, maybe I am exhibiting a gender bias, lol.

    If Manish is known affectionately as the Professor, maybe you, Jaishreeji, should be called the Ornithologist.

    @ Nandan – This reminds me, we are still waiting for your promised feature on ghumakkar jugals.

    • jaishree says:

      1.Neutral Color- tones of brown and green, which have been ‘grey-ed down’ go perfectly for wild life and birding. Otherwise even green or beige have such shades and hues which are too much obtrusive.

      2.About your preference for Female Sparrow- Exactly! But it was all because of photography As Manish(genetically engineered to be so by God) paid more attention to capture female Sparrow. Else in the field, it is as I told.

      3. Till now we have done only and only one, specifically birding trip. So my identification skill is not enough even to put me in an ‘ experienced Birder’ category. And we are more into taking vacation as vacation and recreation as recreation, so our checklist of birds has not grown that much.
      Another thing is that my younger is just 4 now, too young to hold a bino. He gets very bored because he is not able to look what we are looking at, which limits our birding to local parks only.

      Still, all of us enjoy birding a lot and my elder one( 10 yr old) is good at observing and then looking through the field guide.

    • jaishree says:

      My humble request- please call me Jaishree.

  • Vipin says:

    Wow Jaishree ji, what an initiation into birding for the budding bird watchers! The opening and closing of the post was very poetic, amazing write up, fantastic pictures and definitely a brilliant piece of information for the starters……..kudos to you for all your efforts (and you succeeded in it)!!!

    Recently i was also caught up by this ‘Birding Fever’ during my wanderings in the hills which surely offer ample opportunities for birding and is a paradise for the birders. My recent visit to Parashar Lake and Dodital Lake and a number of bird sightings especially Monal on the trips really ignited this interest. I was actually struggling hard to understand how to start, but this piece of insight is really a path indicator for me and is really helpful. And this was perhaps the only post so far which took me so long to read…….thank you very very much for sharing this and would love to hear more from your travellings on wildlife……..

    • jaishree says:

      Congratulations on your sighting of Monal- state bird of Himachal.
      That Indian Roller above is the state bird of Karnataka.

      We also struggled hard to learn this ABC of birding and still I never thought of writing this article. Nandan casually suggested me to write some ‘ insight’ story on birding and that led to writing of this story.

  • Manish Kumar says:

    Well Done ! One of the best post I have came across in the last few months at Ghumakkar. It was nice that you gave examples of those birds which we can watch even in our urban surroundings.

    U deserve lot of thanks for taking pains to compile quite useful info for ghumakkars interested in identification of birds while traveling in their natural habitat.

    I want to add that to capture the close ups of these birds one should have good quality photographic equipment apart from lot of patience.

    • jaishree says:

      Thank you Manish for liking the post.

      Pain it was – when I tried to put the photos of plates from the book, nothing was legible. I pondered over what to do for two days and then I came to the idea of using MS paint. After many trials, I could put circles around birds, write numbers in large font and and bold colors. Still the result is not as clear as I would have liked. Now I think perhaps I should have explored PPT.

      I stayed away from many topics like advanced topography, photographing tips, behavior aspects of birds and likes as I intended this article for initiation into birding.

  • Deepak says:

    Hmm, this is a first. Its a great introduction to bird watching and generating interest for this much talked about activity. Birdwatchers themselves are quite a breed. Unfortunately, I have never personally felt attracted to the activity but I do appreciate it. I do like birds, even have one, a grey headed parakeet (female), she has quite a personality, hates all women and is quite jealous of the dog who came later :)

    • jaishree says:

      Birdwatchers are indeed quite a breed.
      Regarding your parakeet- she might have developed a ‘special’ fondness for you. Beware!

  • Sanghamitra says:

    Wow..amazing details …need to come back for a second read..

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Thank You Jaishree for this brilliant master piece. I fancy the day when a ‘Ghumakkar Bird Walk’ led by you happens. I browsed through this post during the weekend and trust me, I seem to have become more attuned to listening to calls and spotting the birds.

    Truly a ‘Insight’ story.

    @ DL – Yes. It is being baked, brewed and fermented. lol.

  • jaishree says:

    Ghumakkar Bird Walk seems a good idea, and I will love to become as knowledgeable as to become a guide.

  • Stone says:

    This is sheer brilliance.
    Amazing post, amazing details, you know what, I’m going to print this one to motivate myself to make a beginning.

    Thanks a ton for sharing.

    • jaishree says:

      If a post motivates one to write or travel or start the activity, it is the best compliment to its writer. Thanks a lot.

  • Jatinder Sethi says:

    When
    I shifted to Gurgaon,about 13 years back,from Mumbai, there were all
    yellow mustard fields all around,and there was no NH8 Highway.
    We used to have regular visits on our roof by at least five peacocks.In
    the evening a pair of owls would ,without fail, come and sit on the lamp-post wires opposite
    our house.And parrots a galore.The lakes of Haryana were drying up,and hardly any sign of birds.

    Now ,peacocks,owls and even parrots are rare sight,with or without binoculars.
    Luckily, times are a changing. Lakes have been revived. Migratory birds have started coming down.Bird watchers are also back on week-end mornings.
    Your post on birds is very detailed for us. But what also needs to be emphasized is that ,we all, must
    contribute to make the environment friendly,and not destroy as we do.
    May be you should do a piece on bird -friendly environment ,next.
    So that there are birds for us to watch!

    Luckily the lakes in Haryana are now again getting
    visits frpm migratory birds.

    • jaishree says:

      Thanks for bringing this to all ghumakkars.
      I will include ‘birding etiquette’ in the post but will take a few more day, perhaps next week.

  • Monty says:

    Jaishree ji,

    me bhi ek ‘NATURE LOVER’ hone ke nate apko badhai dunga ki apka ye pryas safal raha. Me or mere Papa dono birds ko pasand karte hai. Itna hi nahi mere papa to pure saal birds ke liye specially pani (Cold water in summer/Luke warm in winter) ka bartan ke sath me dana (Seeds) rakhte hai.

    Umeed hai ki apki is koshish se logo ke man me in birds ke liye lagav paida hoga.

    apki is koshish ke liye i want to say thanks from the core of my heart.

    • jaishree says:

      ???? ????? ??? ?? ???? ????? ???.
      ?? ???????, ?????, ?? ?? ????? ??????? ?? ????????? ?? ??????? ??? ????? ???? ?? ???? ????? ???? ???? ??????? ?? ???? ???????. ??? ??? ??? ?? ?? ????? ??? ?? ??????? ??? ??? ?? ???? ?????? ?????? ????.

  • somu says:

    amazing pictures and tons of info.you made birding look soooo simple.i am a novice to birding and immensely enjoyed. please keep writing

    somu.

  • somu says:

    excellent pictures and info on birding .you made it sooooo simple .

  • Hi……..Jaishree ………………..

    What a fundoo info ……………………….classy ……………………

    I think too much effort has been put to compile this ……………………

    And exceptionally well taken pictures stole the show……………………

    One of the great example of a classy and excellent post………………….

    • jaishree says:

      Thank you Vishal.
      The only part which required special effort was to put the photos of plates and make them legible.
      All the other stuff – I wrote what I experienced and learned over last 5 years.

  • Virag Sharma says:

    Very nice and Inspiring , probably need to read again. Pics and details are great.
    Thanks

  • Taher Kagalwala says:

    Dear Jaishree,

    I simply enjoyed reading this primer on bird-watching. I, too, am an avid bird watcher, and have hundreds of photographs of birds on my computer and in my FB profile. I appreciate your meticulous way of writing and your simplified and well-illustrated examples.

    May be I will be one of those to join on a G-birding trip with you. Although I am currently in Saudi Arabia (you know that, don’t you? :\-), my home place is Mumbai. And two or three years down the line, I will be back in India. And maybe, just maybe, we will meet.

    Taher

    • jaishree says:

      And I will be very happy to have a knowledgeable birder like you, in any G-birding tour, if that materializes.

      Thanks a lot for finding time and leaving this lovely comment.

  • Pat Jones says:

    My close friend took to birding years back but somehow it failed to rub on to me and I faithfully stuck to our old ‘real’ bird-watching. However, your post made fascinating reading.

    The Creator made everything beautiful but was eager to keep the balance across species so duck, cock, peacock…..homosapiens can’t be any different.

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