Accidentally, a bird-watcher
For the most part of my life, birds never particularly interested me. I spent a good chunk of my childhood glued to Animal Planet and National Geographic. I grew up close to the spectacular Chilika Lake, boasting almost 1.2 million birds across 250 odd species every winter. But somehow, birds never piqued my interest. Species that are largely loathed in popular circles were way more intriguing — reptiles, amphibians and spiders, anything scaly and creepy. In my school days, back in the pre-internet era, I spent most of my time poring over books and encyclopedias to learn more about snakes and lizards.
In the summer of 2011, I travelled to Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, set in the lush rainforests of Arunachal Pradesh, as a part of my undergraduate research on reptiles and amphibians. Back in 2006, the expedition leader (..and my boss), Dr Ramana Athreya had discovered a new species of bird, The Bugun Liochicla in this region. Preliminary estimates put the bird diversity at about 400 species, with many rare and elusive species, which immediately catapulted Eaglenest to superstar status amongst bird-watching sites on the global scale. A generous grant from the Whitley Fund for Nature led to an eco-tourism venture focused on bird-watching in this region, with the local Bugun tribals at the forefront of the project.
Going into this place though, I was largely unaffected by these numbers; what excited me was the discovery of certain hitherto unknown species of frogs and lizards from this region. At that time, my bird vocabulary was limited to crows and pigeons. A few days into the expedition, I realised it was impossible to be in Eaglenest and shut out oneself to the birds. Birds were everywhere. Bird-watchers were everywhere. They came from all across the globe. At one point, 14 beds in the camp were occupied by tourists from 9 different countries. Conversations over meals were mostly about the birds each group managed to see or photograph in the course of the day. The serious bird-watchers came prepared with lists of species they wanted to see, and meticulously designed strategies grounded in sound knowledge of natural history, to get a glimpse of these coveted species. I focused on my task at hand, surveying for frogs in the nights and cataloguing the data in the mornings. Very often our group would come back to campsites after a night of work right before dawn, just in time when the bird enthusiasts head out to start their day. Despite this temporal separation of schedules, over the next two months, I picked up some bird lingo. I learnt that a ‘lifer’ was a species someone saw for the first time in their life. Sunbirds, Shrikes, Sibias, Flycatchers … my bird vocabulary multiplied manifolds in just a few weeks. I could even identify the Green-tailed Sunbird after a few days!
Back home in Bhubaneshwar that summer, I came across a newly minted bunch of nature enthusiasts on Facebook who called themselves The Bhubaneshwar Bird Walks. I went with them one Sunday morning to an urban park to find the members spanned across all ages, from 10-year-olds to their grandparents. I eventually found myself going on more such bird walks in the spring and winter seasons, even when I was back in college in Pune. Any time except monsoons was not suitable to go looking for reptiles and amphibians, and birding became a good pass time to keep me occupied in these ‘off-seasons’.
Pune is arguably India’s biggest birding hub. The proximity to the Western Ghats on the western flank and the numerous wetlands close to the city offer many different habitats for birds. Weekends brought together people from all kinds of professions to locations like Pashan Lake, Kavdipat and Sinhagad, united by their interest in birds. Coincidentally, around this time, a friend of mine put up his ‘bird lens’ for sale and I was tempted enough to take the bait and get into bird photography. That lens has been the single factor that sustained my interest in birds to this day. Whether it was struggling for focus under the dense Arunachal canopy, or getting the shutter speeds right to freeze water birds, photographing birds was a completely different challenge. Later when I moved to Switzerland for work, a land too cold to host anything except a handful of reptile or amphibian species, bird-watching helped me socialise in a foreign land.
Once I decided to be more open-minded about bird-watching, it was not very difficult to see why it was such a popular hobby. Birds are all around us, all around the year and are easy to observe. Unlike snakes, they don’t pose any particular danger to human life. It is a rather flexible activity, that can be tailored according to one’s level of interest and seriousness. You could enjoy watching birds from your balcony during coffee breaks, or you could be planning a one-year sabbatical from work to see birds-of-paradise in Papua New Guinea; you are a bird-watcher all the same. In fact, the cascading effects of this hobby have been pervasive, from ecotourism to the optics industry.
Along this topsy-turvy path, I have come to appreciate bird-watching as a wonderful medium to introduce young people to the wonders of the natural world and sensitise them to broader issues of conservation. All one needs to start is a pair of binoculars and a notebook! With the development of citizen science initiatives like e-Bird and MigrantWatch, bird-watching today is a much more sophisticated and tech-savvy activity. Any person with a smartphone can enter details about bird observations in these apps, and this data would play a part in scientific research carried out in the upper echelons of academia. The overwhelming participation in such citizen science programs has led to similar initiatives for other groups of fauna and flora as well.
While I almost reluctantly got into identifying birds for a hobby, I was only grateful I knew the basics of bird-watching when the coronavirus forced nationwide lockdowns. Travel plans were canned, getting outside the perimeter of one’s house was a danger. In those extraordinary times, the only solace for most nature enthusiasts was observing birds from the confines of their homes. From the terrace of my house, I counted almost 30 species over 2 weeks. I even spotted a lifer — the Blue-tailed Bee-eater, which was astonishing for a location in the middle of an urban setting, though it probably just reflects how half-baked my bird-watching efforts were up to this point.
One of my very first thoughts after selection in the Indian Forest Service was the prospect of seeing many Himalayan birds in the sprawling Forest Institute of India campus in Dehradun. Having foolishly passed on my chances of seeing these species earlier in Arunachal Pradesh, I was determined to right those wrongs. Could the 18-year old who went to Eaglenest a decade back have ever imagined his future self, making bird lists?