Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Starting off: The Kawal article

One of BSAP’s newest members, Ludwig, messaged me this week: ‘Golden oriole, fem. What is wrong with Begumpet?’ I gave him that old birding truism: ‘Birding gives fresh eyes.’ But it isn’t just that, you know.

What it is is also beginner’s luck. Take a newbie with you on an outing and if they’re even halfway inclined, you’re bound to see all manner of species short of Rhodonessa caryophyllacea, all of course just to make sure they’re well and properly reeled in.

With me, it was the Scarlet Minivet. Tyda, Eastern Ghats, Andhra Pradesh. The first day on the trip left me a little overwhelmed – I knew I hadn’t the best eyesight but people were apparently seeing things with the speed of light. There! There! they went, and all I saw was bouncing branches. Till we stumbled upon a hunting party and saw what seemed like a forestful of birds – nuthatches, orioles, verditer flycatchers, minivets, chestnut bee-eaters.

I’d written this account of a trip to Kawal, interspersed with general remarks on what a beginner can expect from birding. Published in India Today Travel Plus in July 2005. It also belongs here.

Two in the bush

By Sheetal Vyas

It’s early morning, and still dark. A group of soft-footed people walks along forest trails, a sharp ear out for a rustle here, a chirrup there. As the dawn grows lighter, noisy screechy parakeets zip across the path and bulbuls raise a din. Binoculars raised, the birders communicate in near-silence or murmurs, tapping each other on the shoulder to point to a woodpecker or a sunbird. A couple more hours in the strengthening sunlight and the morning’s session is done. Notes are made and compared. A birdlist is made, coffee is drunk, and all’s well with the world.

Fact of life: there’s no such thing as a former birder. Once you’re hooked onto observing or identifying the feathered ones, one way or another it’s an affair that lasts a lifetime. Why, though? What’s the deal with birds? They’re cute and all that, but why should watching them be so addictive?
There are many reasons: nature, knowledge, activity, community… but there is one word that is never far away when you mention birding: joy. The sheer joy of it. The grace of a heron soaring across the horizon, the flutter of geese as they flush, the flash of colour as a jay takes flight… yes, the most enduring reason to bird is the pleasure it gives.

We were ten birders on this trip. Our destination: Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary, Adilabad district, Andhra Pradesh. About 900 sq km of dry deciduous forest, and reportedly one of the best sanctuaries in Andhra Pradesh. I was excited.

Kawal is a charmingly untouched place. In these times, when you find tourists milling around the smallest hill station or jungle lodge, it was refreshing to find a place still off the beaten track, still undiscovered. No resorts, no guided tours; just a government rest house and forests that are… just forests. Our trip was linked to two wildlife organisations, the Birdwatchers' Society of Andhra Pradesh (BSAP) and the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society (Hyticos).

Birding is done best early in the mornings and the evenings, which makes it important to be up early and in the field as the birds stir. Our first foray was to Dongapalle, a Telugu name that translates roughly to ‘village of thieves’. The first sightings were of the more common ones: red-vented bulbuls, small green bee-eaters, rose-ringed parakeets and a white-breasted kingfisher.

Common, did I say? There was a time, a few years ago, when any bird that wasn’t a crow or a pigeon was ‘exotic’ to me. It took one birding trip and a little ‘tuning in’ to realise that red-vented bulbuls dropped by my garden every single day… I just hadn’t seen them before. As do purple sunbirds and common tailorbirds. Shocking, to know they had been right here all this time.

I have progressed a little since then, but there are still aggravations. At Dongapalle, I was engrossed in spotting what may have been a woodshrike, when violent ‘come-quick’ hand signals from the others sped me on. They’d seen a Tickell’s flycatcher, a lovely blue bird with an orange throat. As it always happens, it had quite disappeared by the time I got there. I’ve never ever seen the dratted bird, and it always appears on the consolidated bird lists.

It takes a while for a wet-behind-the-ears birdwatcher to get the hang of birding. First there’s the little matter of spotting a timid little flutter in dense foliage. Peer as you will, you can’t tell if there is really a living creature in there. If you do manage to get a clear look, then comes the noting of its size, form, colour, beak, markings – all on the basis of a single, very fleeting glimpse. Then comes the job of pinning an identity on this bird, which means wading through the 1300-odd species in India… it comes, they tell you encouragingly, with experience.

Our afternoon session was at Kadam reservoir. Kadam River, a tributary of the Godavari, runs along Kawal’s southern boundary. Soothing waters, surrounded by forests and a long walk along the bund itself. Plenty of water birds: open-billed storks, ducks, herons, egrets, cormorants, lapwings. Also, gulls by the dozen, swooping about, and beautiful to watch.

Make no mistake, birding can be frustrating, especially when you’re getting started. There! someone will exclaim, a pied kingfisher! And you swivel madly, adjusting your binoculars as you go, trying to get a fix on the exact location. Minutes later, you come to a bare-looking stump. Look around you and everyone’s finished with the now-missing kingfisher and moved on to the river terns. Speed, I learnt quickly, is of the essence!

As dusk advanced, so did we towards a gond tribal hamlet in Mysempet. We were now in the heart of the forests, glimpsing black bucks and a herd of chinkara as we passed through. The hamlet is accessible only by four-wheel drive and is quite a vantage point over the surrounding forests. The adults stared at us and the children followed us around noisily as we walked in. The houses are all made of timber – it felt odd to see solid timber worth the-lord-knows-how-many lakhs sheltering cows and poultry; but so it is.

We were put up in the local school, the only concrete structure for miles. No electricity, and so a good fire set the mood perfectly. The night was as clear as we could hope for and we lay back and toured a few constellations. After dinner was polished off, we sat around to campfire tales. There was just a light nip in the air and the fire crackled comfortingly. There had been a tentative night outing planned, hoping to see a few owls and nightjars perhaps, but the full-dinner-and-hypnotic-fire combination put paid to that and we wandered off to our respective charpais and sleeping bags.

Waking up was a comedy of sorts. We were four women altogether, and all the alarms we’d set mysteriously refused to go off. At 6.30 – the hour we should have been setting off – there was a banging on the door and what a mad scramble there was! I see no shame in confessing that no baths were taken on that morning – it would have been a greater shame to miss out on the wonderful morning light. The day was still young and we made good time.

As we set off, the ubiquitous Indian roller greeted us good morning. This is a brilliantly coloured bird, splashed in electric blue: it’s attractive enough as it sits, but breathtaking in flight. Also, the state bird of Andhra Pradesh.

We saw plum-headed parakeets also, high up on a perch, their bright heads catching the light beautifully. Then we something that caused much consternation: distinct grey heads amongst the plum. How could this be? After all, the grey-headed and slaty-headed parakeets are never found in this part of the country. A quick consultation with the guide books solved the mystery - the female of the plum-headed parakeet is actually grey-headed, see? The sexes in many species look completely different, adding yet another complication to the already challenging task of identifying a bird.

The technicalities of birding needn’t bog down novices, though. Birds enrich even without your going into species, habits and habitat. You begin to absorb more without knowing how. It’s a learning curve that never quite ends, for no matter how many years you’ve been at it, there will always be some bird you’re seeing for the first time. Birders have been known to cross continents to see a single bird so they can tick off yet another in a long wish-list.

We had just sat down to a snack in a clearing when I saw my first, my very first paradise flycatcher. It’s heartbreaking to miss rare birds that others have sighted, but equally maddening to miss out on one particular fairly common bird at every outing. Oh, I’d seen the female – an exquisite, brown flighty creature, but unless you’ve seen the white male, you just haven’t seen this bird. So, there he was, in all his glory, flitting about the reedy growth, his delicate streamer-tail swooping behind him in utter grace. I got a nice, long leisurely look. Worth the wait? Every minute of it.

We saw about 55 species in the three days we spent in Kawal. That isn’t a bad count, but go to the Eastern or Western Ghats, and we could easily double that number. Bharatpur alone can give a count of over a hundred in a single day. I came away thinking that is remarkable what ‘tuning into’ birds can do to your life. It’s almost like an additional sense and more friends. I’ve developed a tendency to scan the skies, with a casual eye out for a raptor. It’s a comfort to register that there’s a set of babblers in my garden, parakeets on the guava tree or a coppersmith at the very top of the Ashoka, flinging his soul into the air.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The fairest of them all

Discussing which might be the most beautiful bird we have, Salim Ali, in his The Book of Indian Birds, says, ‘…As a family, the pheasants occupy a high place for colour and brilliancy of plumage and adornment possessed by the cocks of most species.’ That should have tipped me off. Certainly the peacock is a brilliantly coloured bird – the turquoise hurts the eyes and the dance mesmerises. The others seemed pretty too. But the field guides hardly ever do justice to vivid colours, and I’ve only seen junglefowl in the wild, so the Galliformes were a bit of a surprise.

A bit unprepared then, this Sunday at the Nehru Zoological Gardens in Hyderabad, I ran to the aviary with the pheasants in them. Painted spurfowl, Khaleej pheasants, red and grey junglefowl, green peafowl, golden pheasants, silver pheasants, Lady Amherst’s pheasants… a series of birds each more spectacular than the last. The brightest, most unashamed of colours; the wildest of combinations that would have come off looking gaudy in the hands of a lesser designer.

Why are they so ornate, pheasants? Is beauty such a priority with nature then?


We had a bit of a dilemma at the Zoo. A twitcher-type dilemma. We were seeing many species for the first time, and even with birds we’d seen, certainly this was a closer look than we could ever have in the wild. These birds didn’t retreat at the sight of us, if anything they came closer emboldened by months of no harm and treats from visitors. Was it okay to tick them on your life list? Or was that unfair? In an older time, naturalists regularly shot birds to have a closer look and I imagine they went right ahead and ticked them off. Yes, it was caged, but I have seen the Greater Flamingo, haven’t I? A close, unobstructed long look at its colours, its beak.

Well, this problem is somewhat hypothetical seeing I don’t have lists of any sort yet. In case, it doesn’t matter.

Friday, April 21, 2006


I got this out of Chicken soup for the soul!

The Seagull

A hole in the cliffs
Is my nest but the sea calls me,
And I cradle my dreams
In the hollows of the waves.
The role of Your ocean
Is with me in the sky,
Where I swing
On one wing, then the other,
And plummet
Like a stone
On the living flash
Of a fish.
Does my poignant cry
Echo the endless travail
That beats on Your shore?
I am the bird
Like salt,
Grey and white,
A bitter tang
That does not fade;
And the ships
Outward bound
Watch me out of sight,
A little handkerchief
Waving goodbye.
In the restlessness of my kingdom,
Let the storm spare me.
--Carmen Bernos de Gasztold
Translated from French by Rumer Godden

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Pelican Chorus

The pelican leitmotif continues with the inimitable Edward Lear:

King and Queen of the Pelicans we;
No other Birds so grand we see!
None but we have feet like fins!
With lovely leathery throats and chins!
Ploffskin, Pluffskin, Pelicans jee!
We think no Birds so happy as we!
Plumpskin, Ploshkin, Pelican jill!
We think so then, and we thought so still!

Lear describes the bird:
...her waddling form so fair,
With a wreath of shrimps in her short white hair.
heh heh. The rest of this delightful poem is here.

Two on a scale of 1-10

Bad joke but I hafta...
Q: What does the birder sing when he first catches sight of a pelican?
A: Peli peli baar baliye, dil gaya haar baliye,
Rabba mainu pyar ho gaya...


Monday, April 17, 2006


A Wonderful bird is the Pelican;
His bill can hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I'm darned if I see how the helican!
--- Dixon Lanier Merritt

More Uppalapadu

More pictures from Uppalapadu...Juvenile painted storks.
A cattle egret doing that cattle thing.

The Pelican Brief

Uppalapadu, near Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.

Pelicans are the bird of the fortnight on this blog, simply because at least four of its contributers went last week to this marvellous place, Uppalapadu, which is one of the biggest breeding centres for the painted stork and the spot-billed pelican.
This picture doesn't do justice but there were what seemed like thousands of these birds. Along one bank were piled heaps and heaps of cut hyacinth and we walked on mounds of rotting weeds, which feels as weird as walking on trampoline.
Quantity birding is quality birding, and there is nothing like seeing a bird over and over again to know it pretty damn well. We now own the spot-billed pelican, hurrah.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Romance-- Shel Silverstein

Said the pelican to the elephant,
I think we should marry, I do.
Cause there's no name that rhymes with me,
And no one else rhymes with you.

Said the elephant to the pelican,
There's sense to what you've said,
For rhyming's as good a reason as any
For any two to wed.

And so the elephant wed the pelican,
And they dined upon lemons and limes,
And now they have a baby pelicant,
And everybody rhymes.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Pelicans! What the Dickens?
Yes sirree! Pelicans
672 Pelicans
Spot-billed Pelicans
Regurgitating Pelicans
The first swooping sight beheld
A picture too amazing to be telled
In numbers so many, so close too me
Thank the lord for the bird on the tree
One decides to take off overhead and high
We lift our lenses to that cloud in the sky
Jaw locked in jaw one fed her young
Down dropped my own and out fell my tongue
On rotting hyacinths we place our behind
‘Twas a sweltering 40, reader be kind
The fever abated, now in leisurely mode
We watched these fellas in their self-made abode
Note: the pelcs like the storks a lot
How chummy they are, much buddiness, wot?
They sat mingled together not put out a jot
A bit surprising for of a feather they are not
We stared long enough to be considered rude
Walked away picking pink feathers in a summery mood.