I started looking at birds closely about 14 years ago. I can estimate this time somewhat accurately as I still remember my first focused birding walk of that long ago. It was in Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary on a wintery morning when my son, Kabir was just over a year old and we were ill prepared for either spotting birds or staying warm at that hour. I didn’t own binoculars to see birds clearly or a book (field guide) to help identify them. What I had in plenty was my enthusiasm to know more about birds, and a determination to complete the 2 km walk using a single pair of binoculars that accompanying friends had carried. That pair was shared by 9 of us so you can well imagine the owners’ patience and everyone’s enthusiasm!
Kishore and I have covered some ground since then but still doubt it that we can call ourselves experts on birds. We’re learners in the area and remain interested in furthering our learning at a comfortable but consistent pace. Here’s my advice to those who wonder about birding and feel like figuring birds.
Yard birding: Start noticing birds in parks closest to your house or those visiting your balcony or garden. Watch their behavior, difference in the male and female of the same species and their feeding time or food preferences. To attract birds naturally to my garden, I’ve planted 2 fruit trees and a couple of shrubs to give them some food and the security of flying into the trees when they want. This is when I’ve a modest sized yard. I’ve placed 2 feeding trays, in addition, for different food in both to ensure a variety in visitors. Bajra and Jowar in one attract House Sparrows, Parakeets and Doves. Pieces of bread or roti in the other interest Red-vented Bulbuls, Rufous Treepies and more birds. Insects on the grass or trees pull in Common Tailorbirds, Ashy Prinias or Lesser Whitethroats. Flowering trees bring in Purple Sunbirds and Oriental White-eyes. A water bowl on the side is frequently used by birds and squirrels both.
Most essential gear: Two things that you must own to begin your bird based learning are: i) a pair of binoculars and ii) a bird field guide. This link provides blurbs on commonly used guides for India. I own No. 6 (among a few more) as my prime guide but I’ve found many faithful followers of R. Grimmet’s guide (5) too.
I’ve used a couple of binoculars in these years and found Nikon Monarch 10×48 fairly optimal in weight, magnification and the light they allow inside to view clearly. I wouldn’t mind more magnification in my binoculars but the stability and weight of the pair may not work to my advantage as the size increases. This primer on Kolkatabirds is helpful in understanding how binoculars work and which ones to buy for birding.
Using binoculars: Remember that they take getting used to. Initially, it’d take me long to focus on a spot but someone’s tip to bring the binoculars close to my eyes without moving my head as I’ve spotted a bird, has been helpful to bear in mind.
Use these online resources: Delhibird doesn’t have a complete website at the moment but it offers a valuable resource in the form of bird checklists for different regions of India. Save the relevant ones on your mobile devices to learn about species sighted in your region and those you visit.
Secondly, Oriental Bird Images is a comprehensive database of bird photographs that help zero in on birds you’ve sighted and want to see their clear pictures. This database gets updated regularly. To search for birds, you’d need to know their Common Name and then just view the species photographs.
Thirdly, you’d serve yourself well by reading through the beginners section at Kolkatabirds. The site also has useful trip reports that you must browse at a later date for your birding holidays when you reach that stage.
Know the jargon: There isn’t that much of it: Checklists are species lists; a Sighting record or checklist is what you would write down from a birding walk; a Lifer is a bird that you’ve seen for the first time; Passage Migrants are those birds that are passing by a certain region; ID is a short form of bird identity; Bird Races are events held by birding groups that encourage members to cover a pre-determined region to record the number of species seen during a day or specific hours of that day.
Join an online group: For those birding in the NCR, Delhibird’s yahoo group is a useful place to be. Kolkatabirds mentions other city groups and so do the India field guides.
Join birding walks: I’ve walked with seasoned birders a few times and my learning has taken a leap on those walks. Do that once in a while to figure the regions well. Delhibird members put up a notice on the group for a walk every Sunday and sometimes on Saturdays too.
Maintain a diary with sighting records: It may seem like a fussy activity but believe me, you’d be thrilled to remind yourself of places you’ve visited and how your identification skills have improved over the years. For my residential area, I maintain a single list but mention dates against any uncommon bird sightings.
Invest in a camera and a couple of lenses: I’ve come across many purists who must carry a pair of binoculars and a field guide and nothing else. They prove be great teachers as they aren’t concerned about heavy camera equipment or taking multiple shots on sighting a bird of interest. In my case though, I’m grateful that Kishore took to birding around the same time as I did and decided to make birds a subject of his photography. My learning about birds increased in pace when I started seeing them on the computer screen as I could ask for help with their identification and plough through the Oriental bird image database to match them with photos there.
Delhibird runs another group just for species identification. Your gmail account would get you entry into that. Of late, I’ve found Facebook’s Indian Birds a useful place as a response in that space takes just a few minutes.
Bird ethically: Birders realize the importance of forests, greenery and wetlands more than most people as these places give them much joy through their inhabitants. Other than keeping these places clean, please do be quiet on your walks, and don’t disturb birds unduly in your excitement to photograph them.
Dress up sensibly: Choose forest colours for your clothes to blend in. Wear shoes that aid walking in uneven terrains and keep a cap handy for sunny hours.
Go on birding accented holidays: Birding groups would inform you of other people’s visits to places known for fascinating birds and you’d be inclined to visit those places too. That’s just as well. Our own bird sightings have been tremendous in places known mostly for birds and little else. Google ‘Pangot’ or ‘Sattal’ with the keyword ‘bird’ and you’d know how valuable these little known parts of the country are.
Blog on your sighting experiences: Share what you know by teaching other newbies and by writing about your birding experiences. You’d be helping build user-oriented resources for others to benefit from.
Finally, a bonus. Kishore has shared this link that feels so apt for this post to describe various kinds of birders: http://greenhumour.blogspot.com I’ve met all 11 Types in the course of 14 years, and see myself as Type 5–enthusiastic but mixed up on names 🙂
Note: At the request of a commenter on Twitter, here’s a tip or two on bird friendly trees. Plant small sized, hardy fruit trees. Guava attracts all kinds of birds if squirrels leave any intact! Pomegranate is easy enough to grow and attracts Bulbuls, Sunbirds among more. I’ve also had success with a Peach tree. Its pink flowers look very pretty and the fruit is enjoyed equally by us and the birds…again, if squirrels spare them. A Chinese Orange shrub has been nice to have too. It’s fruit-laden through the year and attracts White-eyes and Sunbirds even more when it’s flowering. Gurgaon’s soil is termite-ridden and I’ve lost a Mulberry tree to termites. Then, I have a Karonda shrub but it fruits too infrequently to host birds. A neighbour has successfully grown a Kadam tree whose sour fruit attracts many species but its large canopy needs a lot of space.