Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Twenty Years of Birdwatching

When I came to my current abode of three months – on Dolphin Hill in Visakhapatnam – the green hills seemed devoid of avian wealth. All I was witness to was a countryside trembling with countless butterflies. Swallowtails – as big as the smallest humming birds - suffused the lantana verge; but no birds! Of course, there were the garrulous mynas and the rowdy crows of the garden variety. Then, one fine day, parties of screechy parakeets announced themselves. From the eyrie of my balcao, I almost missed the drab Roller perched on a pole until it took to the skies in resplendent blue - a la Cinderella. Soon, I was toting up bee-eaters, pigeons, drongos, and babblers, wondering where indeed were they hiding earlier. In the hills, unlike in the plains, spotting birds is a tough game. The tiered topography doesn’t help, nor do the cloudy climes that often play spoilsport. 

In the sepulchral silence of NDA (National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla, near Pune) woods - my first armchair birding destination - no trill or tweet went unnoticed; in fact, with no other distraction it commanded attention. Following the sound trail, many times I would be led on wild goose chase, literally, before I finally confronted the ‘ventriloquist’ bird. And thus began a journey into the bird world. Soon, identifying a bird by its whistle or song, sally or stance became child’s play. To my trained gaze, then, birds stood out stark with the foliage and flora melding into the background!

Twenty years back when I first saw - or saw the first - Oriole in the sylvan environs of the NDA, it seemed to me a golden bird out of a fairy land. After years of living in treeless urban-dump, it was the first time I had encountered wildwood. But as years passed and the noob bird-gawker in me became a seasoned birdwatcher, the golden orioles became more visible, more plentiful, like the ‘Rose’ of Saint Exupery’s "Little Prince".

In Goa’s Mandovi Periphery, the Orioles were so commonplace that I would see them every day, everywhere. Golden Orioles may not be as “common” as the crows or sparrows, but they are “common” enough to make it to the list of most common birds of India. Come to think of it: sparrows aren’t “common” anymore, are they?

A Bangalore-based ornithologist recently compiled a list of “50 Most Common Birds of India” on a social networking website to which a dear friend commented: “These are most common birds…I would have thought most of them are uncommon.” This comment is precious not because it is innocent and an inadvertent admission of ignorance but because it is perspicacious. Even many birdwatchers would not have dreamt up that exotic-sounding bird species such as Zitting Cisticola or Rufous Treepie could figure in the ‘commoner’ category’. So what’s behind this conundrum?

After two decades of birdwatching, it still took me nearly a month or more to start spotting birds and realize what a haven Dolphin Hill was! This just illustrates how we presuppose - subconsciously perhaps - that birds should be seen readily and obviously to make their presence felt!

A year back, I made a Powerpoint presentation on ‘Backyard Biodiversity’ for the denizens of Mandovi where I talked extensively on birds. A friend, fledgling into birding, asked me: “Where do birds go at night”? Another real riddle! My answer was the counter-question: “Where do they go during the day? Why don’t we see them even in broad daylight?” For a common man not into active birdwatching, spotting birds is an elusive proposition. For one, not all bird species are gregarious or noisy; many are solitary and silent and unless out in the open or on telegraph poles or in the garden, they easily merge into the elements of the ecological habitat. Camouflage is their ace cheating card.  If we miss the avian action in the light of the day what is to be said of the night?

You see birds when you seek them and when you start seeking them, you start seeing them! On one of my evening walks in Mandovi, as the day drew to dusk and the birds fell silent, I resigned myself to a close of yet another birding binge. Suddenly, as though by a sixth sense, my attention was drawn to a faraway tree by the flank. An ethereal, magical moment gripped me. In the twilight, silhouetted against a tree top was a flock of peafowls settling in for the night. In the stillness of the woods, it was a rare communion we shared that day.

In Dolphin Hill, the other day, as I was walking with a friend engrossed in conversation, well past sunset, I really do not know what made me turn to the distant fence. Sitting bolt upright, absolutely still, the size of a monkey, was a Great Horned Owl! The joy of such serendipity is supreme. That then is the beauty of birding. After a while, you don’t look for them, the birds look out for you!


  1. Lovingly written, Padmaja. I still recall and will never forget our birding at the US Club many years ago - the joy of seeing that flock of Oystercatchers, which flew past the seashore that morning. Rightly, it was the serendipity and the thrill of seeing a lifer..! I will always recall our association of that morning when I see an Oystercatcher. It's an uncommon bird and, admittedly, I've not seen it too many times after that...!

  2. Also, I have done some birding at the Dolphin hill during my occasional visits there in 2008/09. Recall sighting a pair of Yellow-throated Bulbuls along the hill road, which would make it the first record of the species in that part of Andhra - they have never been recorded north of Krishna river. Also a spectacular flight along the coast in May 2008 of over c100 Amur Falcons flying on their return flight to summer breeding grounds of east Asia, along the Amur river basin.

  3. Loved the read. And so true that when you start seeking them you start seeing them. As a complete novice a year and a half ago,without any knowledge of habitats, I have looked for birds and found them at some of the most unexpected places. A wonderful blog, so much to know and learn, and I know that I will keep coming back here.

  4. When you start seeking them...you start seeing so many of them all around.....I completely agree. My experience had been similar.
    In a concrete jungle where I live I had never noticed birds other than sparrows, Mynas, Crows, Egrets and at times parakeets....but that was until 5 years back when I purchased my first SLR and started photographing birds. Suddenly I started noticing their presence all around me...in a place which until now appeared to be a perfect concrete jungle. Their presence took my attention to many more fauna and flora which is still present in this widely exploited and inhabited area. This motivated me to organise an event in my city on similar lines of Mumbai Bird Race. And to our great surprise. The winning team spotted 105 species of birds in the town where few years back I could not notice even 8-10 species. That was a eye opener and heartening news for nature lovers of this town. This is a story of Dombivli, a central suburb of Mumbai.

  5. A beautiful article which throws light about the nature earth's bounty and wealth.Perhaps a nice article when blue sky and green earths are becoming a rare commodity to see and watch.