Saturday, 25 July 2015

Get a life: Start with Bird Watching....

I have been birding for a fairly long time and I have come across these repeated questions. As I sit doing nothing today I thought why not try and reply for a larger audience. The questions to start with are simple but with no straightforward replies. So let me deal with them as I deem fit. 

What is bird watching ? Oh - that’s a simple one. Well for me atleast. It is the art or let’s call it a hobby of observing birds. I would like to mention here that One can go a little further and say that perhaps Birdwatching is observing birds for recreational or social activity. I would try and kill some trivia here only. The first recorded use of term ‘Birdwatcher’ was in 1891 and bird as a verb was introduced in 1918. Birdwatching can be done with naked eye but definitely enhanced by use of Binoculars, Spotter-scopes, Cameras and listening devices. Must remember that a large component of birdwatching is Auditory. Secondly, do not mistake birding with Ornithology, it is study of birds using formal scientific methods.

Why Bird watching ? There comes a tough question. Let me elaborate. Those who love it - will swear by it, and those who don’t will scoff it off. Though it is basically a personal choice I will still try to hammer some reasons. Hmmm… let me put it this way. Birdwatching is a hobby and it has a tendency to grow on you. There are benefits on the physical side. This may turn out to be the inspiration to get off the couch and walk around more. (If I was appearing for some exams then I would have definitely included things like it would lead to more movement in the sun and more vitamin D for the body but I will desist from that… ) The physical side also benefits from trekking, walking and being in the natural environment. It does a ton to your emotional health also. Bird songs are a know remedy for anxiety. You do get a peace of mind spending time with nature especially so in today’s hectic and crazy world. Though I was a bird lover for a long long time - but still so the peace and emotional stability that I derive out of birdwatching is something that everyone deserves to experience. Then there are definite advantages for children taking on to this as a hobby. In these times of over exposure to gadgets, it would do good to kids to keep some time for quite reflection. This calmness of nature gives time to the kids to introspect and commune with nature. The children do benefit from attention to detail and focus their senses observing nature. I cannot but point out that in my years of Birdwatching I find that I use multiple senses all at the same time. Sound, touch, smell and sight. It also coaxes the children to research and experiment. At the end of it - believe me if you have a song in your heart - you will sing it seeing the natures creations...

How do I get started ? Well I do love easy answers. Whether you are in a city or village. Birds are Omnipresent. All the beautiful pictures that you see and wonder - where the hell in the world are these birds - well most of them are all around you. It is just that you had chosen to ignore them all this time. These are some of the birds that I have clicked in an around cities (Pictures are at the end of the post). Did you by any chance notice them ? If the answer is no then its time to take off some time from whatever you thought was very important in your life and appreciate nature around you. In my opinion most of us Indians categorise the birds in one of the three of four categories. Crow, Sparrow, Pigeon. The vocabulary ends somewhere there. 
So to start - just look around you, your balcony, the small terrace or kitchen garden, the playground. I assure you that by the end of a day you would have spotted more kind of birds that you can count on the fingers of your hand. Next note the colour, features of colour pattern, walking, flying and the sounds that it is making. Hell - you have already become a birdwatcher. 
Next what you would require is a field guide, ebook or an app to identify the birds. All are in plenty and not too much of expenditure. I will name a few - Birds of Indian Subcontinent by Tim Inskipp available in print and as an app, Birds of Northern India again by Tim Inskipp, Birds of India (Collins Field Guide) available in print and as kindle ebook, .(I find my apple app so bloody useful). Then of course are the score of data available on the net as wiki, Facebook, and tons of other resources.

Do I require Binoculars or Camera ? Well as you start observing birds from close quarters you will find that the colours and the characteristics will start driving you nuts. What happens is that most of the birds by nature are extremely shy (especially the non-city dwellers) and extremely fidgety - hopping from one branch to another. Secondly there are some birds that will just not let humans approach them - rightly so perhaps. We have been hunting and prosecuting birds for a long long time. In these cases granting them their space and observing them through binoculars or capturing them through camera is extremely helpful. You will come to appreciate them as you observe them minutely. So the answer is YES you would eventually require a pair of binoculars or camera in this sequence. In my case I did the opposite - first buying the camera and then moving around with binoculars or both.

How do I choose my binoculars ? Well well well - there are binoculars available and you don’t have to move your butt to buy one. open Amazon or snap deal or flipkart and type in binoculars and there the list goes on and on. I will try to ease the pain of choosing binoculars here. Actually if I think of it I can have another blog entry dedicated to choosing the binoculars but I will try to compress the information and present it as short as possible.

Firstly decide upon how mush you want to spend, basically there is one variety of binoculars on the lower end upto say ₹ 10,000/- or so. Do not set them off just because they are cheap, you do get good glass in this range also. Next is upto about ₹ 30,000/-, they are the mid range one. I presently have one in this and they will see you through fairly serious birding too. Next on the higher spectrum they go anywhere upto ₹ 1,50,000/- don’t ask me I have never reached that level of spending money.

Secondly, after you have chosen the category you should decide whether you want one with a Porro prism or Roof prism. Well these are the only two varieties available. Roof prism is the later technology wise and they are identified with straight cylinders. These are more compact have less internal parts and more dust and water proof. Roof prism binoculars suffer slightly from aligned prisms so do not compromise on money as only topnotch end of mid range binoculars can compete with Porro Prism binoculars. Pro binoculars on the other hand are identified with eyepiece and objective lens offset from each other. The advantages are they are cheaper, have slightly better stereoscopic lens. The disadvantages are less compact, more moving parts and difficult to make them dust proof etc.

After this move on to magnification. All binoculars have figures written like 8X42 or 10X42 etc. (to seem like a pro when you talk about binoculars you speak like… ‘I have Nikon 8 42 glass’) The first figure is the magnification. So in other words if it is 8 then the image you will see is magnified 8 times, if it 10 then the image you see is magnified 10 times. Second part refers to indicates the diameter objective lens. Okay now how do I use these numbers to choose binoculars. Well firstly the magnification. Specifically for birding the more magnification may not be necessarily better. As the magnification increases the field of view reduces and you will find it difficult to readily point the binoculars to that particular bird and focus. Also higher magnification will require more and more steady hands and in extreme magnifications tripod etc. Second number - the bigger the better. 42 is good 50 is better. what it means that more light is being passed so the image you will see is brighter and low light capability is better seeing the colours etc in birds is better. Generally I have seen birders preferring binoculars 8X42 or 10X42. Brands, the best are Nikon, Bushnell, Olympus and such. I will leave the preference to you and your research. (The picture of both Prism and roof prism binoculars are at the end of the post)

What about a camera and Lens ? Again a question that has a long long answer with no right or wrong. generally speaking a DSLR with 250mm or 300mm lens is good for beginning. As you grow the DSLR will grow and so will the lens. To begin with basic combination will cost you 35,000/- or so then going on to 2 lac plus camera and 12 lac plus lens. the range is too bloody large so take time to grow rather than jumping at the top end of the range.

Are there Indians really doing serious birding ? Well the answer will surprise you. But let me start with some statistics. The world has about 10,000 varieties of birds. India has recorded 1,400 bird species or so. North America has 914 types of birds, Australia has 898 varieties. Can you see it - the beauty of Avi fauna in India is bountiful. It is almost 14 percent of the birds found in the entire bloody world. You really have to experience it to see it for yourself. The second reason is that next generation may not see the birds we see today. It has been documented for example that Australia will have 10% birds extinct by 2100. We have not done any such research here in India - we may be worse of than this. Man is jut not doing enough for the environment we are sustaining on. Finally Brits are the nation leading in birdwatching. we are not on the top but we are surely catching on. I have argued it so many times that a nation has to first feed itself and live in security and only then Arts and Passions develop. See for example the states in India that are poor or affected by internal strife of any kind are not on any map as far as birding goes. These are states like Chattisgarh, Bihar, Orrisa... On the other spectrum are states and cities that are stable and economically better. Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chandigarh are on top of the lists. but if you have a stable job, and staying comfortably then it is time to pick up a hobby and this is one of the very practical and engrossing at the same time. 

What do we achieve by Birding ? Ah - the same question that was posed by one very learned gentlemen to me. We achieve a whole lot. The problem at present with our country is lack of awareness, because of that there is a lack of consensus for protecting birds, animals and our environment. By including every one birder we have someone who cares for our environment and plight of those little beings that are at our mercy to look after. I will tell you a story. I was visiting vineyards of nasik, the now famous Sula vineyards. There I noticed that a packet was kept in bright colour. When enquired - after much coaxing I found the answer, that was poison kept to kill birds - after all they eat OUR grapes - no ? here is the answer - a population of 1.2 billion, million logged visiting Sula wines in Nasik and one birder to ask, question and complain about poisoning birds. Till the time our community and awareness grows - we are just ants or dogs going about our daily life achieving nothing more than living, eating and reproducing. I was assured by that gentleman that this answer satisfies him and he was sorry to raise it at all. I mean not to be arrogant but then - tell me if not you, me and us then WHO ? And in any case we need a million birder to have a handful who will question the wrong.

Are there any Etiquette of Birding ? Yes there are and very rigorously followed by hard core birders. Fortunately they are fairly simple to follow. No nest photographs, No eggs or juvenile photography of birds in nest. The reason is simple but not understood. I will list the etiquettes or put it differently - Birding Ethics.

1.  Support protection of Bird habitats. (The very reason I am trying to coax you to become a birder)
2.  Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger. Please be patient and exercise restraint. Do not shoo them away to get a good picture or observation. 
3.  Avoid chasing or flushing birds especially during breeding or nesting season.
4.  Limit use of recordings to attract birds. Especially endangered or threatened species.
5.  Keep well back from nest and nesting colonies, roosts and display areas. Remember the nesting is dependant on feelings of safety by the birds. The birds tend to leave the nesting sight even with juveniles if they are stressed. Every bird has a approach radius - it will allow you to reach that but no further. It is easy to see this radius - the bird will stop what it is doing and become alert. It will stop feeding/grooming/preening. If there is a flock the sentries will give bird calls that are generally high pitched and spell out danger. Any closer and you will loose you opportunity to observe that bird.
6.  Try not to use artificial light, torches, flash for photography. Stay on road and tracks. There are so many birds that roost and nest on ground - we have unknowingly destroyed by trampling over them and not even realised that.
7.  Keep your pets home. Do not let stray dogs follow you for birding. They are one of the reasons that wildlife suffers. They destroy a lot of wild life. Shoo them away if they tend to follow.

You said Don’t stress the birds. How do I know I am stressing the birds ? Well There are birds that travel thousands of km migrating in search of food, avoiding bad weather and breeding. Often they are also birding dreams… so we tend to chase them not knowing that they require a lot of time feeding and resting to come back to their own selves. The first day a migratory bird arrives we want to be the first one to see and photograph. Sure - do that but then respect the bird who has flown for thousands of miles. To know that a bird is stressed is easy to see.
1.  Birds will try to attract your attention by flying in front of you.
2.  They will try to lure you away.
3.  Bird carrying food perched in one place for a long time. (It is avoiding giving away its nest location)
4.  Birds carrying nesting material but not going anywhere.
5.  Birds giving alarm calls.

I have started birding and going tomorrow with a few birders for the first time. Anything I should know ? Ethics remain the same but there are some things that one can keep in mind.
1.  Respect other peoples interests and rights. Share your knowledge with others.
2.  Minimise unnecessary talk and noise. Do not make sudden moves. Let all participants have equal right to observe and photograph the birds. If you are the front one taking pictures and birds seem stressed do not move any further. Give opportunity to others to reach atleast as close you have to let everyone observe birds.
3.  Follow the leader’s pace to observe birds. Locals have generally better knowledge to guide you during birding.
4.  Do not wear bright clothes. Keep colours to muted. (This has others who do not agree but as of now consensus remains to be clothed in dull colours)
5.  If birding in cars/vehicle. Do not get down till the veh is completely stopped. If you are driving always look in rear view, give indicator and park completely before letting anyone out.
6. You can and should make a list of local birds that you are likely to see there. It eases recognition and keeps you alert.

I have clicked a picture of a beautiful bird. I do not recognise it. What should I do ? Well there are so many experts waiting to help you out. For that you will have to post your picture in one of the online forums, Facebook in Indian Birds Group, there are tons of other localised groups like Chandigarh bird club, Hyderabad birds, Bangalore birds etc. Then there are sites like Indian Nature Watch. Post the photograph and await a response. Well there are a few points to note here also. You post the picture In comments leave
Request ID ?
Name of place picture was clicked
Date picture was clicked.
This helps narrow down the seasonal variations of feathering and colours and also local birds available in that particular area.

How do I keep a tag of all the birds I have seen ? Well a lot of people keep tagged photographs, keep records in pen or on excel sheets. By my experience eBird is the best place that a log can be kept. There are apps you can use in Android and iOS or website. Record keeping becomes important over a period of time so do take time and jot down what all birds you have seen, where and when. 
Okay I will conclude this writeup here. It has taken better part of three days and it is time that it goes online now. If you like it do leave a comment. If there would be something else you would like to know do leave a comment I will surely reply. 

The Porro-prism binoculars on the left and Roof-prism Binoculars on the right.
Large-grey Babbler - Not as common as the Jungle babbler but not uncommon nonetheless... Brown and not so good to look at - but give it a good look - it will impress you...

Yellow-eyed babbler. A babbler that is small and rushes purposefully from one bush to another. They move in groups as expected from a babbler. Look at the eyes - the earmark of this babbler...

Laughing dove. the smallest of the Dove. you have to really look it up close to see the beauty of this bird. This is one bird that you will find around you more often than not. Just by the way you will have three birds of dove variety around you... the Laughing dove pictures above, the Eurasian collared dove and the spotted dove. The other varieties in India are likely to be not always near the village or towns.

Didn't ever notice this bird - our own very symbol of intelligence, the Spotted Owlet. Beauty in simplicity...

The Pond Heron. Common around the dirty mud-slushes and ponds around the villages and cities. It will sit not moving for hours on an end. Hey do not mistake them for the Cattle egret that is all white and more commonly available.

Our winter visitor - the Black-redstart. Well I will not be able to tell you why it is called a redstart - but it wags its tail off and on in fast vibrating action. The bird is fairly common around you - will find it on ground or trees - and almost never on wires.

Asian-pied Starling. Oh yes it is colorful too - see it once and appreciate the bird. You will like it. Common in and around the cities and villages.

Oh this - ?? The Indian Silverbill. Yes it is around you - just search for it. It is generally found in its own group of with other munia like Red-avadavat or scaly-breasted munia.

A game bird with little bit of protection from us has started inhabit areas in and around villages and town. A beautiful game bird. The black francolin and the Painted francolins would be your prize if you spot them...