Credo of the solitary birder.


Featured post on IndiBlogger, the biggest community of Indian Bloggers

A solitary Ashy-crowned sparrow lark.
A solitary Ashy-crowned sparrow lark, male.

Today, October 6th, we are informed by some “eminent” bird-watchers in my city, is Bangalore Bird Day.

Ho hum.

Another meaningless eco-event among several other meaningless eco-events during the year.

These events are all the same. Talks are organised, tearful tributes are paid to some “eminent” bird-watcher or the other, bird-walks are conducted. During these walks an “eminent” bird-watcher takes around a noisy gaggle of non-eminent bird-watchers, all duly clad in camouflage clothing and sporting impressive cameras with huge throbbing lenses.

Everybody goes stomping around, shouting and pointing excitedly, and jiggling their huge throbbing lenses vigorously. The poor birds quite literally get the shit scared out of them.

IMG_8634
Black drongo hitches a ride.

Me, I avoid these events like the plague. I am not an “eminent” bird-watcher, you see.

I am a birder.

There’s a difference. Bird-watchers watch birds. Birders study birds.

The best birders I have gone birding with do not own a camera. Just a pair of binoculars and a notebook. Some of them are genuine ornithologists, some are professionals from other walks of life. But they all share common traits – they keep their mouths shut and their eyes and ears open, and they really know their stuff.

I prefer to be a solitary birder. Sometimes I call upon some chosen birder friends to join me, and sometimes they do join me, but I do most of my birding alone. Gives me a sense of peace, and allows me to actually commune with Nature.

_DSC3654.jpg
Little Egret at Hoskote lake, Bangalore.

So. Let’s share some tips about solitary birding, shall we?

Anyone can be a birder. There’s no need for a degree in the field, unless you want to be a professional ornithologist.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem. Everyone thinks he or she is a birder. And makes a big noise about it.

If you’re just starting out as a birder, first buy a good field guidebook. One would recommend Grimmett and Inskipp. Next, get yourself a pair of binoculars. With a magnification factor of 10x or 8x and an objective diameter of 40 or 50mm. These specifications are commonly mentioned as 10×50 or 8×40. Olympus is a decent brand. Nikon is better, but costs a bit. If you can afford it, get yourself a pair of Zeiss roof-prism binoculars. That’s an investment for a lifetime.

Next, get on to the internet, and get a list of birding hotspots in and around your city. Most of these hotspots will have a checklist of birds usually seen there, with photos.

_DSC4606.jpg
Blue rock pigeon. Ideal bird to practise your photography on.

And that’s all you need to begin with. If you wish, gather a couple of friends, no more. Get yourself to the nearest hotspot, preferably at dawn. Don’t go stomping around. Keep quiet. Pull out your binocs, and look around. Make a checklist of the birds you see. There are apps available, but the old-fashioned way is better.

And, pay attention to bird calls. All birds have characteristic calls, and can be identified and located by calls alone. That is why it’s better to go birding alone or with a very select set of birders who know how to shut up and listen.

Keep visiting that location regularly. Pretty soon, you will confidently identify all the birds there, and become an expert yourself.

Over a few weeks, you can improve your birding skills by studying the behaviour of the bird, its feeding habits, breeding season, and so on. Then you’ll be part of the bird’s life, rather than being a voyeur.

_DSC3785.jpg
Indian silverbills. A special moment, made possible by keeping your mouth shut!

This would be the right time to get yourself a camera and start the creation of a birding album that you can enjoy over the years.

Bird photography is a craft all by itself, so we’ll delve into it later. For starters, you can cut your teeth on a reasonably inexpensive bridge camera. I’ve taken some of my best images using a simple bridge camera.

Over a few months, visit all the birding spots you can, and savor each visit. Do not forget to make a proper checklist each time. You will thank yourself in later years.

If there’s a bird sanctuary near your city, do make a visit there, during the right season. You will learn a lot in one visit.

IMG_0632.jpg
A camera-shy Brahminy kite. Shot with a simple bridge camera.

Some obvious tips:

Safety first. You can get mugged, especially if you’re carrying an expensive camera. I’ve been accosted even in public places like Lalbagh. Avoid birding locations that are known to be unsafe, like Turahalli in Bangalore.

Wear dull earthy colors. And good boots. And insect repellent. Carry a first-aid kit, and if you’re like me, keep your medication in hand.

Carry snacks and safe water. In many places in India, they sell counterfeit brands of bottled water, so carry your water.

If you intend to shoot photographs, always check about local laws, camera fees, etc. Many locations in India do not permit camera tripods and camera flashes.

One guidebook, one pair of binoculars, one basic camera. Some patience. Some diligent practice. And some common-sense.

IMG_8068
Cattle egret, with cattle attached!

And that’s it.

In less than a year, you too will become an “expert” birder. Play your cards right, and you might even become an “eminent” birder yourself – and one Bird Day will be dedicated to you. But alas, only after you’re dead.

And you can do it all by yourself.

Sarcasm aside, solitary birding is the most rewarding pastime I can think of. You do not just watch birds, you can actually be with them. The world outside can be ignored. Time comes to a halt. Your worries melt away. And you can just be yourself.

All of which you cannot do in a crowd of stomping bird-watchers with loud mouths and empty heads.

_DSC2075.jpg
Spot-billed pelican, enjoying some solitude!

Better hurry though. Birding locations are disappearing rapidly, especially in Bangalore. In the time taken to write this blogpost, another lake would have been encroached, another hundred trees would have been butchered, another bird species would have left the city.

Get off your gluteals, grab your binocs, dump the rest of the world. And just go birding.

Class Aves rocks!

Cheers … Srini.

Advertisements

Hoskote lake … Swallows, shrikes and drunkards.

 

_DSC4037.jpg
Grey heron at Hoskote.

What a shock! To see a lake in Bangalore that still has some water in it.  And birds. Quite a lot of birds actually.

And quite a lot of drunkards.

I hadn’t visited Hoskote lake in some years. This Sunday, along with Dr Neil Hayward, who, unlike me, is an accomplished and published birder from the US, and armed with my new Nikon 500mm superzoom lens, I paid a visit to this old waterbody in the north-eastern outskirts of Bangalore.

_DSC3785.jpg
Indian silverbill munias.

Hoskote is an Anglicised version of the original name, Ooscota. This town was where the first Anglo-Mysore war was fought in August 1768, between Tipu Sultan and the British.

The town is now heavily urbanised and industrialised, over-crowded and polluted, and engulfed by Bangalore’s uncontrolled growth.

Hoskote lake is still reasonably intact, although it has shrunk in the recent past. A few local citizens have come together to save the lake and its denizens. I’m not sure how successful they have been, but the lake does look like it needs a lot of help.

_DSC4107.jpg
Streak-throated swallow.

The good bits: Shrikes! We got a good view of the Brown shrike, a long-distance winter migrant. The arrival of the Brown shrike in Bangalore is generally considered the start of the migrant season, and is greeted by birders here.

_DSC3971
Brown shrike.

Also seen was the Long-tailed shrike. Another winter visitor, albeit from north India.

Swallows! Barn swallows (migrants), streak-throated swallows, red-rumped swallows and wire-tailed swallows.

We caught a glimpse of the Eurasian marsh harrier. And the Common sandpiper. Both of which are migrants from outside India. And there are a good number of Indian silverbills and tri-colored munias around.

_DSC4033
White-browed wagtail.

And … to our great joy, we got a real good sighting of the Jacobin cuckoo. That was a lifer for Neil and a real thrill for me. I haven’t seen the Jacobin in ages, and I certainly did not expect to see it at Hoskote lake in the winter. Yay!

_DSC4067
The elusive Jacobin. The only shot I could get.

There are several Painted storks, Asian open-billed storks, Spot-billed pelicans and other common waterbirds at the lake. Baya weavers and Streaked weavers have been reported, but we didn’t see them. Perhaps we were looking in the wrong place for them.

All in all, the birding was pretty good.

The bad bits: Drunkards. F***ing rowdy drunkards all over the place. Creating a ruckus, throwing broken bottles and garbage everywhere. With our expensive cameras in hand, we had to steer clear of them, and skip some prime birding spots as a result.

_DSC3892.jpg
Plain prinia with nesting material.

The worst bit: The lunch plate I had at Adyar Anand Bhavan. Without question, this was the worst meal I have ever ordered at an eating house.  Unbearably spicy and unpalatable. Unfit for human consumption.  All I could manage from that ghastly lunch plate was some plain rice and curds.  Fortunately, Neil did not eat anything, since he brought some light snacks along. But the tea he had there was horrible.  One sip of that swill and he was done.  I got him a nice cup of Assam tea at Coffee Day later in the day.

Bottom line: Good birding in excellent company.  A Sunday well spent. The warning bells for Hoskote lake, however, are ringing loud and clear. Will this historic lake be saved, or will it end up as a drunkard’s paradise and a foam-filled mess like Bellandur lake? We will know in the next five years.

In the meantime, class Aves rocks!

Cheers … Srini.

Google map of Hoskote lake.

Bhagula bhagat … The silent killer .

_DSC2436

It’s silent, infinitely patient, perfectly camouflaged and practically invisible to its victims. When its unsuspecting prey goes past, it strikes in a flash.

The Indian pond heron is a common resident at ponds and lakes across the country. Common it is, but difficult to spot all the same. Unless you know where to look.

Herons belong to the Ardeidae family, and the Pond heron’s systematic name is Ardeola grayii. 

In Hindi, the bird is known as bhagula, derived from the Sanskrit baka, and is the origin of the popular phrase “Bhagula bhagat“, meaning a person who, like the heron, remains motionless and apparently in deep meditation, but strikes without warning when he sees his opportunity.

Look for the Pond heron and other herons at the edge of waterbodies, floating vegetation, reeds and marshes. You will need to look very carefully. They are so well camouflaged and motionless that you may almost stumble over them. Sometimes, a pond heron will suddenly take off, and give itself away by the white flash of its underwings.

_DSC2359-2
Gotcha!

Pond herons feed on small fish, crustaceans, frogs, and waterborne insects. I’ve even seen them hunt dragonflies and butterflies on the shores of waterbodies in my neighborhood.

Once you sight them, herons are reasonably easy to photograph, because they tend to remain still for long minutes. Approach the heron slowly, keep a low profile, and do not raise your camera suddenly.  If you’re lucky, you might snap a heron just as it strikes, as I have done sometimes.

Cheers  … Srini.