Thursday, January 30, 2014

Evolution of a Birder -2: Transition from the Tiger to Trogon

From a 'tigertracker' to a 'woodcrawler', it has been a long journey. I guess it is not unusual for a normal person to fall in love with something exotic or unattainable. It is a human trait to reach for the moon even when we know that all of us will never get there. I'm a normal human being and so I think I will forgive myself for such simple mindedness.

During my initial years looking at nature with a careful eye, my attention was always drawn by the tiger. No doubt, as the apex predator in all the jungles I visit, the tiger deserved the its place in my mind and consequently all my thoughts about India's wilderness was centered around the king of the jungle. As the years passed and after many a trip into the jungle I realized that the tiger was really like a 'film star'. I saw it more on the screen than in real life!

Most trips to Bandipur and Nagarahole were in search of the elusive tiger or leopard but they were elusive as always. It was then I started noticing the birds. They were everywhere. I did not have to search for them. They just keep appearing every now and then. Crested serpent eagles, Changeable hawk eagle, hoopoes, bee eaters and woodpeckers. Creatures that I chose to ignore in the hope of laying my eyes on the tiger. Even a pug mark was celebrated back then!

The upside of these frequent trips was that I learnt to enjoy the jungle for what it is; a jungle. There would be days when we drove in and after a couple of hours or more of bouncing along the tracks we'd encounter 'nothing of any significance'. After many trips like that especially, on cold or wet mornings, I started enjoying the forest for it's wildness. My eyes took in everything; right from the bare branches in winter, the fresh growth of green leaves after a rain, the dew on the funnel web spider's web on the ground and all other little creatures.

 My first trip to Silent Valley National Park, nearly a decade back when Woodcrawler Jr was barely walking, was the turning point.  I met my first Malabar Trogon in Silent Valley and also my first Indian Pitta, Paradise flycatcher and Emerald dove. The birds were slowly clamoring for attention now.

 The tiger, if it appeared, would certainly get my attention; but the birds were there to keep me busy everywhere. It was also a period when I was learning the ropes of nature and wildlife photography.  My gear, back then, consisted of a rather old Minolta entry level SLR with just two lenses. The longest was a 70-210mm f4.5 -5.6 zoom. I also procured a 2x teleconvertor, with absolutely no idea that it would only add to my misery rather than contribute to making my photography better! It slowed my camera's reflexes so much that either my subject would have left its perch or I'd have a very shaky picture. Some of the pictures above will testify that. All of them were shot in late 2004 - early 2005 in Bandipur (the first 4 pics) and Silent Valley National Park (second 4 pics).

I've come a long way over the last decade and more. Film camera was substituted with a prosumer digital camera with an extended zoom that enhanced my reach. Then I found that inadequate and shifted to a DSLR with interchangable lenses. I don't lay any claim to being an excellent photgrapher but there has been a marked improvement. Now I speak in terms of aperture settings, ISO and shutter speed to my son, who is all of 11 years old and is well on his way to becoming a a serious Woodcrawler. Photography, for me, is about documenting nature in its myriad moods and colours.

Missing a tiger or leopard on my jungle trips don't matter anymore. I look out for my feathered friends and my son s turning out to be a good spotter. The jungle is not only about the big cats. It is also about the birds, flowers, trees reptiles and other mammals. The transition is complete.

I'm not a pure tigertracker now, I'm a WOODCRAWLER.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Evolution of a Birder

It had been a very heavy monsoon and there hasn't been much Woodcrawling for many moons now. My short hops haven't produced much to write about and Woodcrawler Junior's school has also come in the way of any meaningfully long trips. So it is with much anticipation that we are looking for a break in the wild, again. The Christmas vacations have come and gone but we stayed put for the sole reason that it would be the wrong to time to step out. After all who want to run into pesky tourists when you are going for a little relaxation in the wilderness?!

God and the Government of Kerala joined hands to open up a chance to walk in the wild, courtesy the 54th Kerala School Kalolsavam. The Kalolsavam is the annual inter school arts festival and it is to be held in Palakkad this year. It is a big event that sees a lot of talent being thrown up. Some of the winners have gone on to become movie stars. It is therefore no surprise that major clashes and disagreements break out amongst the parents and teachers of competitors vying for the top spots. For us it meant that schools will close for a few days and chaos will reign on the already congested roads of our little town.

Thattekad has been beckoning for a while, and this was an opportunity to take off. My first trip was in late May 2013, the worst time to go, when I went as a speaker at a conference in Kothamangalam. It was more of a recce for a trip in the season and the monsoon washed off the memories quickly. As usual, Bandipur and B.R Hills popped up when they announced the closure of the schools between 19th and 25th January. It would be a good time to go with so many tigers and leopards gallivanting around the parks, even in B.R Hills! It was also the peak bird season so they'd be there in huge groups.

Then my good friends Dr. Ravi Rajasingh and Khusro Ahmed posted pictures of some jewels of the avian world on their Facebook pages. It was like they gave me a little knock on the head, reminding me about my pending trip to Thattekad! Now, we are counting the hours and preparing ourselves for a feast spread over three days. Every night is spent scouring the net for more information about the birds that we were going to see. It was while searching for new books that I suddenly realized that this was becoming a serious pass time.

Photography has been a passion and nature in any form, be it an animal, bird, insect or landscape; always seemed to look better through a camera's viewfinder. Over the years, of all the things that have imprinted themselves on my camera's film or processor, I realized that birds took up the biggest space on my computer's hard disc! I guess, these feathered beauties were drawing my attention away from everything else.

I was a hardcore tiger lover, which was why my email IDs always had a tiger in them, be it tigerfundu2001@... or My early collection of books will also testify that fact. After Kenneth Anderson and Jim Corbett, my book shelf has 'tiger books' by Ullas Karanth, Valmik Thapar, Billy Arjan Singh and others and despite traveling to many major tiger reserves my encounters with the King of the Indian jungle were very few and far in between.

 At that time birds hadn't penetrated into my thoughts sufficiently for me to give them the attention they deserved. My first 'Field guide', if it can be called that, was  the Collin's Traveller's Guide to Wildlife of India, purchased just before a trip to Ranthambore National Park in the 90s. I still have it and I dusted it off after a few years in hibernation for a photo for this blog. I was a rather small book combining details of mammals, birds, reptiles, flowers and trees found in India. It used to be a constant companion till I started going to Bandipur Tiger Reserve (then a  National Park) regularly. I met a gent there who had a DSLR with a big lens (something very uncommon then) and was spouting forth on the birds in Bandipur. I had, at that time, a Fuji S5500 digicam with a 10x zoom. I found that I could get closer to the birds and started paying more attention to them thereafter.

Finding tigers, leopards and dhole, the main predators was no mean task but when it came to birds, that problem was never there. They were everywhere and I really did not have to travel far to see a feathered friend. In fact some close encounters were at home! Gradually, as focus slowly shifted to birds I soon found out that unlike mammals with rather simple names like elephant. gaur, barking deer, sambar, tiger, leopard, dhole and such; bird names where more numerous and confusing.

Till then kingfishers or woodpeckers were just a kingfisher and woodpecker whatever the colour they had! Most yellow birds were orioles and green ones with a fat curved beak was a parrot. All raptors were just eagles or hawks. Now I had to sort them out because in my photographs they all looked different from one another! Besides the Collin's only covered 53 species of birds. So my next book was a pure bird book. I was still a novice and a book with a lot of photographs, like in the Collin's field guide looked ideal.

I had got hold of Bikram Grewal's Photgraphic Guide to Birds of India and Nepal. It was compact and would fit in my pocket easily. I still carry it occasionally despite it being in tatters and held together by packing tape. Unfortunately I quickly realized that it was also inadequate. It was a pocket guide, well suited to being shoved into the pocket of my cargos or jacket, but though it covered 250 odd species it too couldn't answer many queries. However, it is a well laid out book with details of the birds and maps right next to the photos. Surprisingly, photos of a few species were absent.


Now I had to upgrade myself again if I were to be considered a serious birder. I had been a member of the BNHS for many years and I get The Hornbill regularly. One of the issues had a page with a picture of Salim Ali's Book of Indian Birds. I knew straightaway that it was the book for me and ordered online. It was the the Centenary Edition of Salim Ali's authoritative tome on Indian birds. It remained, till the 1st January 2014, my most extensively referred bird book. It had detailed drawings as opposed to photographs in my only other bird book which was much better since the quality of many photographs in pocket guide were of poor quality. Salim Ali's book had all the essential information of 538 species of birds found in India. 

Salim Ali's book remained my constant companion for the next few years along with another book by Bikram Grewal that I found while browsing in a book store somewhere. The Illustrated Guide to Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. It was also a photographic guide like the pocket guide with details of more than 500 birds. It had, like the Centenary edition, description of the bird, details of its food, range, habitat and voice. It also had the distribution map next to the birds photo, something that was lacking in Salim Ali's book.
These two books in combination were a permanent part of my birding gear.  They worked well together because, Bikram Grewal's book had all the information clubbed together alongside the photographs but Salim Ali's had split the book in two sections with only brief details next to the plates. The full descriptions were in a separate section in the back. This meant that if you had to get the details of a bird you had seen or photographed you had to turn to the relevant page in the second half of the book. So in the field the former was better as a quick referral but when you were relaxing after a day in the field the details in the latter was more informative.

 By now I had improved my skills considerably to recognize the differences in plumage of the male and female of a species, mature and immature plumages and also in some cases the change during the breeding season.  It was then I realized what was lacking both the books I possessed. Neither of them had all these variations. The photographic guide had only on photo for every species. Salim Ali's book at least had pictures of the female of selected species. So I was on the hunt again. Every time I went into a book shop, besides books on photography I would scour the sections for new bird books.

My efforts were rewarded when I came across the Oxford Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Richard Grimmett, Carol & Tim Inskipp. This book is unsurpassed when it comes to the pictures of each bird, its male, female and immature forms and seasonal morphs. It details of some 1300 species of birds found not only in India but also in the neighbouring countries.

However, it too is not without defects. Description of birds are very brief and excludes food habits and voices. The distribution maps are clubbed together separately in between pages and are mixed up. This is rather annoying. When I was making my bird list for the Andamans I had to see the maps to see which birds were endemic to the isles and then flip to the right page for the picture and description. 

It now means I have a fairly decent collection of books on birds found in India. My Centenary edition of Salim Ali's book remains my favourite. If you had been reading this blog carefully your eyebrows would have shot up. That's because you'd have remembered that I said earlier in this post, " It remained, till the 1st January 2014, my most extensively referred bird book". When, said "till 1st January 2014", I don't mean I've stopped referring to it any more. As a matter of fact January 1st saw the new edition of the book edited by J.C. Daniel land on my table!

My old book is well used. Some of it's pages are falling out and others are torn so it needs to be rested. However, I have to keep referring to it because there is something unique about Salim Ali's book. Beside the fact that it has the most extensive descriptions it also gives you the names of the birds in Indian languages wherever relevant and available.

 It also has some tables that help you identify birds quickly with certain characteristics like colour, tail length, bills and others.

Of course BNHS & OUP need to improve their binding. My new book is already splitting at the seams!

In a little over two weeks I'll be introducing Skanda to something he has never done before, birding on foot. He has accompanied me on short day trips to Malampuzha and elsewhere but this will be the first time he will be woken up at dawn for a walk in a jungle that is home to some 300 species of birds, some of them a once in a lifetime sighting for many. I am fortunate to be staying barely 4 hours away from one of India's best birding hot spots, the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. I'm not taking a huge bird list because I've not become a hardcore birder yet. I just want my son to enjoy the jungle up close and on foot. I'm sure a dash of colour will make it worthhwile and Thattekad is just the spot for it.

As I plan my trip I have ordered two more books. One is Richard Grimmett's Field guide to the Birds of Southern India. It is a little old but I thought it would be a good book to have because most of my birding is confined to three southern states. It should be in my hands tomorrow.

The other book is the new version of the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp. It's on its way......from the US. I guess I'll get it after I return from Thattekad but it will be worth the wait.

I don't lay any claim to being an expert birder but in any case it looks like I'm well on my way to becoming a bird addict. Anything feathered in my vicinity makes me pause in mid-stride or mid-drive! I don't want to be called a bird expert either. I love watching these beautiful creatures go about their daily affairs. It will also help me realize the true meaning of Woodcrawling!


Over the last couple of weeks my bird book collection has swelled. Salim Ali's 'Birds of India' landed on my table in the 1st of January. A book about which I have mentioned earlier.

On the 4th January the next one arrived. The Field Guide to the Birds of South India by Richard Grimmet & Tim Inskipp. If you are looking for a bird book that is handy to carry in the birding areas of southern India, this could be the book you might want to consider. However, be warned, this is not a book for someone looking for all the information of the birds of south India. It has only brief descriptions that might be useful in the field for identifying a bird, but that's about it.

I lack some of the features that was there in the other book by Grimmett & Inskipps, 'Birds of the Indian Subcontinent'. Even that book was a tad inadequate and sometimes, frankly annoying to have to flip pages to find the maps corresponding to the plates.

Then, on the 13th of January, the book that I had been waiting for in anticipation finally landed. A full week before the promised delivery date and well in time for my trip to Thattekad. The Princeton Field Guide to the Birds of India (2nd edition) by Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp was delivered by the courier.

This is, in my view, the best birding book for the Indian Subcontinent. It has combined the features of their old field guide, the descriptions from Salim Ali's book and layout from Bikram Grewal's photographic guide in one handy volume. It is twice as thick and heavier than the field guide to Birds if South India.

In this book, unlike in the previous edition, the maps are all placed alongside the description of the birds. The description of birds, their distribution, voice and habitat are also given in reasonably good detail. 
Pages from Birds of South India

Pages from the new Princeton Field Guide
Now if you are getting into serious birding and your activities are confined to southern India these three books complement each other.

Salim Ali's book gives, beside the description, native names of birds which is very useful in the field where your guide may not be familiar with the English names. The smaller field guide is very handy and the larger book is a treasure trove of information. Happy birding!