Free as a bird! It's the season to go birdwatching, and we're all set for some fun in the wild
“Stop, stop… sit, sit.” Those who have visited golf courses and seen the action during competitions, might find this cry familiar. That’s what a player’s caddie and the hangers-on let out when the ball starts rolling after landing on the closely mowed area called the greens.
The farther it gets from the flag, the trickier it becomes for the player, who too sometimes joins in the prayers, albeit in a more hushed tone.
If you’re in Masinagudi, looking for birds in the company of a guide, you’re likely to hear those words, in that same sequence. That’s how the men and their assistants react, when the creature that they’re trying to draw the visitor’s attention to flies off, and approaches another branch or perch nearby.
Like at the golf course, this pleading has little to do with the outcome, and they know it. Yet, it becomes practice, a part of the job.
But, make no mistake. Going aerial, seated or busy with other activities, it’s difficult to miss the winged variety in this corner of Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district.
The nearest landmark, Mudumalai National Park has tigers, leopards and Indian bison among other mammals. The valley embedded in the Western Ghats gets varying rainfall, which along with other factors, leads to the growth of an array of forest features, at well over 4,000 feet above sea level.
The evergreen expanses and drier pockets in and around the tiger reserve house close to 260 kinds of birds including migrants, making it a hotspot for another species, called the birders.
Misty Masinagudi hop
Masinagudi is about two hours on road from Ooty and Mysore, and not far from certain places in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. It draws visitors from all over the country and beyond. Most of them head for Mudumalai or Bandipur National Park, which is a few kilometres away and comes under Karnataka.
Although a majority of the tourists are attracted by the jungle safaris and big cats, there is also a bunch of dedicated birdwatchers. Armed with binoculars, long lenses and in camouflage T-shirts, they can be seen crisscrossing the woods in and outside the reserve, looking for prospective new entries to their notebooks and albums.
The range of accommodation in Masinagudi town and in the forest fringes is not that wide, but fair nonetheless. Weekends are usually crowded from October to March. Guests flocking in and out may find it odd at times, that there are a few who travel as long and spend as much as they do only to see avian life.
This is a specialised hobby, different from the liking for wildlife, which mostly involves the sighting of mammals. Birders are interested only in birds. Not that they dislike other animals or the beauty of the surroundings. Taking in all that, they keep reminding themselves, and others, of their primary objective.
It’s necessary for him or her to possess specialised equipment manufactured to make objects afar look closer. A combination of these things makes them a rare breed, in the lot visiting this place for a getaway, in the serenity of the misty mountain with a clouded top.
This doesn’t mean that guides who specialise in birds sit idle. Kuruvi Siddhan has been in the trade for long enough to impress clients interested in this, with his knowledge of behaviour and habitats. ‘Kuruvi’ is sparrow in Tamil and a nickname he has acquired.
He drives you around outside the National Park in his vehicle, and charges a decent fee for sessions that last about four hours. Also aware of the direction of light and nature of background that visitors carrying cameras may prefer, he is in demand and has to be booked in advance during peak season.
Siddhan says birders keep dropping by irrespective of the calendar, except for the period when it rains. The growing use of digital cameras has boosted this trend and resulted in a rise in the standard of amateur bird photography. There are professionals from various walks of life who invest in
photographic tools, do extensive homework and take time out for some cool shots.
In the lap of nature
For newcomers keen to make the most of this opportunity to bump up their bird count, a guide and vehicle are essential. Masinagudi is home to a large number of varieties, but the area is huge.
Only a person acquainted with the whereabouts and methods of tracking can tell what to look for, where and take you there. Open grasslands, trees of a myriad kind, dead trunks, moist pockets under thick cover, shrubs to rocky beds —birds of different feathers have their own preferences.
Setting about without someone who follows this can turn out to be a directionless pursuit. Experience makes them quick in detecting and following movements. Some of them are experts at identifying calls.
Sensing our angst at the sight of grey francolins running away, Siddhan was quick to assure this is the initial movement before they settle down. They actually did.
Vernal hanging parrot, Indian scimitar babbler, Malabar parakeet, white-rumped shama, white-bellied minivet, Indian nuthatch, blue-capped rock thrush, streak-throated woodpecker are some of the species seen here and not in most parts of the country.
Those impressed with the names will also find the colours and shapes attractive if they spot these birds, although not carrying binoculars or telephoto lenses is sure to lessen the fun of the enterprise.
Birders will be equally keen on the less striking ones, like the Malabar crested lark. Birds of prey are big draws, and chances of a better view in the naked eye of the details and characteristics of the eagles and owls are higher, because of size.
If fortunate, one can also come across the endangered white-rumped vulture and long-billed vulture.
Depending on luck on the sighting front as well as in terms of finding a good guide, it’s possible to see 80-100 species including some common ones in four thorough sessions. Capturing presentable images of as many can take multiple trips.
The best part of this adventure through bushes, barren land, dense forests and landscapes created by a mishmash of these, lies not in the objective the journey starts with. Birders may or may not end up seeing as many birds as they expect.
It’s the prospect of something unexpected popping up, excitement and the delight if it eventually does that keeps them going and brings them back to these places.
There is no dearth of surprises even outside the core jungle. On our bird trail, there were elephants, spotted deer, sambhars, wild boars, wild dogs, giant squirrels, black-naped hare and a porcupine caught in the headlight.
All this, with the additional incentive of missing mobile signal in the lap of nature, where a smoky mountaintop forms a constant backdrop. November to February is the best time to start “Stop, stop...”
Information related to distribution/numbers from eBird India and Birds of the Indian Subcontinent
by Grimmett, Inskipp, Inskipp.
Urban India’s birding wonderland in Kolkata
At this time in 2018, the Rabindra Sarovar area in South Kolkata had become a major destination for birdwatchers. It usually is. Situated around a lake and boasting of a variety of trees, this place attracts many enthusiasts from distant corners of the city and its suburbs.
The buzz was different last year. People from Mumbai and Bengaluru had flown down for the crow-billed drongo. This bird of ordinary looks is found only in pockets of the North East and Southern Himalayas, which makes it one of the rarest species in India.
Those who follow reckon it descended from the hills as a winter migrant. Whatever the reason, it kept birders on their toes for a month or so.
There are more places in and around the city — wetlands of eastern Kolkata, Chintamani Kar Bird Sanctuary in the southern fringes and the Botanical Garden — frequented by enthusiasts.
Of the nearly 1,300 species in India, about 844 are found in West Bengal. Arunachal is second with 728 and Assam third at 689. Struggling for space amid concrete, the green patches of Kolkata are home to
an attractive lot, and thus, a permanent attraction for those interested in them.
Rabindra Sarovar stands out because of the numbers. In the enclosed area for walkers called Safari Park and the adjoining trees and thickets, a presence of over 100 species has been recorded.
This is roughly 7.7% of what is found in the country, and given that the stretch under consideration is around five sq km, it’s a staggering figure.
Images on social media have led to an escalation of footfalls. It’s common to see men and women patrolling the bushes with long lenses, often causing annoyance to the lovebirds hanging out in what also happens to be a hotspot by the lake for them.
Several kinds of flycatchers, Indian pitta, Indian blue robin, black-naped monarch, blue-capped rock thrush are some of the showstoppers. People travel to far-flung places to catch a glimpse of these.
The flipside of seeing them from close quarters in the heart of a city is the rise in reckless birding. Alongside those conscious of the well-being of the creatures, there are some who go that extra yard for a closer look or better shot.
Other than scaring the birds, this damages the habitats, of which there remain less than a few. Celebrating new arrivals, this is a headache that urban India’s birding wonderland wishes it could shoo away.
Popular birding destinations in India
• Dibru Saikhowa, Assam
• Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh
• Eaglenest, Arunachal Pradesh
• Lava and Neora Valley, West Bengal
• Maenam Sanctuary, Sikkim
• Binsar, Uttarakhand
• Keoladeo & Bharatpur, Rajasthan
• Mangalajodi Ecotourism, Odisha
• Chilka Lake Bird Sanctuary, Odisha
• Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat
• Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, Haryana
• Bhigwan, Maharashtra
• Kumarakom & Thattekad, Kerala
• Vedanthangal, Tamil Nadu
• Ranganathittu, Karnataka