Bird watching in India

His passion for the Western Ghats and discovering the richness and biodiversity earned Vineeth his nickname: Malabaricus which means "belonging to the Western Ghats". A full time naturalist, he leads enthusiasts through these beautiful forests. Here he shares how to take up birding as a hobby.

Vineeth Malabaricus has been trekking the Western Ghat ranges since 1999. While still perusing his engineering, he joined an adventure company where he led groups to Western Ghats. He landed late night at a research station in Agumbe rain forest for a job. He volunteered first and then he was a tracker of King Cobra in a telemetry project and eventually started handling camps for children in the research station.

With an experience in theatre and a flair for storytelling, taking guided tours into the wilderness came to him naturally. In Nagarhole and Kabini he worked as a naturalist in Nagarhole and Kabini where he honed his skills of tracking Indian mammals, birding, scientific approach of conservation from several naturalists, locals and researchers along with managing Fishing Camp in Galibore. This taught him the art of tackling the Mighty Mahaseer on the Cauvery. An consultant for Karnataka Government’s Ecotrails project for hiking and freelance guide for Western Ghats, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, he is an alumnus of the renowned National Outdoor Leadership school and he holds a Diploma as Expedition Leader from NOLS.

And here, he shares some interesting tips on how to pursue bird-watching as a full-time hobby:

Before you start:

  • If you want to take up birding, start in your backyard. Look at birds in general, it could be even the cooing Rock Pigeons or chirpy bulbuls or a batch of talkative babblers. Look at their preference of spots, watch their association with other birds, record their peak numbers in a particular season and make a story; you and your bird’s first love story!

The Equipment:

  • I would recommend an 8×42 (this dimension has proven ideal for a long time now) roof prism binoculars that give enough field of view, go for decent binoculars with a harness. This investment is worthwhile, and make sure you do not settle for a lower price.
  • A multi-coated lens having some water resistance is good as most birds take you to damp places on foggy mornings. ED or an HD glass would make it even better. One may shop online for brands like Vortex Viper, Vortex Diamondback, Hawke Endurance, Bushnell HD, Nikon roof prism or any similar specs. Make it your personal binocs, trust me you shall thank me for this advice!

In the words of Vineeth –

“Birds are great holiday planners with over 1200 species in the Indian Subcontinent. If you are a globe-trotter there are 10,000 or more for you and if you are obsessed with subspecies that can double the count!”

Getting Started:  

  • Learn the birds and the birders’ jargon, this makes it easier to keep up with birders in the trade who are as quick as the birds themselves.
  • Follow Facebook pages like Delhi_Birds, BNG_birds, Kolkata_birds, Indian Birds, etc. A bird book is my strong recommendation which serves as a good field guide, avoid phone books and eBooks.
  • Download a mobile app to maintain a common global checklist, apps like eBird is popular, refer a checklist from avid base or any credible forum.
  • Ask if you can join a birding group around a particular area. Ideally, join small groups of up to 8.
  • If you are an acoustic learner like I am, get the checklist of birds you are likely to see and listen to bird calls from online libraries like xeno-canto.org

According to Vineeth –

“Understand where you are going. Is the habitat fragile? Is it a lake amidst human induced-landscape? Are you headed to a forest or a desert? Sailing on open water for magnificent birds of pelagic? Once you have an answer, your backpack can be prepared accordingly.”

What to pack:

  • Leave behind those deodorizers, beauty kits, brightly colored wears and an out-of-office email.
  • Have a day-pack for a water bottle, snack box, sunblock depending on habitat, field guide, a simple point-n-shoot camera for the record, checklist and notebook with a pen.
  • In case you are a solitary birder, consult a local guide for any advice. A good guide will be able to assist you in finding specific species in certain spaces of a large habitat, time and habits. I would recommend employing them for the trip, you could learn a lot.

Vineeth says –

“If you fly into pages of Pipits and small warblers, equip yourself with a faster camera or take someone’s assistance, record calls, use a spotting scope that has a big aperture, will help for such detailed field observations. These also come handy in habitats that are open grasslands or salt flats and for birds that spend time at a spot for long time like these little brown jobs (LBJ is another birder jargon for pipits and larks) and birds of prey.”

Watch your footprints:

As you tag along with more birders you get familiar with bird conservation, monitoring, reporting and species programs. To begin your low footprint birding trip:

  • Start a minimalist travel lifestyle: travel light, plan ahead, choose a knowledgeable local guide, if you are lodge person choose a decent lodge with good naturalists working with the lodge who can walk you for birds and more.
  • Choose places that offer canoes, walks and cycling tours over safaris, unless required.
  • Avoid playing bird calls to find a bird to not interfere with their busy well-planned life.
  • Avoid spending too much time watching nesting birds and using flashlights and strong odors around the nesting sites.

Books to start birding with:

  • Field Guide to Birds of Indian Subcontinent by Inskipp and Grimmett
  • Salim Ali’s and Ripley’s says on birds of India to learn the note making skills on field
  • Per Alstroms Pipits and Wagtails of the world
  • Birds of Prey of Indian Subcontinent by Rishad Naoroji
  • Birds of South Asia by Pamela Rasmussen and John Anderton especially vol 2 for advanced info on birds
  • Birds in our Lives by Ashish Kothari for conservation and cultural touch of Indian birding

The bottom-line

Be considerate to the habitat and fellow birders. Birds fly and they fly light, they shall teach you the best.