Friday, August 07, 2020

Avian Orchestrations - Part 2: Calls, Songs & Mimicry artistes

Judging by the popularity of the previous post (← link here), I will safely assume that at least some of you have started sharpening your ears and listening to the feathered friends around you. As you pay more attention, your ability to connect a call to a species will improve and you will soon enjoy birding with your eyes closed! To 'see' a bird it has to be in your line of sight but to 'hear' one it can be just about anywhere. That is the advantage of birding by your ears. You might have also noticed, if you listened carefully, that each bird is capable of making different sounds. The objective of this post is to introduce you to the different types of bird sounds that they are capable of. 

Birds are vociferous creatures, especially in certain seasons and situations. In the south of India as summer sets in, the days break early and from the middle of March to the middle of July the average length of daylight will exceed 12 hours; even stretching to 14 hours between May and July. The early part of summer is also the time the migrant birds would have left or will be preparing to leave for their breeding grounds. In our part of the world too, as summer heralds the arrival bright and warm and days, the endemic birds will also prepare to get into their romantic best! Yes, it is the breeding season and love is in the air.

If you've taken to the habit of listening to the birds, you would have, by now, realized that they sing more at particular times of the day. They are most active at dawn and therefore most noisy around sunrise. Not that they fall silent the rest of the day but they are at their loudest best, early in the morning. This is the Dawn Chorus.


It is usually in the early summer or spring, in most parts of the world, that birds get into their singing moods. As the beginning of the breeding season starts, the birds, especially the males, looking like they stepped out of  Savile row in their resplendent new plumage, test their musical skills to attract the suitable ladies of the species .They can be heard anytime but the best time is about an hour before sunrise and for another two hours after. There is plenty of daytime, as I mentioned earlier and potential suitors find the highest perches and belt out song after song till they catch the attention of a mate. While most singers are male some females too join the fun.

Oriental Magpie Robin

Common Tailorbird

Asian Koel

If you listen carefully everyday, you'll find some species start earlier than others. In my place it is the Asian koels, oriental magpie robins and white-throated kingfishers start their singing before sunrise. (Click this LINK to listen to the birds that join in the Avian Orchestra at my house) As the east lights up the red whiskered bulbuls, tailor birds and others join the chorus. Everyone is in trying to outdo each other because there is nothing better to do at that hour. The light is low, there fore predators won't see you easily. Potential food like the insects and flying termites will get active only after the sun warms the air and the earth. Besides the light may not be enough to detect them. In urban environments the sound carries further as traffic and the cacophony of a city won't drown out the songs!

If you are an early riser and carry your newspaper to the bathroom for a leisurely read while sitting on the best seat in the world, the potty seat, you can keep an ear out for this dawn chorus. Birds wake up before sunrise and warm up while you are trying to read that newspaper and complete the most important  activity of the day!


Birds vocalize differently depending on the situation, season and location. Their voices can be broadly divided into two, the songs and the calls. Please note, I used the word 'voices' in the previous sentence because there is also another type of sound, the non-vocal sounds, which we will see later.

Birds sing, mostly the males of the species, during the breeding season. The males, especially, use their talent to advertise their availability to the females. Not only is it a trick to attract mates but also to ward of threats in the form of other birds competing for the same mate or territory. It is also used as a tool for bonding with the mate and their young. Songs are more complex acoustically, have a definite rhythm, are longer and get repeated over and over again. Some birds have more than one type of song and they can go through the entire repertoire in one go. 
(The LINK to the song of the Oriental Magpie Robin)

Most song birds are usually those that breed where visibility is low, meaning, in habitats where visual connection is difficult, like in thick forests, dense shrubs or even open areas where grass and bushes grow tall. In such situation a call is used to attract the attention of a potential mate or warn other birds intending to enter the territory of the singer. If you have observed, birds that forage or breed in open places like cormorants, darters, ducks, egrets, heron and storks rarely sing. They usually make a sound only when alarmed or when fighting off competition.

Calls are vocalizations that are made at other times of the year after the breeding season is over. They are short, not very musical and acoustically simple. They are used to communicate within a flock, to keep  tabs on location of individuals or as an alarm to warn about an imminent danger.

(The LINK to the call of the Oriental Magpie Robin)


There is one other aspect of bird sound, the non-vocal sound. Bird songs and calls are produced in the bird's voice box called the syrinx but there are birds that have poor vocal ability despite the presence of the syrinx. Such birds use other parts of their anatomy to produce sounds. They use bills, feet, tail or wings to produce sound. Albatrosses, some herons and storks, clatter or tap their bills to communicate. Snipes and swifts can vibrate their tail feathers to produce a rattling or whistling sound. All woodpeckers have a very specific rhythm to their tapping and the species can be identified by just listening to it.
Black-rumped flameback (Non-vocal call)


Many a time, I've heard a shikra call around my house and rushed out with a camera or microphone only to see a racket-tailed drongo shaking in laughter as it succeeded in fooling me again! Most of us would have heard a parrot or myna imitate sounds and even 'speak' human languages. However, in nature, there are a large number of birds that can imitate both animate and inanimate sounds. Some jays, starlings, mockingbirds, magpies and the lyre bird are all great imitators. They imitate, among other things, predators, other birds, insects, squirrels,vehicular horns or alarms, door chimes, chain saw, phone ringtones and much more.
Racket-tailed drongo

In our part of the world the commonest mimicry artiste is the racket-tailed drongo. It can imitate many birds, animals and inanimate sounds. The ones around my house imitates shikras, babblers, bulbuls, kites, squirrels, whistle of a bus conductor and more! Other birds found on the Indian sub-continent that imitate well are larks, leafbirds and shamas.

The mimicry serves two purposes. One is for establishing territory and attracting a mate and the second is to scare away foraging birds to steal their food!

Next time you hear a bird outside your window, try to identify the call. You can record it on to your mobile phone and compare it with bird sounds on websites like Xeno-Canto or eBird. Once you get the hang of it, identifying the birds around you will be a breeze. Not only that, it will amaze you what birds are capable of, when they put their minds and syrinx into it!

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Avian Orchestrations - Part 1: Birding by the Ears

A little over four months ago, the first Covid-19 case was reported in Kerala, on 30th January. Subsequently, as the number of cases started shooting up, Kerala went for a lock down from the 23rd March 2020 and the nation followed suit the next day. We are now into the third month and still don't know how long it will continue.
As usual, Pinks are Links. Click on the caption of each photograph to listen to the bird!

In the initial phase of the lock down, when movement of people were strictly monitored, all of us were confined to our houses, a self-imprisonment induced by an invisible Corona. Suddenly, our eyes and ears became sharper and we started seeing and hearing things we never noticed before, in our monotonous lives! Social media was flooded with messages of animals, birds, fish and all assorted creatures moving around places deserted by homo sapiens. Whether they were moving around with greater freedom now or it was only that we never had time to notice their presence among us, only time will tell. In any case, suddenly, everyone became nature enthusiasts overnight!

Asian Koel (male)
It is debatable whether nature took over when we temporarily abandoned spaces. Yes, there are definite indications that mammals, large and small, have started re-entering spaces that was rightfully theirs but birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians were probably around all the time but we were too busy to notice. Of these, I can vouch for the birds. I have been pursuing them obsessively for a few years now and I know they have been around us all the time. The people who were used to leaving home early to beat the traffic and and returning late evening would have missed the show. Obviously, if you stop commuting during the critical hours of dawn and dusk, the eyes and ears start noticing thing they didn't see or hear earlier. No surprise there!

Red whiskered bulbul
To most of us, it is the visual identification which is mandatory for anything to imprint in our brain. It is rarely that a call from the dense canopy 40 or 50  feet above us or from among the reeds in a pond, registers as a bird call or song. Without a mental image, the majority of us, cannot link a sound with anything animate or inanimate. Most of us have to 'see' the source of the sound to connect it to a sound, not the other way around.
When I started paying attention to birds, it was because my interest was to photograph them. It was, therefore, of paramount importance that I not only saw the bird but also found it on an ideal perch. That was what a 'good photograph' demanded. Slowly, as I turned from being just another 'bird watcher' and photographer to a listener, I had transformed into a birder. In exalted company of a few like minded friends, my auditory apparatus perked up and eventually overtook my visual apparatus! My photography gear ceased to be as exciting as before, since my ears were now getting more adept at identifying birds.
Barn owl

Indian grey hornbill

Over a period of time, I realized that I was listing birds based on auditory clues than visual ones. It was a completely new experience and the 'photographic eye' didn't matter any more. It used to be disappointing, earlier, if I couldn't sight a bird and get a photograph. Now, I didn't have to see one to know who was hiding from me. My ears had evolved!

House crow

Large billed crow

For, those who had started enjoying the beauty of birds during your self-imposed confinement over the last few weeks, I'm sure having to go back to work again will be depriving you of the simple pleasures of watching that bundle of feather go about its daily routine. Something you had grown used too, that helped soothe your frayed nerves and kept you busy during an otherwise frustrating lock down.

Common myna

Rufous treepie
Rose-ringed parakeet

Fear not, you can still enjoy the company of your feathered friends even if you are in your office. If you have an office with a garden, all the more better. There is no place with human presence, that birds haven't adapted to. All you have to do is perk up your ears and listen to the world outside, especially if your boss is screaming at you for nothing! It will definitely help you keep your cool.

White cheeked barbet

Racket tailed drongo

Considering that the Corona issue continues to smoulder, flare up and smoulder again with no end in sight in the foreseeable future, birdsong will help you tide over this crisis in more ways than one. You can keep your boss out of your ear, your children entertained and  your spouse happy because you are overflowing with the milk of human kindness. All thanks to the mellifluous tones the birds pour out around you.
White throated kingfisher

Stork billed kingfisher

Paradise flycatcher (white morph male)

This post is peppered with photos of various commonly seen birds around our homes and office (in South India mainly). You may have either seen them or heard them but rarely connected the visual and auditory components to one bird. Unfortunately Blogger doesn't allow direct audio file uploads so I've put the link to the audio file in the caption of the photos.
Black-rumped flameback woodpecker

Yellow billed babbler
Oriental magpie robin

Each caption is link, which, when clicked, will take you to the Macaulay Library Archives (← click here for link) of bird songs. That is where I have uploaded many of the bird calls (and photographs) that I have recorded. Once you are familiar with the song, you can identify the bird even if it is singing from somewhere far away and out of sight.

Common tailorbird

Pale-billed flowerpecker

Purple-rumped sunbird
Loten's (large billed) sunbird
House sparrow

This is, by no means, a complete list of birds seen or heard around us. Common birds differ according to location, altitude and habitat, so for a given location the list of birds in that area will be slightly different. I may have omitted many species, either because it is not seen commonly in the place I live in or because I don't have audio records of my own for them. You can check Macaulay Library (← click here for link) or Xeno-Canto (← click here for link) for more audio records.

If you want to know more about any species that you run across, I'd suggest you look at some of the dedicated birding sites. One of the most comprehensive sites is the eBird website (← click here for link) where you can explore more details of the bird you have seen or heard.

Finally, no bird calls or sings in a monotonous fashion. Every bird has a large repertoire of songs that is usually reserved for different seasons and situations. Bird song is more elaborate and usually heard during mating season while bird calls are short and used to warn the flock or keep in contact. Some birds imitate very well and the racket tailed drongo is an expert mimic, able to imitate other birds, animals or even inanimate things.  So if you listen only to one track, you might be missing some serious talent. Select a species on one of the above mentioned websites and listen to all the various calls and songs a bird is capable of.

I hope this post gives you a stimulus to 'look' at bird with your ears. Even during your busy day, tune your ears to pick up the bird outside your window. It will be a lifetime of free music!

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Binocular Blog - Afterthoughts & Accessories

This has probably been the longest blog series that I've completed and I acknowledge the role Corona has played it. While it has caused unbelievable numbers of human fatalities, it has also resurrected a comatose blog! I will be eternally grateful for that. I don't think I'll have the time for research and blogging like this, ever again, but I look forward to Corona saying farewell and life limping back to normal. I need more subjects for my blogs, so I have to start woodcrawling again soon, and not being totally obsessed with birds. 

It was actually a labour of love because I love all my binoculars, old and new. While researching, it gave me the opportunity to learn so much about binoculars. I hope you find it useful too. Internet is a vast storehouse of information and I've given a few links in the Introduction Post for this series (link here). You can refer the links I've provided for more information. When buying a binocular, ensure you compare brands and offers. Make an informed decision because it is an investment for a lifetime. 

There are a few things I couldn't slot in elsewhere so I will list them here. All binoculars come with some accessories in the box. Typically, they will provide a case, a neck strap, a cleaning cloth and the lens covers. There are other things you may consider adding as you go along. This is a partial list and in no way complete.
  1. Neoprene neck straps with padding. If you intend hanging the binocular around your neck, it will be more comfortable with a padded neck strap.
  2. Shoulder harness for heavier binoculars. If you are using a porro prism binocular or roof prism binoculars with 10x50 specifications or more, it is going to be heavy and will get very painful after a few hours around the neck. The harness will distribute the weight across your shoulders.
    Shoulder harness distributes weight on your shoulders
  3. Harness with chest case. Sometimes it is better to have chest harness with a storage case hanging on your chest. This is very useful if you are walking over rough terrain as the binocular will not hang loose and flop about. The storage case will also protect it from unexpected knocks.
    Shoulder harness with case
  4. Lens rain protection covers. All binoculars come with objective and eyepiece lens covers. It is a very frequently lost item if you are not careful. Many companies have tethered covers for objective lenses and eyelets on the eyepiece covers for threading onto your strap. If your binoculars don't have such ones, you can get after market ones.
  5. Tripod adapter and tripod. Heavier binoculars come with a tripod socket hidden on their hinges. If you have shaky hands, you can get an adapter to mount the binocular on a tripod, like a camera. If you are trying digi-binning a tripod mount is a must. As for the tripod, any tripod you use with photography gear will suit the purpose.

  6. Tripod adapter

    Tripod socket
    Universal mount

    For those who are impatient to go through the entire blog series, I'm giving below direct links to all the posts. You can go directly to the page you are interested in, though I suggest you go through each post as all of them contain some information that will be useful when you consider purchasing a binocular for your self.

    1.       Introduction
    5.       Part – 4: Eye Relief