I went to attend a Naturalists’ Training Course where the focus was on birdwatching. Great, I thought, birdwatching is much better than trying to spot mammals…especially big cats in the southern part of India. For over 30 years I have gone to south Indian wildlife resorts and I have yet to see a south Indian tiger. Birds would be MUCH easier. They are not to be found only in the distant–and expensive–wildernesses; they are all around us; it doesn’t take much effort to go and watch birds.
Or so I thought, until I went on the first nature trail. Karthik, who was conducting the course, told us to spot the bird, observe its colours, flight patterns and behaviour carefully, and then, instead of having him help out, to look the bird up in the book. Fine, I thought.
Then came the first rude awakening. We were in the early morning light, and there was this bird flying against the face of the rising sun. It was a black blob. This would not have been so bad it had been a black blob to everyone else taking the course, and they had all identified it as the Black Blob-bird. But no….they all yelled, “Coppersmith Barbet!” practically in unison. I looked again at the black blob…and it had already disappeared.
We walked on, and suddenly the whole group stopped, staring intensely into a nearby tree. I looked too. And looked. And looked.Thankfully the bird moved, otherwise I think I would still be there, looking. “What were the colours?” asked Karthik. “There was a crest!” cried one. “The vent was red!” said another. As far as I was concerned, it was the Moving Peepul Leaves Bird.
Things improved slightly over the next trail…I actually saw a bird (well, it was sitting on a dry branch and there was no way I could not have seen it.) I noted all its attributes carefully, and looked at the book…blankly. Where on earth was I to look in the book? Was it a shrike, a shikra, or a swan? (Something told me it might not be the last-mentioned.) Karthik took pity on me and opened the book to the right page. Huh! ALL the birds on the page looked pretty much the same to me! “Warblers do look alike,” said Karthik kindly, and as usual, a kid less than half my age helpfully identified the bird for me.
Another bird. This had an easily identifiable red head, a white body…..but I had no clue what sort of bird it was. I had to have the book opened at the right page again. The only bird on the page that matched the one in the tree was the wire-tailed swallow. I looked at Karthik, who nodded. “But..but…” I said. “That bird doesn’t have that long tail at all.” “It’s fallen off…that happens,” Karthik said. How would I identify a wiretailed swallow without the wiretail? The others reuqired a camera, a pair of binoculars, and a bird-book. I required, in addition, a bird-book opener.
Then came the problem of the names. We saw a tree full of birds, and as usual, I seemed to be the only person who looked, and was, ignorant. All the rest piped up, “Rosy Starlings!” and “Rosy Pastors!” Apparently, both were names for the same birds, and I stopped looking for two different birds.
I spotted a bird with plumage that looked quite, quite different from its illustration in the book. “The feathers are growing out right now”, explained one of my fellow-students. How did he know that? I didn’t. Every bird that was being spotted was being identified by me…about twenty minutes after the others had moved on to the next bird. Why didn’t God populate the Earth with only mynahs, sparrows and crows? Things would have been simpler.
I learnt about eclipse plumage, and this depressed me even more. I also found in my bird book such arcane, esoteric stuff next to the illustrations, as: “non-br”, “br” and “imm”. I am yet to muster up the courage to ask what these are. I am sure they are techniques birds adopt to disguise themselves from me. “imm” , to a bird, probably means, not “immature”, but, “immediately change feather colours so that the lady below can’t identify you”.
When I thought I had spotted another bird, it turned out that it was the female of the last bird, or the male. Little rings with arrows and crosses on them began to dance before my eyes.
A couple of successes spotting the Pied Kingfisher and the Purple Sunbird led me on to further traps. “Look up!” said a youngster, at the birds swooping up and down. “Yes?” said Karthik.”What colours do you see?” Colours? I thought it was the Black Silhouette Bird. “It has a red rump,” said my co-students with great ease. As far as I was concerned, I was BENEATH the bird. How on earth could I see what colour its rump was? Unless it was going to fly upside down for me? Did these others have eyes on stalks that went out above the birds and spotted the colour of its feathers under and below the wings?
Then came the double names. The Drongo Cuckoo. The Magpie Robin. I started dreaming up my own combinations, like the Mynah Hawk, and the Swallow Woodpecker.
To top it all came the information that names of birds keep changing….and quite often, people name a bird the way they choose. But somehow I know that if I call a bird the Unfamiliar Plumagebird or the Lesser-Known Lookslike Atreebranch, those names are not going to be accepted by the birding community.
And the worst of these creatures is that they all seem to be Swifts, Swallows and Splits…that is, they are Swift to disappear, the sky or the greenery seems to Swallow them up, and they are gone in a Split second. I am just left standing there, with the open book in my hand and the usual huge question mark hovering over my head.
I now call myself the Utterly Green Bird-Spotter. I may soon give up birdwatching and go back to spotting trees, which at least don’t suddenly flit off, and are there when you come back the next day with a friend. It might even be better to get back to south Indian tigers, which are at least never there for me to see. That’s much less frustrating than these birds, which, “at a clap of our hands” (and in fact, even when I am standing stock-still trying to identify it) suddenly “lift into the air and vanish in their own natural world” where I, for one, cannot see them.
That’s it. I am going to give up birdwatching. These creatures are too smart for me. But meanwhile…ooh, that lovely purple plumage! Is that the Purple Moorhen? Ah…well, then, maybe just ONE more attempt at spotting the next bird….! (1160 words, all of them copyright)