Editor’s Note: Assistant News Editor Aarthi Ramnath has a hobby that fills her with joy—watching and photographing birds. She’s put together a fantastic guide to help anyone who wants to reconnect with nature—in a calm and mindful manner.
So you wanna be a birdwatcher…
Written by: Aarthi Ramnath
I became a birdwatcher ten years ago—on a day spent in Gujarat’s Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary. It was the first time I’d seen thousands of birds flocking together in a single place—majestic flamingos, Siberian cranes, great white pelicans. It was an embarrassment of feathered riches. Birdwatching soon became a family pastime—a calming and mindful activity that brought us together.
First, a quick history lesson
Birdwatching has a dark origin story—dating back to the 19th century practice of killing birds for scientific research:
Through the 1700s, easier travel and better firearms encouraged the collecting of wildlife. By the start of the 1800s, the making of collections—of bird skins and birds’ eggs—had become increasingly popular. This was how ornithology was done at the time: Having a specimen to examine, measure, keep and refer back to whenever necessary was the essence of scientific bird study… Birds were shot (with dust shot for small birds), skinned and prepared as a “study skin” (rather than a lifelike mounted specimen) that would fit tidily inside a cabinet drawer.
In June 1898, English ornithologist and ardent Darwinian Edmund Selous experienced a revelatory moment while watching a pair of European nightjars camouflaged on the ground. That night, he wrote in his diary:
[N]ow that I have watched birds closely, the killing of them seems to me as something monstrous and horrible… Let anyone who has an eye and a brain (but especially the latter), lay down the gun and take up the glasses [opera glasses, or proto-binoculars] for a week, a day, even for an hour, if he is lucky, and he will never wish to change back again.
His method of research—based on meticulous observation rather than collecting specimens—shaped the science of ornithology. And he helped make birdwatching a popular pastime for hobbyists and not just scientists—as it remains to this day. (If you want more history, be sure to check out this wonderful Smithsonian essay.)
The Indian pioneers: Two men are considered the fathers of ornithology in India—AO Hume and Dr Salim Ali. Hume was a member of the Imperial Civil Service—and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. He spent 20 years in India and maintained journals of observation. FYI:
Hume’s collection from India of over 63,000 skinned bird specimens, 18,500 eggs, 500 nests, 200 papers, 14 books and a journal of around 5,500 pages, 400 mammals, remains the single largest donation made to the British Natural History Museum from anywhere in the world.
As for Dr Salim Ali, he was the most influential ornithologist in independent India. Lovingly called the ‘Birdman of India’, he helped formalise ornithology as a discipline in India—and authored the definitive ‘Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan’.
Nice, but how do I get into bird watching in India?
The good news is that India is home to over 1000 species of birds, including migratory birds that travel every year from Europe to South Asia to bask in our warmer winter sun. In the latest Great Backyard Bird Count—which is conducted every year in February—India uploaded the second-highest number of checklists and observed a whopping 1,075 bird species. Here’s what you need to get started:
The right gear: You will need a good pair of binoculars and a decent camera. I use a Nikon D5200 with a Nikon 200-500mm zoom lens. If owning a DSLR is daunting, you can invest in any digital camera with a good zoom feature. You need to be quick with capturing images so burst mode is always your best friend. To avoid shaky images, I also recommend carrying a tripod.
As for binoculars, most birders prefer a magnification between 7x and 10x—with a lens between 40mm and 50mm. Binocs with 8x40mm are a good option for beginners. One note of caution: higher magnification will give you a shaky viewing experience and you might also have trouble focusing on birds closer to you. Some good brands are Nikon, Canon, Celestron, and Olympus. If you need more guidance, Audubon has an excellent guide for birding with binoculars.
The best times: to do birdwatching for land birds is during sunrise and sunsets. For water birds, late mornings and late afternoons to sunset are the best times. Conversely, birds of prey can be spotted around afternoons, circling the sky or sometimes in action, if you should get so lucky.
On the trail: You should carry a bird identification guide. These can be found online over at Bird Count India and Indian Birdwatching for Indian birds and All About Birds for North American birds. If you’re visiting a sanctuary, then the reception desk will have a list of local birds. You could also use the Merlin app—created by Cornell University to identify birds. Just upload an image of the bird to the app and feed in a few specifications like size, colours, and region. The app will then identify a list of birds that match the specs. You can record your sightings in a book or the eBird app—which lets you record each bird and compiles the sightings for you.
Books for Indian birders: Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’ has detailed illustrations and information on birds in the subcontinent. The same authors have a book that focuses specifically on North Indian birds. And don’t forget the sacred text for Indian birders—‘Book of Indian Birds’ by Dr Salim Ali.
Good to know: Invest in comfortable neutral coloured clothes, and a good pair of walking shoes. Of course, sunscreen is a must (see our splainer fam’s guide here). Be sure to give just as much attention to common species—red-vented bulbuls, white-throated kingfishers, painted storks etc—when you’re getting started.
Great, so how do I actually go bird watching?
I recommend finding a group to help you get started—and learn the ropes. But you will soon be heading out the door by yourself:)
In your city: The good news is that you don’t have to travel to watch birds in India. Birdwatching is the perfect weekend activity for city slickers:
- Some hotspots in Delhi are Okhla Bird Sanctuary, Yamuna Biodiversity Park, Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.
- In Mumbai, Bhandup Pumping Station (map) is a wetland and mangrove area where thousands of Flamingos visit every year. There is a nominal fee for entry.
- Chennai birders go to freshwater wetlands such as Pallikarnai (map) and Sholinganallur lake (map).
- Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary—located 90 km from Chennai—is a nesting spot for migratory birds and great for a day trip.
- There are plenty of birding communities online—that also conduct guided tours in and around cities. Some of the notable ones are Bombay Natural History Society and Delhibird.
- In Bangalore, BngBirds conduct birdwatching walks every Sunday.
Here’s a list of some of the best national parks and bird sanctuaries for birding:
- The Sunderbans: There are about 248 bird species found in Sunderban National Park including a large number of migratory birds. Best time to go is between December to February.
- Jim Corbett National Park: Tiger spotting and bird-watching go hand in hand. The safari team takes you to Pangot Bird Sanctuary and Kilbury Bird Sanctuary, with 250 bird species. Don’t miss out on the woodpecker trails. Best time to visit is between November to March.
- Kaziranga National Park: The park is home to about 500 species of birds, apart from the one-horned rhinos and elephants. The best time to explore is from mid November to the end of April.
- Ranthambore National Park: Apart from being home to the royal bengal tigers, this national park also boasts 320 species of birds owing to the fauna and three big lakes. The best time to visit is between October to March.
- Little Runn of Kutch: This is one of the largest breeding grounds for Lesser Flamingos. You will also get to see birds of prey here such as harriers, eagles, falcons, vultures, buzzards, etc. The best time to go here is from November to February.
- Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary: A wide variety of migratory birds flock to this sanctuary. Best time to plan your trip is also during the winter months.
- Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary: Pulicat lake is a backwaters region located between Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It is a beautiful birding spot with around 100 species of birds including painted storks, flamingos, seagulls and terns. Best time to visit is between October to March.
Booking your stays: Indian Bird Watching lists some amazing birding tour packages that you should definitely check out. If you’re going to a resort, check if it has guides specifically for birding. We prefer to stay in private safari camps near the forest area or at the Forest Department lodgings inside the protected forests. This is where you find the least family crowd and the best tour guides.
Still want more? I recommend checking out this 4-part radio autobiography by Dr Salim Ali which he recorded for Prasar Bharati. There are many documentaries on birds on BBC but David Attenborough’s ‘Birds of Paradise’—which is a segment in episode 3 of ‘Our Planet’—hits different. If you are in the mood for something fictional, here is a comedy movie recommendation called ‘The Big Year’ starring (you will never guess) Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin. For more hardcore birding experience, Wildlife Institute of India has Masters programmes and short courses on birding.
A sneak peek of delights to come: I live in Jodhpur—which is a hotspot for migratory birds in the winter months and up to late spring. Here are some of the recent photos from lakes around Jodhpur and Tal Chappar Blackbuck Sanctuary. It gives you a taste of the joys of being a birdwatcher. (The lead image is my photo of a Bay-backed Shrike, taken at Tal Chappar.)
These are the Indian Spotted Owlets.
Here are a couple of green bee-eaters—which are very common and easy to spot–but no less pretty.
I really like this picture of the Black-winged kite. Look at its gorgeous eyes!
This is a steppe eagle. We were lucky enough to see it this close:
This is called a purple sunbird and it can be commonly seen drinking nectar. It is even smaller than your house sparrows: