Even in the predawn light with Venus shining low in the East, we knew it was going to be another hot day. I was still getting used to the sights, sounds, and smells of India as we waited near the front of the line at the massive sandstone wall and wooden doors. A chorus of uniformed schoolgirls passed by as a poor man hawked water bottles. A stray riderless horse galloped by. We just looked at each other and shrugged. This was a different world.
Three companions and I were at the gate of the Taj Mahal in Agra, patiently waiting for the doors to swing open and begin the race to the monument. It has been described as “a teardrop on the cheek of humanity” and “the embodiment of all things pure” and was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 in memory of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth. Our task was to see and photograph this beauty at dawn, unencumbered by the horde of tourists that would flood the site later.
Somehow a young Indian boy latched onto us as the doors parted and led our charge to all the prime photography spots. He pointed out exactly where to stand for each shot and urged us onward to beat the rush of the other photographers. I was breathing hard and sweating, but stunned by the beauty of it all. There was no time to stop, that is until someone yelled, “White-throated Kingfisher in the reflecting pool.” The boy couldn’t believe we were taking precious moments to stop and photograph a bird. He didn’t realize that this is what birders do.
Why India? This question has been asked by many of my friends, some of whom are world travelers but have never been drawn to the “Jewel in the Crown”. It all started with three couples sitting around a table in Naples, Florida eight months ago. One wanted to return to her homeland after an absence of 47 years, and her husband, my friend and colleague for many years, supported her wish. Her brother and his wife, also of Indian heritage, live in the U.S. but have a home in India. They were our invaluable planners and gracious hosts for the adventure. My wife and I, with no Indian roots, were just along for the ride.
Four of our six are photographers and birders, anxious to see some of the 1300 bird species found in India. Most of these would be life birds for us. But we had non-birders on board and all of us wanted to learn about the history, culture, geography, people, and cuisine of this fascinating land. With that in mind we decided to join a 12-day tour of the major sites of North India, followed by a 5-day respite at the home of our hosts in Central India, and finish with 5 days of hard-core birding in the foothills of the Himalayas and northern jungle. The non-birder’s only stipulations were, “no tents or outhouses”. It was agreed to.
I learned from Phoebe Snetsinger’s book, “Birding on Borrowed Time”, the value of doing your homework before birding a new land. E-bird made that easy allowing me to download a list of all the birds seen in October at our numerous destinations. These 350 birds became my study list and target birds for the trip. I used the Princeton Field Guide, “Birds of India” by Grimmett et-al as my state-side reference. This book is also available as a smartphone AP called, “Indian Birds”. This was invaluable in the field and allowed me to leave the heavy book at home. The program has a good listing feature which sorts your bird sightings by date and location.
Birders and photographers always wrestle with what to bring on an overseas trip. This was especially an issue in India where our internal flights had a 35# weight restriction on checked bags. My camera bag included one body, the Canon 7DII, and two lenses, the Canon 100-400mm 1.4-5.6L IS II and the Canon wide angle EFS 10-22mm for scenery shots. The I-phone 6 camera proved more than adequate for scenery and portraits when I didn’t have the time or energy to change lenses. I avoided a mistake of a prior trip abroad when I packed only the Canon 70-300mm 1.4-5.6L IS lens; a sharp lens but clearly a compromise for both scenery and birds. It just does not have the reach for bird photography. I left the scope and tripod home and didn’t miss them. Extra batteries and memory cards filled out the bag.
India is a mystifying land and will never be understood fully in a single month’s visit. There is extreme poverty alongside obvious wealth. There are modern high-rises right next to tin hovels, and shopping malls adjacent to open-air markets. Unconstrained cows, dogs, goats, and monkeys are everywhere, city and country alike. There is air and water pollution in the teeming cities, but majestic mountain ranges and dense jungles to the north. The Indians seem to be a spiritual people with Hindu, Moslems, and Buddhists apparently interacting and living peacefully together.
In the blog postings to follow I hope to convey more of these impressions as we birded each step of the way across the subcontinent. For my Indian readers, forgive my naive impressions of your land and my pictures of your common and mundane birds. Just remember for me, it is all, land, people, and birds, new and exciting.