Malabar Trogon

Bird Watching

Malabar Trogon
Malabar Trogon

Last Sunday I was honored with S.A. Hussain Memorial Environment Award at the S. A. Hussain Memorial Day Celebration & Coastal Karnataka Birders’ Convention – 2012. You can check details reported in the following newspapers – DNA, Deccan Herald, Daijiworld, Mangalore Today. It gave me a great opportunity to meet and interact with fellow bird watchers and nature enthusiasts. After the function we went to a nearby reserve forest for a good and fruitful session of birdwatching. The photographs here are all taken during that birdwatching session. Here is an introductory article to birdwatching for beginners. I have also dealt briefly on the binoculars, reference books, ethics and the care needed in Bird watching.

S.A. Hussain Memorial Environment Award Coverage on Deccan Herald
S.A. Hussain Memorial Environment Award Coverage on Deccan Herald

Bird watching is a combination of an enjoyable outdoor exercise and intellectual activity. It gives a person fresh air, challenging game of identifying colorful world of beautiful birds and expanding awareness about the wonders of natural world. It is exciting because birds are so mobile. In a forest, you will never know when and what bird you are going to see. By watching and knowing birds in the wilderness and treading to the wild places brings you much closer to the wilderness. The observation skills that are imminent to be a successful bird watcher helps us in all walks of life. As a doctor I need an acute skill of observation and hearing. what better way to improve that skill than bird watching. If you keep your interest in bird watching, you may find yourselves with an excuse to explore the wild, which is clearly more beautiful than our concrete jungles. With over 1300 species of birds found in the India there is never a lack of variety in Birding.

Bird Watchers
Bird Watchers

Birds are where you find them! They occur in all habitats, from rainforest to open forest, wetlands to deserts, mountain ranges to plains, polar regions, and of course in urban and rural surroundings. Considering then that most human populations now reside in cities, a great percentage of new birders need not have to travel far to learn birds. Representatives of each bird group, whether they may consume nectar, fruit, or insects, as well as wetland species , even some of the raptors, are likely to be found in and about local gardens, parks, lakes and ponds, as well as in your backyards. Most towns and cities may still have few sparrows, crows, mynas and pigeon left!

Malabar Trogon
Malabar Trogon

Bird watching does not require a lot of equipment, all you will need then to learn birds are a set of binoculars, a reference field guide, note book, pencil, patience, an inherent interest, spare time, and an inquiring mind!

Take note of the following details in your Note Book –

  • The Birds’ size
  • The Birds’ shape
  • Shape and size of Bill
  • What it is feeding on
  • Where it is feeding (in trees or on ground etc)
  • Its’ habits – how it feeds, moves, behaves etc
  • Its’ colours
  • Number of birds sighted in that visit
Bird Watchers
Bird Watchers

Watching a bird until you observe it making its’ call is a good way to establish a link in your mind of the call, and when you hear it again, the bird that makes it. Most birds have a variety of calls that you will learn over time, but there are standards that you should quickly get to know. Remember, there are mimics in the bird world; eg – the Drongo, mimics well the many other birds, though always with the accent of a Drongo! With practice over time, you will learn to recognize these differences.

Writing down all the above information will serve to fix this in your mind, making it easier for you to remember, until eventually you will not have to record all these basic details, unless of course you observe a new species. Over time, as you gain more experience, you will be concerned only with recording species and numbers of these you may see, though be sure to record any unusual behavior you may observe. Join a local birding club or group if one exists in your region. Subscribe to birding publications, many birding groups now on internet where members exchange information and experiences while birding. Join places like Migrant Watch and enter your observation which will help scientific community.

Malabar Trogon
Malabar Trogon

Birding Binoculars vary greatly in type, price range, and suitability for individual users’ vision. Your final choice will depend on their suitability for you and the monetary outlay you may wish to make. Birders demand a level of detail that virtually no other hobby or situation requires and need optics that cover a wide range of situations. Because of that, there are some very important things to determine before buying binoculars. It is usually best to determine what you want the binoculars to accomplish before going shopping since they can vary greatly in size, weight, and function. A few things to consider:

  • Intended Use: If you plan to do much hiking, a smaller, lighter pair is more appropriate. On the other hand, if you plan to keep them at home to view nearby wildlife, you can use larger, heavier optics that can be attached to a tripod.
  • Geographic Concerns: Where you plan to do most of your viewing can be important. For example, do you need to pay more for water-, fog-, and impact-proof binoculars?
  • Time of Day: For low light viewing around dusk and dawn or in a forest with a thick canopy, larger objectives result in a brighter, clearer image.

Binoculars come in two basic shapes or styles: Roof-prism and porro-prism. Roof-prism binoculars are typically smaller and have a straight-barrel light path. Porro-prisms are the style most people see when they think of binoculars. There are very few differences between them when comparing image quality, but roof-prism designs are generally smaller and often more expensive due to a more complicated manufacturing process.

Bird Watchers
Bird Watchers

Binoculars in the market are numbered as ‘Magnification’ x ‘Objective Lens Size’. Commonly used Binoculars for birding are 8 x 40 or 8 x 42. Both these components are very important determinants in finding the best binocular you need. Magnification is tempting to buy the highest magnification possible, but that’s not always the best idea. High magnification can be less desirable because it tends to make hand tremors more noticeable (unless you use a tripod), results in a smaller Field of view, and amplifies heat waves from the earth such as heat being reflected (seen as wavy lines). Higher magnification may also result in images that are not as clear and bright. Lastly, higher magnification makes it more difficult to initially find objects and to track moving objects. For birding, 7x or 8x is typically recommended.

Objective Lens Size is the size of the front lens and is important because it affects the amount of light allowed into the binoculars. In most cases, the larger the front objective, the clearer and brighter distant images will appear, but also the heavier the optics. If you can foresee using your binoculars at dawn, dusk or any other time when there is little light, you will want to get a larger objective size. To give you an idea of how much impact this number can have, 35mm objectives will let in about three times more light than 20mm objectives based on pi(r)². More light usually results in a brighter, clearer image when all other factors (such as coatings) are equal. This is why most birders don’t recommend buying compact binoculars and instead suggest something like 35mm or 42mm objectives.

Malabar Trogon
Malabar Trogon

Other things to consider
The quality of glass used in prisms and how finely it is ground can affect the sharpness of images. The two more common types are BK7 and BAK4. Generally, BAK4 is more expensive, but considered better than BK7 for several reasons. One such reason is that BAK4 gives a nice round exit pupil while BK7 can produce distortion around the edge of the exit pupil. Coatings help reduce glare and improve contrast, among other things. If you hold the large front objectives towards you and notice a funny color on the lenses, those are the coatings. While there are several different levels of coatings the best optics carry the term fully multi-coated.

Exit pupil is the size of the image at the focusing point of the binocular. If you divide the objective size by the magnification you get the Exit Pupil. The exit pupil of an 8×40 binocular is 5mm (40/8). 3 to 7 mm is acceptable exit pupil range for birding. Eye relief is the distance from the rear eyepiece lens to where the image is formed. Eyeglass wearers should look for binoculars with at least 15mm of eye-relief and have eye-cups that can be folded down. Good birding binoculars should have a close focus of 10 feet or less otherwise you may find yourself walking backwards to try and see something close by. How close a binocular focuses depends on how binocular is made rather than on its optical power. If you live in a coastal area plan to buy a water proof, nitrogen purged binocular to avoid fungus problem.

Zoom binoculars appear to be a great concept, but most birders should stick to fixed-power binoculars because zooms do have some drawbacks and limitations. Zooms can result in darker, fuzzy and distorted images and a smaller than normal field of view. Weight can be a big concern depending on how you will be using your binoculars. If a tripod will be used, then the sky is the limit. Look for optics in the range of 500 gram to 900 gram. Prices for binoculars range from less than INR 1,000 of an inexpensive compact pair to more than One Lakh Rupees for a top-of-the-line pair. Old cliche about getting all that you pay for is very true of binoculars. We have Swarovski, Leica, Steiner and Zeiss all starting upwards of INR 40,000. In the medium range we have Nikon, Bushnell, Pentax which are the best value for money. Then there are cheaper alternatives like Olympus, Swift, Eagle Optics – often in the less than INR 4,000. Do not waste your money on Opera glasses, cheap Russian binoculars, brightly colored cheap objective lens binoculars, high magnification compacts like 10x21mm binoculars. is a great site for those hunting for their Binoculars. Especially I like their score card ( which helps you to choose as well as compare binoculars side by side. Always try before you buy.

Bird Watchers
Bird Watchers

Reference Books
There is an abundant variety of birdwatching reference books available. As with Binoculars, birders have their own individual preferences in these. It is always best to have more than one reference, as no one publication has all the information you may require, and images of birds portrayed in these do vary from one to the other, enabling a “cross reference” of a species’ features you may be in the process of identifying.

Here are birding reference Books I use in the field and at home –

  • Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Helm Field Guides – Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, 2nd Edition 2012, illustrated, 528 pages
  • Field Guide to the Birds of India : Sri Lanka Pakistan Nepal Bhutan Bangladesh and the Maldives Krys Kazmierczak, Om Book Service, 2012, 352 p, illus,
  • A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India: And the Indian Subcontinent, Including Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives Bikram Grewal, Bill Harvey, & Otto Pfister 2003, 520 pp.1,050 color illus. 1,050 maps
  • The Book of Indian Birds 13th ed. – Salim Ali and J. C. Daniel BNHS 2002, hardcover 326 pages, colour plates depicting 538 species.
  • Feathered Jewels of Coorg – Narasimhan, S.V. 2008, Coorg Wildlife Society, 300 pages, colour plates depicting 310 species.
  • Birds Of Southern Coastal Karnataka – Dr. K. Prabhakar Achar, Shivashankar, Bhuvanendra Nature Club. 56 colour photographs 224 bird species.
  • Birds of India and the Indian Subcontinent – Jan Willem den Besten Mosaic Books, 2008, softcover 192 pages, Colour photographs throughout
  • Birds of India: A Literary Companion – A J Urfi (Ed) OUP, 2008, hardcover
  • Birds of Prey of the Indian Subcontinent – Rishad Naoroji Om Books/Helm 2006 hardcover 692 pages Colour plates & photographs
  • Birds of South India – Richard Grimett, Tim Inskipp & Richard Allen Helm, 2005, softcover 240 pages, Colour plates throughout
  • Birds of Western Ghats, Kokan and Malabar – Satish Pande, S Tambe, C Francis M & N Sant OUP/BNHS, hardcover 370 pages 1700 photographs
  • Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan: Vol 1-10 – Salim Ali & S. Dillon Ripley OUP India hardcover 3121 pages, illustrated.
  • Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent – R. Grimmett, C. Inskipp & T. Inskipp OUP New Delhi, 1999, softcover 384 p., Colour plates and maps
  • Birds Of The Indian Subcontinent: A Filed Guide by Manakadan, Ranjit, J. C. Daniel, Nikhil Bhopale
Malabar Trogon With Asian Fairy-Bluebird
Malabar Trogon With Asian Fairy-Bluebird

How and When to Bird
Generally, the best times to bird watch are early morning and late afternoon – Sunrise to around 8-9 am, and around 3 pm to just before Dusk. In the morning as birds are re-establishing their territories, combined with their feeding activity after the night roost should provide you with, depending on habitat variety, a sizable list of species. The late afternoon to a lesser degree is again time for feeding, watering and bathing before the night roost, (in Summer especially after the midday heat). In Summer your afternoon birding forays too may need to be delayed to 4pm or 4.30pm to escape the heat in warmer months, while in cooler months, bird activity is more evenly distributed through out the day. This is a guide only, as habitat type, form, and weather conditions all play a part in daily bird distribution and activity.

A tall canopy with a well established understory can provide good birding even in the warmest part of the day as birds work on the cooler forest floor and lower vegetation. A shaded clearing with a good forest edge again can provide productive midday birding, especially, as a variation, with a cool running waterway or a waterhole; sit down with your binoculars, notebook, pen and a cool bottle of water and let the birds come to you!

Don’t be discouraged by an initial absence of bird life. Birds at times move through the forest canopy and middle storey in feeding flocks of mixed species, their larger numbers together stirring up insects. In windy conditions, seek a sheltered position, for example behind a sheltering stand of trees, in a gully or behind a ridge. Again, don’t be discouraged by wet weather; some of best birding in showery conditions mainly in between showers, especially in breaks of sunshine when birds forage actively for waterlogged insects forced closer to the ground.

When first arriving at a birding Site, stop, look, and listen before proceeding further. A view point from a ridge or other high point overlooking the site, (if present), will aid you in this. Look for signs of feeding activity, flowering or fruiting trees. Listen for calls. The above procedure will at most times provide you with a good initial representative list of bird species present at this site before proceeding further. Whenever you move from a point to point make sure you do not make noise as birds hearing is very very acute. Move slowly in a slightly crouched position than a straight humanly gait.

Bird Watchers
Bird Watchers

Bird Watching Ethics
Here are few ethical practice guidelines for bird watchers and nature photographers adopted from North American Nature Photography Association. Following these ethical practices promotes the well being of the location, subject and photographer. Every place, plant, and animal, whether above or below water, is unique, and cumulative impacts occur over time. Therefore, one must always exercise good individual judgment. These principles will encourage all who participate in the enjoyment of nature to do so in a way that best promotes good stewardship of the resource.

Environmental: Knowledge Of Subject And Place

  • Learn patterns of animal behavior
  • So as not to interfere with animal life cycles.
  • Do not distress wildlife or their habitat.
  • Respect the routine needs of animals.
  • Use appropriate lenses to photograph wild animals.
  • If an animal shows stress, move back and use a longer lens.
  • Acquaint yourself with the fragility of the ecosystem.
  • Stay on trails that are intended to lessen impact.

Social: Knowledge Of Rules And Laws

  • When appropriate, inform managers or other authorities of your presence and purpose.
  • Help minimize cumulative impacts and maintain safety.
  • Learn the rules and laws of the location.
  • If minimum distances exist for approaching wildlife, follow them.
  • In the absence of management authority, use good judgment.
  • Treat the wildlife, plants and places as if you are their guest.
  • Prepare yourself and your equipment for unexpected events.
  • Avoid exposing yourself and others danger and preventable mishaps.

Individual: Expertise And Responsibilities

  • Treat others courteously.
  • Ask before joining others already shooting in an area.
  • Tactfully inform others if you observe them in engaging in inappropriate or harmful behavior.
  • Many people unknowingly endanger themselves and animals.
  • Report inappropriate behavior to proper authorities.
  • Don’t argue with those who don’t care; report them.
  • Be a good role model, both as a photographer and a citizen.
  • Educate others by your actions; enhance their understanding.

Your Health & Safety While Birdwatching

  • Never Bird watch alone
  • Always advise others as to where you are going, and when you may be expected to return
  • No matter how close or distant your destination may be, or how long you may expect to be away, always take food and water with you
  • Wear appropriate clothing, ie – long sleeved shirt and trousers, hat and appropriate footwear
  • Good birders know to wear clothing that will blend in to the habitat they will be exploring and they choose camouflaged colors or subdued shades of brown, green and gray. Avoid bright striking colors, especially white and primary colors
  • Always carry a First Aid Kit with you
  • Always have with you a communication device, (remember that many places do not have mobile coverage)
  • If birding in unfamiliar or new territory, always have with you a map and directional device

Have Great Birding!

10 thoughts on “Bird Watching”

  1. Sir,
    I really loved the article here. But, I have one genuine question regarding bird names being used in various books you have mentioned. So, here it goes.

    I have two bird books, one by Salim ali and other by Krys Kazmierzack. I use two as Salim ali is by no means a proper field guide. But, the thing that has always confused me is the disparity in Names. The Ringed Dove in Salim Ali is called as Eurasian Collared Dove in Kryss’ book. Jungle Crow becomes a Large Billed crow. Red Munia is called as Red Avadavat,etc. For someone like me, all this is too confusing. I started with Salim Ali and looks like i need to re-learn most of the names. Is there is any field guide that takes the mid path? and may be this is a stupid question 🙂 Why do the names keep changing?

  2. Hi Sir,

    A very well organised and informative blog, I really enjoyed reading. Very nice photographs and information. Though I’m a nature photographer, there is always more informed and knowledgeable people from whom I learn a lot. This blog also helped me in reiterating some of the core ethics I believe in. Thank you for sharing the valuable information.

    With best regards,

  3. Very informative article sir. I came across this while searching for suitable Binoculars. As a amateur birder which budgeted binocs would you suggest.?

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