How to bird watch Part 3

In which the author talks about how to see.

Ayurveda divides us into three phenotypes: vata, pitta and kapha. Vatas have acute hearing and enjoy the sense of touch— if my memory serves right. Pittas have acute vision and enjoy the sense of smell.  Kaphas have acute taste and enjoy the sense of touch. 

As a classic vata, I have acute hearing, as a result of which I’m very sensitive to the sound of birds. As I write this, I hear three birds: a wagtail, a bulbul, and a parakeet. This can become a curse when I hear the sound of a bird that I cannot identify. I obsess about it and go to an app called “Bird Calls,” that is loaded on my phone to try to figure it out.

Some visually sensitive birdwatchers can identify birds as they fly past; as they sit in a distant tree; from a mere one-second sighting. I am not like that. I work hard at identifying birds. I have to focus on them for a while before I can see all the markings and figure it out. I make frequent mistakes, even with birds that I know. Is it a grey heron or a pond heron? Is it a painted stork or not? The bird flies away.  I am not sure. 

It has to do with a way of seeing that is cultivable but not necessarily common.  If you have it; that’s a gift.  Some people can see owls just by walking past.  My nephew, Arvind, saw two owls in Badami temple at dusk.  I have never seen an owl by myself—unless it was pointed out to me.  I use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website ( to build seeing skills.  Because they ask good questions that teach you what to look for.  The trick to quick identification is observing size and shape, colour patterns, behavior and habitat according to this website.  They even have a Merlin bird ID app but I find that it is heavily North America focused and therefore not useful to me.  Peterson has an app called Backyard Birds.  I like Audobon Birds because of its ebird function.  It is terrific.  You type in your location and see sightings nearby.  There is also an app called Indian Birds which simply lists all the types of birds in India.  It is a good basic app.  But nothing beats the ability to see, spot and recognize birds.

I have still not cultivated this way of seeing yet.  Mostly I stare at a tree where the bird-calls emanate from and wait for movement.  I cannot drive by birds on telephone poles and quickly identify them. Where I score is with the sound.  Once I hear and identify a bird by it call, I never forget it. Even now, I can wake up and listen to the trill of a Kingfisher calling at a distance and know that it is in my neighborhood. I know the rosy starlings who have migrated from Tajikistan by their excited cheep-cheeps; the bulbul, by its sweet piercing whistle that echoes around my building; and the wagtail by its loud call, unusual for a bird so small. 

My bird watching happens through the day. Usually, when I’m bored or have nothing to do, I pick up my binoculars and look out. Usually I see something. There was the time when it was raining. I trained my binoculars on a Ficus tree, and found a golden oriole perched on the top. It did the most amazing thing. It circled and went upside down on the branch, almost as if it wanted the rain to wet its underside. It had been a terribly hot day. As I stood in doors and watched the oriole enjoy the water drops, I felt like doing the same.  In another branch, a black drongo (Dicurus macrocercus) sat perfectly sit, enduring the rain that was pouring on its black head.

In the beginning, with blind ambition, I decided that I would memorize the Latin names for all the bird species that I saw. I have given up that endeavor now. It is complicated enough to keep track of the markings and learn the common names. This then is the other learning that will occur: spotting minor differences between birds that belong to the same species: white cheeked barbet, gray-headed barbet, coppersmith barbet, blue-throated barbet, you get the picture.  They all belong to the Megalaima species. 

The bird that is easiest to observe are the raptors—kites, eagles, hawks. They sit still for long periods of time on a high branch or electric pole and watch their surroundings. Suddenly, they lift off to catch a wind current that takes them high in the sky. They circle around for a long time–up to 20 minutes–before coming down for a break. The only time I have seen a kite attacked by a smaller bird was when I took a walk near Ulsoor Lake. I can recognize the keening sound that the kite makes, but for the first time I heard it shriek–and unceasingly. I stopped in my tracks and looked up. There was a crow attacking a kite’s nest. The kite would try to nip the crow, which would fly away to the nearest branch, and then return. The kite would shriek, peck the crow, which would fly away and then back. This scenario continued for 15 minutes. Neither bird gave up; but I did. I was standing on a busy street and on my way to buy some milk. None of the people passing by noticed anything. I wouldn’t have either, had I not been a bird watcher. Once you peer into the kaleidoscope of nature, she opens your eyes to the magic all around.

I use several websites to figure out what I’m seeing. India Nature Watch is great for just identifying birds. Birds of India, Internet Bird Collection (IBC), and Oriental Bird Images are good for learning about the various genus and species.  Facebook has Birding Friends, where wonderful images come up on my feed. Although I am not a nature photographer, I follow several friends who are bird photographers. Their close-up images of birds help me with future identification. It doesn’t come easy but I struggle at it anyways. Slowly and surely, like a tortoise, I’m climbing up the hill of taxonomy and nature watching.

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