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Passions: Birding Paradise

By Franklin Abbott Email By Franklin Abbott
November 2023
Passions: Birding Paradise

With its massive biodiversity, India is a veritable playground for birding enthusiasts. Our conversations with some well-known birders reveal what is so alluring about following—and photographing—these sublime marvels of nature. From the beauty of their breathtaking colors and dainty shapes to the mysteries of their migration patterns, everything avian seems like a testament to the hand of divine intelligence behind our natural world. 

“On particularly prescient days, I become so absorbed in my surroundings that I merge with them. My hyper-alertness suddenly melts away and I feel an overpowering sense of oneness with the world resonating deep inside me. My agitated mind, clogged with mundane civilizational preoccupations, quiets down. I feel like a creature among creatures and existence amid existence.” This is what Aasheesh Pittie, birder and ornithologist, writes in his new book, The Living Air, as he offers a glimpse of why many impassioned birders find it such a sublime pursuit.

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Such a feeling of an almost spiritual connection with nature, that bird watching and bird photography kindles, is also reflected by Jignesh Minaxi, a fine art photographer from Surat, Gujarat. “Engaging in bird photography gives me a great opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. It encourages me to slow down, observe, and be present in the moment. I become more attuned to the environment, paying attention to the subtle details of birds’ behavior, movements, and interactions with their surroundings. I enjoy the journey and cherish the moments I spend in nature through my lens!”

For the vast majority of us who take birds for granted and, at best, are occasionally enchanted by their sonorous calls, birding, as a hobby, may seem quaint and perhaps even tedious, considering that it often requires hours of patient chasing and waiting for rare sightings in all kinds of inclement weather—not to mention the cross-country trips that ardent birders often take up. These fervent few are willing to go high onto the mountains or deep into the forests, the wetlands, or the deserts—wherever the birds take them.

I corresponded with some of these hobbyists, who are also accomplished bird photographers, to find out more about their fascinating pursuits.

For the love of birds

Jainy Maria, a widely-admired nature photographer from Bangalore, credits having grown up in Kerala—“God’s own country”—for her love of nature in general and birds in particular. “I love colors and their myriad combinations,” she says, revealing the reason behind her magnetic draw towards the abundantly colorful creatures.

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Speaking of growing up in her family farmhouse, Maria recalls, “It was a well-wooded area with several local fruiting trees, waterbodies, and paddy fields. My mother was smitten by a male Rose-ringed Parakeet that used to regularly visit a pomelo tree in our orchard. My grandmother, mother, and aunts adored nature and birds. They used to tell me beautiful stories featuring Emerald Doves, Plum-headed Parakeets, Red-wattled Lapwings, and Mottled Wood-owls. I used to wonder at the effortless trots of White-breasted Waterhens on the wild lily pads in a pond. I remember asking my aunt why we couldn’t also walk the lily pads just like them! This filial background and close association with nature might have had a profound impact on me as a bird watcher.”

Maria was drawn to bird photography in 2008 when, while working at General Motors, a colleague showed her a picture of a Collared Kingfisher that he had clicked during his vacation in South Andaman. “I was instantly attracted to the aqua-blue shade of that beautiful bird. This photograph literally rekindled my love of birds while also kindling a passion for photographing them,” she acknowledges. Her first major birding trip was to Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. The sheer density and variety of species astonished her.

[Right] Long-eared Owl.

For the most part, Maria was too consumed by her interest in birds and in photographing them to be deterred by challenges that came up in her newfound passion. Nevertheless, she recalls, it was never easy to coordinate travels for targeted species. Getting relevant and authentic information regarding the location of the species was not easy in those days. Good naturalists and bird guides were very few and far between. And so were available photographic records for most species.

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Saswat Mishra’s birding journey also began at home when he started birdwatching while exploring his backyard and surroundings. He got interested in the Scalybreasted Munia, a common bird. This inspired him to research birds and look for more species around him. “In my very first year of doing this, in 2012, the count went up to more than 120 species just in and around my own backyard and surrounding areas,” says Mishra. His favorite kinds of birds are woodpeckers, owls, kingfishers, and smaller birds like warblers. He adds, “My favorite so far is the Forest Owlet, which is an endemic species of India only found in very specific kinds of forests of Western and Central India. I am currently involved in its conservation plan, and I use my photographs to make people aware of such endangered species.”Aditya Roy has been successful in creating a formidable professional career around his lifelong passion for nature and birds. A wildlife biologist working in the field of conservation since 2000, Roy has traveled extensively in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh during his work on critically endangered vultures. Currently, he is pursuing his PhD in toxicology of vultures from Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore. He has worked with Bombay Natural History Society and Wildlife Institute of India for research projects on vultures, flamingos, and Asiatic Wild-Ass. His papers and articles on vultures have been published in national and international journals.

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 Passions Birding_Main6_11_23.jpgRoy has been into wildlife photography for the last seven years and has photographed over 350 species of birds across India. His photographs have been published in many books and photography magazines. He is a partner at SOAR Excursions that specializes in ecotourism, birding, wildlife, and heritage tours in Gujarat.

“As a kid, I was deeply interested in nature,” says Roy. “Even in school, during my free time, I used to explore the garden for butterflies and insects rather than playing with other kids. My mother worked at Vikram Sarabhai Community Science Centre in Ahmedabad and I went there a lot.” Roy’s birding journey started when he joined a birding club there. “I had an SLR that my grandpa had got from London (it wasn’t as common as digital cameras are now) and I started nature photography using that. Soon digital cameras with 12x optical zoom started arriving in the market. This is what made me go into more serious bird photography. The journey from there has always been more and more birds and I love doing that, so I decided to study biology and later I made a career in what I love—birding, photography, and wildlife.”

Immersion into the fascinating world of birds

The process of identifying the birds through the photographs that she clicked started becoming a thrilling experience for Jainy Maria. “The prospect of adding a new bird to my species list has always been a matter of sublime happiness for me. Their stunning colors, intricate patterns, and secretive and intelligent behavior have fascinated me.”

Jignesh Minaxi grew up in a forest environment which provided him with a unique opportunity to observe and interact with birds in their natural habitat. “Being surrounded by diverse bird species and their behaviors sparked an interest in me. Observing their flight patterns, nesting habits, feeding behaviors, and social interactions further deepened my understanding and appreciation for birds.”

Aditya Roy is bowled over by the amazing and seemingly unbelievable migratory powers of birds. His state, Gujarat, falls on the Central Asian Flyway, one of the most important flyways for bird migration between Europe and Central Asia to South and Southeast Asia. “It’s amazing how these flyways exist, like a GPS fitted in the minds of the birds to navigate across thousands of kilometers.” Pointing to the human-like talking and interactive abilities of parrots, Roy maintains that birds are some of the most intelligent species on the planet. He is equally in awe of birds like the Great Indian Bustard and Sarus crane— the world’s heaviest and tallest flying— as he is of numerous species of warblers, pipits, larks, and wagtails because even though they are smaller than a palm, they are able to migrate thousands of kilometers.

Roy points out that Bar-headed Geese, which migrate from their breeding grounds in the Tibetan plateau to wintering grounds in Gujarat, fly over Mount Everest at 28,000 feet; and that Bar-tailed Godwits fly nonstop for 13,000 km—from Alaska to Australia! “Even modern planes can’t fly this much nonstop,” marvels Roy. “The fact that nature is so powerful and resilient has always amazed me,” he adds.

The challenge of the chase... and the euphoria of success!

Speaking of the challenges of bird photography, Jignesh Minaxi says, “Birds are known for their fast movements—whether it is flying, perching, or hunting for food. Capturing these actions requires good timing and anticipation. Many bird species are naturally skittish and wary of humans. Approaching them too closely can cause them to fly away. Photographing birds without disturbing them requires patience, stealth, and sometimes the use of long lenses. Birds are often small, which means you need to get close to them or use telephoto lenses to capture detailed and clear images. This can be challenging, especially if the birds are in flight or are perched high in trees. Birds can be found in various habitats including forests, wetlands, and open fields. Each environment presents its own set of challenges such as dealing with dense foliage, poor lighting, or distracting backgrounds.”

Spotting some of the rare species requires the kind of research, patience, and endurance that can only come from a true connoisseur. “In my early birding years, all I had was an invincible appetite that propelled me to see these avian wonders,” shares Maria. “I believe that being in the wild and photographing birds has enriched me holistically beyond words. It has inculcated in me patience, perseverance, and confidence to be undeterred. It has taught me to be humble and respect wildlife with utmost reverence. Birding also has sensitized me towards the urgent need for conservation as well.”

Speaking of her struggles photographing the White-browed Tit-Warbler, Maria says, “The only information that I could gather was that this bird preferred a habitat of Sea Buckthorn bushes. I used to comb vast areas of these bushes on foot to no avail. I finally had a sighting some years later. Another bird that had kept me on the edge was the elusive Nicobar Megapode. I had to brave seething swarms of mosquitoes for a week before finally making a decent image of the species from the remote areas of Nicobar Island. As I mentioned earlier, I am extremely focus-driven and possess an unwavering determination to accomplish that.”

This kind of dogged determination has its rewards too. Says Maria, “Of all the birds that I have photographed from India and many other countries, my favorite one remains the Western Tragopan. The sighting of this resplendent bird after such immense hard work was a supreme feeling—the only bird sighting that had me in tears. One of the pictures that I clicked of this beautiful bird had made it to the cover page of Birding Asia.”

Roy too shares enthusiastically about the priceless rewards of the birder’s patience and persistence, “Many unique species of birds are endemic to islands or mountain ranges, and one has to travel to remote areas and through tough climatic conditions to see and photograph them. One of the rarest pheasants I have seen and captured is Western Tragopan. Hardly a few (in double digits) people have photographs of this rare pheasant in the wild. I had to trek for five days in the Great Himalayan National Park to see this beautiful pheasant which is endemic to the western Himalayas. But after the hard work, when you get to see and photograph these unique birds and their habitats, the joy is unparalleled. The real joy for me is not in the photo but the fact that I am able to be there and see the beauty and balance of nature which is vanishing so rapidly.”

How can a beginner cultivate this kind of patience and skills? Minaxi offers, “Shooting common birds like egrets, darters, and flamingos near cities can provide you with more opportunities to practice and refine your bird photography skills. Common urban birds often adapt well to human presence and can be found in parks, gardens, and even backyards. They may be more accustomed to human activity, making it easier to observe and photograph them at a closer distance. As I always like to produce creative images, these common birds help a lot because fine art nature photography requires time and observation.” Offers Roy, “The good thing is birds are mostly everywhere; and even from your backyard you can observe and photograph some magnificent birds and their behavior.”

Minaxi, Maria, Mishra, and Roy are just four of hundreds of acclaimed bird photographers in India. They all seem to have found what Christian Cooper, author of Better Living Through Birding, writes in his introduction, “Birding shifts your perceptions, adding new layers of meaning and brokering connections: between sounds and seasons, across far-flung places, and between who we are as people and a wild world that both transcends and embraces us. In my life, it has been a window into the wondrous.”

Franklin Abbott is an Atlanta-based poet, psychotherapist, nature- lover, and occasional contributor to Khabar magazine.

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