S02Extra1: Birdwatching 101

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Intro: A famous couplet by Urdu poetry’s great master Mirza Ghalib goes:
Udne de in parindo ko aazad fiza me Ghalib
Jo tere apne honge wo laut aayenge kisi roz

Meaning – Let these birds fly free in the skies Ghalib, the ones which are yours will return one day.

Birds have been a part of our languages, arts, and culture integrated as symbols of freedom, frailty, lightness, innocence, beauty and so much more. Yet as we’ve been discussing in the previous episode, as part of the larger extinction of species due to excess human tinkering, our cities too are experiencing a decline in bird populations. In a continuation of my conversation with Deepa Mohan, a much loved naturalist and guide, we chatted about how birding might be one of the first steps you can take to begin to re-engage with the world around us and reduce our conflict with the other creatures who share this world with us. For first time birders, we did a quick FAQ on how to begin birding in cities. Here’s a simple outline from Deepa to get you started on your journey to re-acquaint yourself with your feathered neighbours.

Arpita: So Deepa lets begin this FAQ with the really basic question – what is birding and what does it involve?

Deepa: Birding can be in your own home. You can do balcony birding. You can watch from your this one.. at any park nearby. You can go into an urban park or you can go into the woods if you have some near you. You can go to a lake. The birds are all around you and believe me, I myself had not realized that you just look around you, you’ll see some 20 species of very beautiful birds. So the first thing is to be aware of this and take the effort to look around. And instead of looking, you are actually watching that is the difference. Instead of just looking around, you’re watching. Its the difference between hearing and listening.

Arpita: How is birding different from say going on a trek or a general walk around the neighbourhood?

Deepa: Birding is very different from trekking. Many trekkers they also are birdwatchers but the major difference is trekking is getting from point A to point B, whereas birding would be point a to a.1 to a.2, oh what was that at a .1 – let us go back there! This happens and particularly like with my guru Karthik, if you’re interested in insects and butterflies at the end of an hour, you might have covered maybe a hundred meters. You’re looking at a little spider here, you’re looking at a little this one there, you’re looking at a worm there. And you hear the information about that its just amazing.  So that is a very major difference that you’re not getting from A to B. You might get to B or you might not get to B. But on the way you’re looking at a lot of interesting things and for particularly for birding you’re looking at the birds.

Arpita: We’ve all been reading about extinction of species and people saying that birds are disappearing from cities – so many people have this apprehension that they’ll probably spot no birds. How would you respond to that concern?

Deepa: I will share the experience which my friend Arvind had, he’s now moved to Chennai but he was living here and while he was on his terrace a young boy came up to him and he said what are you looking at? He said I’m looking at the birds. He said I can see only five birds. So he said no –  give me half an hour, I’ll show you 20 birds and he did that because he was at the edge of Madivala lake, so he’s showed this young boy, young man a lot of birds. So that boy became very interested in birding thereafter. In fact right now he’s doing a photography course in Pune and he’s an excellent birder too. So yes, showing them that you can see, everybody  can see. That is why I like to take people out. It’s not that I want to see, I want everybody to see those birds. And some of them may be difficult , some of them may fly away, but very often especially with the waterfowl, the birds are there for you to see.

Arpita: So now you’ve got us convinced and lets assume one is ready to take on birding – how does one get started?

Deepa: So what you do is basically if somebody wants to begin birding what I would suggest is in Bangalore, you’re very lucky there is an umbrella birding and nature group which many cities may not have. Many cities may just have small groups of birders and you do not know how to get into that group. But here you have an umbrella group which is a loose federation of people all over the city so you can join. There’s a egroup and there is a Telegram group also and plus there is a Facebook group. You can join any of these and the second Sunday walk To Lalbagh is always there. Start going on the walks, join the group and you will see how many birds you will start noticing.

Arpita: These days in any nature walk, there is inevitably someone carrying a big camera, is there specific gear or books that you must have that help with birding?

Deepa: They become a must as you get more interested. You can start with nothing especially since you have the Internet at your fingertips now, there are apps to help you but yes, as you get more interested in birding you will invest in bird books, for example, when I’m showing the children, showing the bird on my phone is not always practical. So I carry my bird book with me all the time. But yes on the Internet you will have bird call, you will have little videos of birds, different kinds of behavior of birds. There’s a lot of this one you can see but what I would say will help you a lot is a reasonably priced pair of binoculars. A pair of Bushnell binoculars will cost about four to five thousand rupees. As a start that would be a very good investment and buy a good bird book. Let’s say Salim Ali’s book, you know Salim Ali is the doyen of bird-watching in India, get his book because it is still one of the best books around and then subsequently there have been a lot of very good bird books that have been published. So invest in those. But after that, yes, the net can help you very much. But the prime qualification is keep going out at the most.

Arpita: If like your friend Arvind, and many others through the period of lockdowns during the pandemic, if i begin by balcony or terrace birding what are the few birds that one will possibly immediately spot in an urban area?

Deepa: You have the crow, the house crow with the grey neck. You have the Jungle Crow, which is big and black – two extremely intelligent birds, which have adopted very well our urban lifestyle. You have the Myna, of course you have the Pigeon which is fast approaching the proportions of a pest in our area. They nest in the wild in vertical rock faces, So our flats are ideal substitutes for them. And since most of us feed them at the start the population has really exploded. So you have the Pigeons and then apart from that you will probably hear the gutuuurr gutuurrr of the Coppersmith Barbet in the trees around you, you would hear the kuuk kuuk kuuk of the white cheeked barbet, the coppersmith barbet – and then when you start looking closer you will find the little sunbirds. Sunbirds are some of our smallest birds. They take nectar from the flowers and they’re very beautiful , very beautiful birds. So the Purple Rumped Sunbird is a multicolored bird which is about 8 centimeters. And then there’s a Purple Sunbird that glints purple, blue metallic in the sunlight, that’s why they’re called sunbirds. So you will see those, you’ll see little white-eyes and.. I’m talking about really tiny bird that frequent urban gardens. You will start seeing those. You ‘ll see Red Whiskered bulbuls around, you will see Taylor birds, these are living with us. You don’t have to go to any forest to see them.

Arpita: So Deepa do you have any particular favourites from your many years of having done birding in cities?

Deepa: I must say that many women, whether they accept it or not, they have a favorite child. But I would be very hard put to find a favorite bird because there are times when.. a simple… let’s say I see a Myna in Lalbagh which is taking a piece of a sari and trying to stuff it into its nest, I can watch that for half an hour. Yes, of course, it’s very thrilling when you see a rare bird or something like that. And when you see a peacock dancing that is thrilling, but just go to Lalbagh and you see this bird called the purple Swamphen and now it’s called the Grey Headed Swamphen. It’s purple and blue in the sunlight and its got this huge lipstick of a beak. My god, it is so beautiful that you know that point of time that bird is in your brain. So I really can’t say that I have favorites. But I am sure other people do but for me I can watch all birds at all time. And in the night you can watch owls and nightjars too.

Arpita: Would you like to give some final piece of advice to the new birders out there?

Deepa: Don’t get discouraged by mistakes. Don’t get overshadowed by anybody who throws expert knowledge around. You are on your own path. Look at the birds, identify them, ask questions. As I said, there are no bad or silly or foolish questions. Keep asking questions whether you ask it on the net or you ask an expert, it doesn’t really matter. Very simple things – like you know, why do birds have different kinds of beaks, why do birds have different kinds of legs. You will find the answers also on the net now. So just follow your own path and try and engage with a lot of other people who have similar interests – You will get a lot of knowledge from there.

Outro: We hope that Deepa’s infectious enthusiasm has you convinced about birding and that you will take the next opportunity – be it at your balcony or terrace or a nearby lake or garden – to keep a watchful eye out for our feathered friends. And if you do, drop in a line or a photo to let us know how it went. We always love to hear back from you!

Having begun this episode with Ghalib, I cannot help but end with a beloved Chinese proverb: “Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come”. Happy birding!

In our next episode we head to the city of Hyderabad and meet two fabulous women – Sadhana Ramachander and Kobita Das Kolli – who curate the Hyderabad Tree Enthusiasts group. Among much else we explore the pleasures of befriending a tree so don’t forget to tune in!

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This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.