Birding With a Guide vs. Going Bare

Mount Desert Island, Maine

 

When one charters a sailboat, you have a choice; board a craft with a captain, possibly even a cook, and just relax, or you can go “bare”.  Going bare does not imply complete nakedness.  You still have a seaworthy boat, stocked with food and plenty of navigation charts and devices.  You supply the seamanship, experience, and reap the rewards of independence and a heightened sense of adventure.

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius, from Italy

It seems to me that one makes a similar choice when birding.  I’ve done it both ways, using guides on four continents, as well as bare birding, both domestically and abroad.  I’ve come to appreciate the challenges of guiding as well as the traits of an ideal guide–I’ve never had a poor one.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama, from India

But first let me point out some of the joys of going bare.  As in boating, you are not really all that exposed, eBird has seen to that.  All-star birder Phoebe Snetsinger’s technique of preparation before birding a new site has been a great lesson for me, and eBird has made that so much easier.  Just review their hotspot sightings for your trip, specific for the month of departure, and study those birds in your guidebook.

Red-breasted Nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, irruption this fall?

“Photo-birding” is a valuable tool when going bare, when there’s no guide at your side with a ready ID.  Generally I’m out to get the perfect shot; sharp, great background, lighting, and pose, but with photo-birding its all about the ID.  Just get something on “film” and make the ID later, over coffee and out of the wind.  Or you can send the picture to an expert for help.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus, in India

Am I strange in finding some exhilaration in finally matching the picture to guidebook, and claiming a new tick on my life list?  I remember going bare in India with colleagues, photo-birding, and sitting around a table for hours, reviewing shots and guidebooks, and arguing about the finer points and field marks–sort of sharing our ignorance.  It was fun and it worked.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris, in India

When overseas on a “non-birding” trip (is this ever the case?), I try to book hotels near parks or hotspots that can be easily visited while my spouse still sleeps.  This seems to work for us.  I’m sure I would have seen many more birds with a guide when we visited Japan, but those dawns alone, among the beautiful temples and gardens of Hakone, near Mount Fuji, or among the deer in Nara Park were unforgettable.  It was hard work to finally match that enchanting call to the elusive Japanese Bush Warbler, Uguisu. See posting “Birding Hakone, Japan”, dated April 17, 2015.

Hakone, Japan

Japanese White-eye, Zosterops japonicus, in Nara Japan

Bare birding in Kensington Gardens and St. James Park, London, walking the path that Kings & Queens have trod, and near the bunker where Churchill resisted evil a generation ago, was also memorable.  A local twitcher showed me the Little Owl in the Gardens, but I admit I did see more birds when excellent guide, Jack Fernside, took me outside the ring road for a day.  http://www.birdinglondon.co.uk

St. James Park, London

Little Owl, Athene noctua, in Kensington Gardens, London

A good guide tailors the outing to meet the needs of the client.  In Tuscany, along the west coast of Italy, we hired Marco Valtriani for a day, informing him that among the six of us, I was the only birder.  Now that’s a real dilemma.  He arrange birding by skiff, amidst the beautiful tidal wetlands, followed by exquisite cuisine on a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.  After lunch we hiked the hills, exploring Etruscan ruins.  It was a home run for us all.  http://www.Birdinginitaly.com

Tuscan birding with Marco, on Tuscan coast of Italy

There are some locations where a guide is almost a necessity, both for safety and his local knowledge.  The Himalayan foothills, Corbett National Park, and Ramnagar Jungle of India were examples of this.  Our guide, Bopanna Patada, was the ultimate guide; the equivalent of yachting with captain and cook, with all the accoutrements.  He met us at the airport, rented a van and hired a driver for the week, booked us into first class accommodations, and hired local guides to assist him at each stop in northern India.  This was in addition to his infectious enthusiasm and knowledge of birds of the subcontinent.  http://www.indiabirding.com

Bopanna & colleagues in northern India

We’re planning a cultural trip to Russia next spring.  I hope to squeeze in some birding, but doubt that it’s a good idea for a lone American to be traipsing around Moscow with binoculars and telephoto lens these days.  I’m currently trying to find a guide for birding St. Petersburg.  If anyone has a suggestion, please send it my way.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus, in India

But the birds don’t always cooperate, even with the best of guides.  Last month I hired the guru of birding at Mount Desert Island and Acadia NP in Maine.  The fall scenery was spectacular as he guided three of us to his favorite hot spots, but it was just not a “birdy” day.  I felt sorry for the guide as he repeatedly apologized on behalf of the hiding birds.  Not to worry–there is never a bad day birding.

Acadia National Park, Maine

In addition to knowing the local birds and hotspots, what are the characteristics of a good bird guide.  Enthusiasm and patience are near the top of the list.  Also, the ability to succinctly point out a new bird, making sure everyone in the group has seen it.  He needs to describe its field marks and behavior, why its an x and not y.  Having a field guide handy to illustrate these points is also a plus.  Lastly the guide needs to judge the mental and physical stamina of the group–when is it time to quit?

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa, near Bar Harbor, Maine

Just as there are bird-less days, there are also days when the birds come fast and furious, almost too much of a good thing.  The guide is rapidly calling out the birds while we frantically try to keep up, lucky to actually see every other one.  A hard core lister may tick them all, but I’d rather get a good look, before claiming a new life bird.

Hermit Thrush, Catharus guttatus, in Blackwater NWR

I recently tagged along with a novice birding class visiting Bombay Hook, Delaware, one of the birding meccas on the East coast.  Wayne, the guide is an especially talented birder and teacher.  There was a mixed flock of blackbirds on a wire some distance away.  Wayne ID’ed the back lit Cowbird by its signature pose with raised beak tilting toward the heavens.  This was new info for me.  We saw 50 some birds that day but he was especially pleased when at the end of the session he saw a small flock of Marbled Godwits landing on a distance mudflat.  It was the bird we were all hoping for all day.

American Avocets, Recurvirostra americana, at Bombay Hook, Delaware

So which is better, guided or bare birding?  You decide, while I keep doing some of each.

Birding Jim Corbett National Park and Tiger Preserve

 

The Anglo Saxon name “Jim Corbett” practically leaps off the map of northern India, surrounded by all the Indian names of towns, rivers, lakes, and mountains.  Who is this person and why is his name given to India’s oldest and most prestigious national park?  I sought to answer this question as we began our final three days in India, birding and hiking in and around the park and tiger preserve.

Green-billed Malkoha, Rhopodytes tristis

The park is 260 kilometers northeast of Delhi in Uttarakhand, covering 1300 square kilometers of forest, low hills, grass and marshlands, and a large lake.  It is home to 650 species of birds and a relatively large populations of tigers, leopards, cobra, and other wildlife making safaris one of its prime attractions.

Grey Bushchat, Saxicola ferreus

The realization of being in an actual jungle dawned on me at our first breakfast at Jim’s Jungle Retreat when I asked about all the “barking dogs” which kept me awake at night.  “Those aren’t dogs”.  “They’re barking deer warning each other about a prowling tiger near by”.  I paid a little more attention to my surroundings, kept up with the group, and snuck an occasional glance over my shoulder throughout the remainder of the trip.

Our Veranda and Lodge

Jungle Jim was a great accommodation.  http://www.jimsjungleretreat.com  This several acre compound featured 18 comfortable individual residencies, each designed and furnished in a late 19th or early 20th century style.  Ours was elevated 15 feet off the jungle floor and had a large wrap-around veranda with a picturesque view of the surrounding forest and fields.  It was a great temptation to just bird, read, and meditate on this porch and skip the jungle treks, but I didn’t yield to it.

Changeable Hawk Eagle, Nisaetus limnaeetus

Bopanna, our guide, continued to push us to see as many birds as possible, starting at dawn and birding until dusk.  Looking back I appreciate his energy, but remember one evening in failing light we all sat high in a treehouse, waiting and listening for owls. I admit to dozing off; the only owl-like sounds I heard were growling stomachs, anxious for Jungle Jim’s evening buffet.  Someone in the group did miraculously sight a Jungle Owlet on our way to dinner.

Himalayan Bulbul, Pycnonotus leucogenys

I don’t recall all the names of the sites we visited in and around Corbett NP, but the local guide did escort us to a variety of habitats including forests, riverine regions, and fields.  I fondly remember a walk through the humble village and fields adjacent to our compound where we saw the Paddyfield Pipit as well as people harvesting the fields by hand–no mechanized assistance here.  School children were returning home while mothers hung out the wash, all a colorful glimpse of rural Indian life.

Village birding in Dhela

Paddyfield Pipit, Anthus rufulus

Two birds from Corbett stand out for me.  The bizarre Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is a large blackbird with two long tail streamers, each terminating in a small twisted racket.  I can’t imagine any earthly use for such an appendage, except perhaps as a sexual lure.  It must hamper maneuvering through the forest but if it enhances mating, perhaps it benefits the species as a whole.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus paradiseus

The other bird is the Crested Kingfisher.  All of us but Andy had seen and photographed this great bird earlier in the trip but on one our last days we luckily spotted another one perched near the river as all Kingfishers like to do.  The plan here is to fire off a few shots, check photographic technique, make adjustments, and move closer ten feet.  Repeat again and again, getting as close as possible before spooking the bird.  The ultimate goal is to catch a shot with the bird launching and flying away.  Bopanna warned us to change our settings and prepare for flight, but even with that admonition most of us missed it.  Oh well.  At least Andy got his bird.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Edward James Corbett (1875-1955) was of Irish ancestry but born in Nainital, India where his father was postmaster.  He left school at age 17 and joined the Bengal and North Western Railroad where he became an accomplished manager and problem solver.  His leadership style fostered respect among the locals and his successes were many.  My knowledge of his life is based on an engrossing book of his short stories, “Jim Corbett’s India”, edited by R.E. Hawkins.

Corbett’s fame is due to his skill as a hunter, tracker, and killer of man-eating tigers and leopards, and his later conversion to naturalist, conservationist, and photographer.  He authored six books including “Man-eaters of Kumaon”, “Jungle Lore”, and “My India”.  Corbett persuaded India to create the Hailey National Park in the 1930’s which was later named for him posthumously in 1957.

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

For the listers out there here are our final stats from India.  We saw 57 birds around the hotels, palaces, and park during the initial tour, and added 35 during the interlude at Hyderabad.  Bopanna guided us to an additional 33 species in the Himalayan foothills, and 46 more in and around Corbett NP.  That gives a grand total of 174 different birds, of which 148 were “life birds” for me.  This of course just scratches the surface of 1200 species possible on the sub-continent.

Nepal Wren Babbler, Pnoepyga immaculata

Our passage to India left me with memories for a lifetime.  These are rekindled by the photos, writing this blog, and a few souvenirs accumulated along the way.  My favorite is a picture of a White-throated Kingfisher, uniquely painted on an antique document by an artist Suzanne met in Jaipur.

This picture and bird hearken back to our mad dash at dawn in Agra, trying to be the first to photograph the deserted Taj Mahal, right at sunrise.  I hit the brakes when I saw the kingfisher perfectly perched in the reflecting pool, just too tempting to pass by.  At that exact moment I had to answer the key question nagging me for the entire trip.  “Was I in India, halfway around the world, for the culture and enchanting sites, or was I there for the birds”?  My definitive answer was simply “YES”.  I took 15 seconds to fire off a few shots of the bird and then resumed the charge to the monument, catching up with my companions in time to see the Taj Mahal in all its glory at sunrise.  You CAN have it all.

Birding Hyderabad, India

Painted Storks, Mycteria leucocephala

 

Hyderabad is the furthest south in India we travelled during our month on the subcontinent.  It’s another of those large cities that rival the size of New York (over 7 million people) that I had never heard of before planning this trip.  My bad.  Hyderabad is located on the dry Deccan Plateau of central India in the state of Telangana and historically known as the diamond and pearl trading center of the country.  Its rainfall is limited and erratic and when we visited it was hot, dry, and dusty.

Spot-billed Pelican, Pelecanus philippensis

Despite the heat it was a welcome respite at the end of our formal tour; a chance to settle into the lovely modern home of our hosts, Krishna and Shubha, do some laundry, review hundreds, no, thousands of bird shots, and pour over bird guides to ID the unknowns.  One of the highlights of the visit was meeting Shubha’s large extended family at a wonderful Indian Sunday brunch.  I don’t remember all their names but I do remember their warm reception of us travelers, the obvious affection the family members show for each other, and the delicious food.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Merops philippinus

Hyderabad displays new and old India in stark contrast.  There are soaring hi-tech high rises adjacent to poor hovels, and new shiny shopping malls next to traditional open air food markets.  This city is not on the typical tourism circuit and there were fewer western faces on the streets.  I noticed several school aged girls in the mall watching me closely and sheepishly ask Shubha if I was the famous visiting Christian missionary.  She assured them I was not.

Scaly-breasted Munia, Lonchura punctulata

We targeted 3 birding hotspots around Hyderabad to sample the local avian fauna; Ameenpur, a small lake just northwest of the city, the Osman Sagar reservoir west of town, and the ICRISAT Campus.  This latter site was my favorite, both for the incredible birding, but also for the significance of the institution itself. The “International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics” is a non-profit organization in Sub-Sahara Africa and India working to equip and educate the rural poor in establishing sustainable agricultural practices and create profitable farms in these drylands.  Check out their website:  http://www.icrisat.org

Yellow-billed Babbler, Turdoides affinis

The campus of ICRISAT is a spacious area of experimental fields,  irrigation ditches, wetlands, and research buildings connected by dikes and gravel roads, i.e. a birder’s paradise.  The facility is gated and prior permission is necessary for entry.  This was graciously granted by Senior Manager MM Sharma who took us on a preliminary tour before releasing us to our independent exploration.

Baya Weaver, Ploceus philippinus

The Weavers are an interesting family of gregarious birds, most commonly found in Africa and Asia and known for their polygamous lifestyle.  I was surprised to learn that they are a close relative to the famous and long-suffering House Sparrow which plague almost all our world’s urban centers.  The Weavers are aptly named given their large hanging communal nests.  We saw several Baya Weavers and their handiwork in the fields of ICRISAT.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

Close by we found a striking Jacobin Cuckoo, perhaps my favorite bird-of-the-day. I added the Black-headed and the Red-naped Ibis to my growing life list of Ibises (The White and Glossy are common here in Southwest Florida).  I was also happy to see the Darter, a close cousin of our similar Anhinga of Florida.  Overall I added 26 birds from these three sites to my life list.

Indian Roller, Coracias benghalensis

India’s many colorful birds contribute to your visual impression of the entire country.  Saris, storefronts, markets, and even the trucks create a kaleidoscope of color, further enhanced by the birds.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Helen Czerski succinctly described the origin of a feather’s color.  There are two different mechanisms that account for our perception of color in birds.  In the first the color is caused by a pigment, a molecule that absorbs some of the wavelengths of light in the color spectrum and reflects other wavelengths.  It’s the reflected wavelengths that result in the perceived color.

Long-tailed Shrike, Lanius schach

The other mechanism depends on the molecular structure of the protein in the feather.  There are microscopic spaces or cavities of various sizes in the keratin protein.  The different wavelengths of visible light bounce around within these cavities, some cancelling each other out, while others escape the cavity and give us the perceived color.  This structural mechanism is the only way we see blue color in birds; there is no blue pigment.  Some birds and feathers are colored by both mechanisms.

Asian Openbill, Anastomus 0scitans (and Barn Swallow)

Our final dinner in Hyderabad was a night to remember.  Shuhba and Krishna did not say much about our destination as we navigated through the heavy traffic.  There are 3.5 million licensed vehicles in the city and a whopping 77% are scooters and three wheelers.  I think we saw most of them that night, but it was all worth it.  There were oohs and ahs as we climbed the hill and finally saw the spectacular Falaknuma Palace at the peak, overlooking the city lights to the north.  This impressive palace was the home to the ruling Nizam of Hyderabad and built in 1884 with a strong influence of 19th century Tudor and Italian architecture.  A wonderful tour of the palace was followed by an elegant dinner and was a memorable conclusion to our Hyderabad respite.

Falaknuma Palace

My intrepid travel companions

Just like the British custom, it was now our time to finally escape the heat and head to the hill stations in the cooler foothills of the Himalayas.  Lower temperatures, new habitats, and different birds beckoned us north where we would meet our bird guide and driver for the remainder of our Indian sojourn.

 

 

Birding Rajasthan India

 

Lesser Goldenback, Dinopium benghalense

 

Prior to this trip India conjured up jungles, heat, and humidity, to my naive mind.   I got the heat part correct, but in addition to the jungles there are vast, dusty, and arid deserts, especially in Rajasthan, a state in the northwest bordering Pakistan.  I was lucky to have a front, wide-windowed seat on our tour bus ride from Agra to Jaipur.  The driver’s name was Veer and his assistant was Ram, perfect monikers and appropriate for our survival in the Indian traffic encountered on the 200 kilometer trip into the Thar Desert of Rajasthan.  You’re not just dodging other cars, buses, trucks, and motor scooters, but also cows, goats, dogs, camels, and even an occasional elephant.

This is the colorful land of the Maharajas and their ancient forts and lavish palaces.  We spent two nights in Jaipur, the pink city, and three in Udaipur, the romantic city on the shore of Lake Pichola.  I could spend the entire post extolling their beauty, but after all this is still a birding blog.  I tried birding while sight-seeing, even from the back of a lumbering elephant, but to no avail.  The best birding was on the grounds of our hotels in the early morning before breakfast, or in the late afternoon after returning from the sights and shops.

The Oberoi Udaivilas

The two hotels Tauck selected for our tour of Rajasthan, The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur, and The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, are among the best hotels in India and in the entire world.  You feel like Rajput royalty as you wander, open-mouthed, in the gorgeous landscaped gardens, between reflecting pools and meditation sites.  I admit this was “soft core” birding, never far from a pool-side bar, chaise, or dining veranda, but the birds were plentiful, colorful, and almost all were life birds for me.

Coppersmith Barbet, Megalaima haemacephala

My first bird in Jaipur was a posing Shikra, right outside our room.  The widespread resident accipiter is very similar in size to our Cooper’s Hawk.  I was concentrating on the hawk when a couple of helpful British twitchers pointed out a Spotted Owlet on a nearby tree.  The owl hung around that tree for both days and we took far too many pictures of the photogenic bird.

Shikra, Accipiter badius

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama

The shots of the Lesser Goldenback may have been the star of Jaipur, however the Asian Koel and a family of rummaging Grey Francolins were close runners up.  We saw 15 different birds at that hotel.  I was truly amazed and appreciative when a hotel staff person, observing my interest in the birds, presented me with a lovely book of birds photographed on the hotel grounds by other employees.  Hospitality extraordinaire.

Asian Koel, Eudynamys scolopaceus

The setting of The Oberoi Udaivilas on the shore of Lake Pichola was even more impressive and the birds more abundant.  I elected to forgo a shopping spree in town to have more time to explore the hills, gardens, and shoreline of the property.  The Wire-tailed and Streaked-throated Swallows were found perched on a lakeside fence.  In the trees near a children’s playground I found an Indian Golden Oriole, Common Iora, Coppersmith Barbet, Common Tailorbird, and many Purple Sunbirds.

Common Iora, Aegithina tiphia

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

I’d always wanted to see a Bee-eater (they really eat bees after carefully extracting the venom), and was rewarded with a beautiful pair.  The bird-of-the-day was a Indian Grey Hornbill flying in for lunch carrying a doomed lizard.  This is a bizarre appearing bird with a prominent dark casque arising from the upper mandible.  The casque is apparently a call resonator, but some hornbills are known to use it as a battering ram against other hornbills.

Indian Grey Hornbill, Ocyceros birostris (look closely to see the tail of the lizard hanging from the beak)

Common Tailorbird, Orthotomus sutorius

Udaipur was our last stop before returning to Delhi and bidding farewell to our touring companions.  In just twelve short days you develop some warm friendships that you hope to maintain, but know that it may not happen.  Our Tauck Director for the “Spotlight On India” tour was superb, blending his extensive knowledge of Indian history and culture with countless practical dietary, shopping, and general travel tips.  Peter Pappas has directed tours in 165 countries and all 7 continents, but claims that India is his favorite destination.  I believe him since his love for the land and its people is clearly evident.  He is highly recommended if India becomes your destination.  http://www.tauck.com/tours/asia-travel/india-travel.aspx

Wire-tailed Swallow, Hirundo smithii

Purple Sunbird, Cinnyris asiaticus

But we birders, all six of us, were not yet ready to leave the subcontinent.  As good as the tour was, we wanted time to relax, process photographs, and do some laundry before setting off again to discover parts of India off the beaten track.  We looked forward to new birding hotspots and many more birds.  While our friends boarded International flights for home we took a local Air Indigo flight to Hyderabad.  Stay tuned.

Mother Ganges and Varanasi India

 

I know that this is a birding blog, but sometimes life distracts even us birders.  I was jarred from my birding world back to the stark reality of life and death along the Ganges River with its vivid colors, smells, and sounds creating a spiritual impression that will not be soon forgotten.

Our tour bus parked perhaps a kilometer from the river.  The guide said it was the closest lot available, but I’ll bet he really wanted us to experience the sacred city of Varanasi up close and personal.  We marched along the crowded narrow streets dodging cows and their manure.  Monkeys swung from colorful storefronts while hawkers and beggars added to the confusion.  We walked shoulder to shoulder with the Hindu pilgrims, all making our way to the river and the multiple ghats, the large well-worn steps leading down to the water’s edge.

At Varanasi the Ganges is wide and slow flowing.  In the fading light we could still see the opposite shore, peaceful and undeveloped, while our side was a chaotic mixture of temples, hotels, merchants, hawkers, snake charmers, pilgrims, lepers, meditators, and bathers.

We stumbled down the ancient steps and climbed aboard the old wooden boats that would carry us downstream.  It was a relief to leave some of the noise and commotion behind.

I was surprised when our small boat chugged close by a Black-crowned Night-Heron perched upright on a buoy.  I tried to get the attention of my travel companions but they were understandably mesmerized by the scenes ashore and temporarily not interested in birds.  I quietly added the bird to my list and then joined them in observing the more important events on the riverbank.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Mother Ganga (the Ganges River) is the most sacred of India’s rivers flowing from its source in the Himalayas southward, past Delhi and the Red Fort, past Agra and the Taj Mahal, and past Varanasi before emptying into the Bay of Bengal many miles downstream.  If you are Hindu, Varanasi is the most sacred place to die and be cremated.  It is said to be the oldest city on the planet with ancient spires reaching heavenward.

As the current slowly took our boat onward in the fading daylight we witnessed Hindu ceremonies, prayers, and the ringing of the Brahman bells onshore.  There were bathers immersed in the greenish brown water and others drinking and bottling the sacred water to take home.

Further downstream we came upon a large crowd surrounding multiple flaming pyres.  The smell of burning wood and flesh hung in the air as each fire died and another funeral procession descended the ghats to light another.  It was an eerie other-world experience with our flotilla of wooden boats, manned by the curious but reverent visitors, floating just offshore, close enough to observe but not too close to interfere with this ancient cremation ritual.

Hinduism is practiced by about 80% of Indians with Islam the next most prevalent religion at 15%.  Scholars have struggled to clearly explain this ancient non-proselytizing faith which has no single founder or central authority.  The Vedas dating back 3000 years are the sacred texts and there are innumerable deities.  Brahman is the one and ultimate source of existence and all the other gods and goddesses are manifestations of him.

Vishnu, the Preserver. He is a member of the holy Trimurti of Hinduism. The others are Brahma, the Creator, and Shiva, the Destroyer.

Without fully understanding Hinduism I can at least list some of the tenets of the faith.  There seem to be four main values that in ascending order of importance are:  1) Artha, which is wealth and possessions.  2) Kama which is pleasure and includes good health and long life.  3) Dharma, which is duty, righteousness, love, and forbearance.  4) And lastly Moksha or enlightenment and the release from finitude and imperfection.  This last level is the supreme spiritual ideal that when reached, frees one from the perpetual wheel of existence, death, and reincarnation.  In Hinduism no one is doomed and all have the potential of rising to this ultimate level of nirvana.

Aum, the most important symbol of Hinduism, representing Brahman, the Almighty. It’s the sound heard at the creation of the universe.

Other features include ahimsa, the respect and avoidance of injury to other living creatures and mother Earth.  Cows and snakes in particular have long been worshipped, the cow for its fertility and nurturing milk.  The snakes, especially the Cobra are cherished for reasons not completely clear to me.  You could spend a lifetime exploring Hinduism and its myriad deities and beliefs.

So there you have it; a non-birding interlude in our journey to India.  One cannot travel to this fascinating country without noting the spirituality of its people, from the ornate and massive temples to the small shrines you may encounter on any street corner or even in the remote glens of the Himalayas.  Even a non-believer is impressed and affected by all this.  I wanted to share the experience in order to present a more complete picture of India.  The next post will be for the birds.

Urban Birding in Delhi, India

Common Pigeon, Columba livia

 

We must have been quite a sight in all our birding garb on the rooftop of the Leela Palace Hotel in the heart of Delhi.  I wonder what the sunbathers and swimmers in the infinity pool were thinking while Andy, Krishna, and I took countless photographs of the swarming kites while the pool guards were waving flags trying to shoo away the feral pigeons and these very same raptors.  To us, in the U.S., a kite was a great bird and it was several days in India before we realized that these scavenger Black Kites were a-dime-a-dozen.

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Delhi was our gateway city to India and we wisely arrived a day early before our guided tour to get acclimated and try some urban birding.  When you fly into Delhi your plane does not break through the low-lying smog and dust until 1000 feet and you therefore do not get a feel for this sprawling metropolis of 25 million souls.  My first impressions were of mayhem, color, heat, and traffic as we took the cab to the Leela Palace, a spectacular oasis of calm amidst the chaos of the capital city.

Humayun’s Tomb

Delhi is the site of an ancient Hindu city dating back 3000 years.  It has had numerous names and captors with the Mughal Emperors ruling it from 1526 to 1857 when they were ousted by the British.  The Brits moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.  Our formal tour took us to many impressive sites including the Red Fort, a massive sandstone edifice speaking to the prior authority and grandeur of the Mughal rulers.  The stately 16th century Humayun’s Tomb combined Mughal and Persian elements and was an architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal.

Streak-throated Swallow, Petrochelidon fluvicola

Tiring of the Kites and having already ID’ed the Prinia, Bulbuls, Parakeets, and Streak-throated Swallows on the hotel grounds it was time to move the birding show onward.  I’ve tried urban birding in many of the world’s largest cities, but clearly Delhi was different. It is not a “walking town”.  Sidewalks are rare and I don’t believe I ever saw a crosswalk or pedestrian “Walk / Don’t Walk” light in the entire country.  The map showed a small green space directly across the street from the hotel but getting there was an issue.

Prinia (Plain or Ashy? You tell me.)

The busy street was a wide river of flowing and honking motor scooters, small cars, colorful trucks, and the motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks, many of which stopped and tried to entice us onboard.  We later learned from a helpful Indian that the correct technique in crossing a street is to “walk like an elephant”, (get into a tight-packed group and move ahead slowly and purposely without stopping or wavering until you reach the other side).  It works.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Treron phoenicopterus

The small several acre park proved to be a real gem.  Several guards and caretakers at the entrance gave us an inquisitive  stare until they realized we were foreign birders and therefore safe.  There was a loud, repetitive, bird call booming right inside the gate that we assumed was piped in for effect until the guard pointed out the source, a perching Brown-headed Barbet.  The Groucho Marx mustachioed bird is apparently known for its loud call, especially on a hot day like we were enduring.  We don’t speak Hindi and they knew no English, but our new friends were eager to point out several other new birds in the park.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Greater Coucal, Centropus sinensis

By the time our session was ended we had seen in addition to the Barbet, a Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Greater Coucal, Rufous Treepie, Jungle Babbler, Brahminy Starling, Common Myna, and more Prinias (were they Ashy or Plain?  I still can’t tell them apart).  It was a great start and introduction to Indian Birds. In one day we had added 16 birds to our life lists.

Red-vented Bulbul, Pycnonotus cafer

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

A Dehli highlight for me was the visit to the last abode of Mahatma Gandhi.  His quarters were a small spartan room with a mattress on the floor and low writing table.  He was brutally assassinated in a nearby garden by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948.  This quote was etched into a large boulder at the site:

“A leader of his people unsupported by any outward authority, a politician whose success rests not upon craft or the mastery of technical devices, but simply upon the convincing power of his personality.  A victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force.  A man of wisdom and humility…who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people…A man who has confronted brutality…with the dignity of a simple human being…Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  Albert Einstein

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 to 1948)

 

Our Passage to India: Birding the Subcontinent

Taj Mahal

 

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.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

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.

Jungle Babbler, Turdoides striata

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.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus

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.

Common Myna, Acridotheres tristis

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.

White-breasted Waterhen, Amaurornis phoenicurus

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.

House Crow, Corvus splendens

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.

Indian Pond Heron, Ardeola grayii

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.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

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.