5 years of Bird Watching – Dilip Polpakkara

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A memory notification from Facebook a few days ago reminded me of a nature camp held at Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR Thekkady, India) in Dec 2012. What makes that camp special for me is my tryst with bird watching started with that camp. Yes, last weekend I completed a personal milestone – 5 years of Bird watching.
I was always a nature lover, never missing out any opportunity to visit forests, hills, lakes or an Indian countryside. But those outings were primarily to enjoy the beauty and the pleasure it brought to my body and mind. It also helped me to develop an interest in photography. Yet, the prime intention of a visit to a forest or a wildlife reserve was always to see a predator – a tiger or a leopard or a bear, a pack of wolves or even a wild dog. And as was the case, I often returned empty-handed, with nothing except a glimpse or two of a monkey, a deer or an elephant. Of my umpteen visits to forests only once in Bandhavgarh (in 2005) did I get lucky to sight the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger. The other big predators of the Indian forests have remained elusive until now. And I always felt I was unlucky when I heard other people mention about their rendezvous with the wild ones. There was a time when I felt visits to jungles were a waste of time, money and effort.
But my perspective towards forests, birds, and nature changed completely during that 2-day camp at PTR – thanks to the three wonderful nature-loving volunteers from Kottayam Nature Society. They introduced me to the world of birds, butterfly, beetles, small insects and animals. I understood that there was much more to see, hear and feel in our Indian jungles than just the big predators that I was chasing. In that camp, I learned that even a small dung beetle, which feeds on the Elephant dung, had an equally important role to play in nature. I was impressed by the knowledge these people had about our forests. And I quickly learned my first lessons in birding from them.
TCS Ecology club Nature Camp at PTR Thekkady 28-30 Dec, 2012
Nature Camp Classroom session by PTR Forest Officials
Participating in such Nature Camps helped me understand birds and nature better
To be frank, until then, my knowledge about birds was very limited. I would have been able to identify, say 10 or maybe 12 bird species in all. Everything in water was a Duck for me and a big bird in flight was an Eagle. Other birds had never existed for me. Earlier I had even admonished Nisha a couple of times when she spent some time taking pictures of the birds during one of our jungle visits.
My next big step in birding came within a few weeks of that camp when I attended the annual Vembanad Bird Census. A couple of classroom sessions on bird identification and the actual bird survey with some of the best birders in Kerala got me hooked. Interacting with committed naturalists and getting to learn about bird behaviour and its impact on us was a revelation. Since then the interest developed and over the next few months, bird watching became an inevitable part of my life. Whether it was a forest, lake, dam, sea, garden, shore, roadside or home yard, if I got an opportunity I would walk around and do some time bird watching. I found it to be therapeutic.
Vembanad Lake Bird Survey, Jan 2013
Bird watching has helped me in understanding how unique and different each landscape is. The symbiotic relationship between the birds and nature is very fascinating. I started appreciating how even a small change in weather pattern or felling of a particular tree or man made encroachment can have such devastating effect on our future.
Bird watching has made me a better human being, sensitive to all the organisms around me. Hours in the field has improved my observation and hearing skills, trained me to pick out minor movements even from a far distance.
The best time to bird in India is usually the early mornings, just after dawn and before the sun heats you up. Thus, lazy weekends when I used to sleep late into the day, became a thing of the past. Bird watching gave a new purpose to my weekends.
Though you can observe birds from your room or balcony or even from a car, it is quite limiting as you are stationary most of the time. If you want to sight more birds or experience nature, there is no better way than exploring on foot. Bird watching on foot is a good exercise – an hour of birding means you’d have walked a kilometre or two. Over the last 5 years, I would have walked thousands of kilometres just by bird watching. Good side effects of a hobby!
It is amazing how a small creature like a bird can bring together people from different occupations and backgrounds. And I am indeed lucky to have made good friend with some of them. Social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter have also helped in grooming this relationship. Increasingly we are seeing the birding community in Kerala come together to drive various initiatives to create awareness about nature and working with government/other agencies to protect our birds, forests and environment.
Bird watching has also provided me with a platform to contribute to the society by way of participatory Bird Monitoring programs like the Asian Water Bird Census, Annual Bird surveys in Kerala forests/Vembanad Lake/Thrissur Kole and Kerala Bird Atlas among others. All my birding field trips since 2014 are uploaded into eBird website, which is an online database of bird observations. And I am hoping that all my bird sightings, field notes, and photographs will provide scientists, researchers and amateur naturalists with enough real-time data about bird distribution and abundance. Though I could not become a scientist professionally, bird watching has converted me into a Citizen Scientist!!
Thrissur Kole Bird Survey, Jan 2016
Vazhachal Forest Bird Survey, Sep 2015
Back here in the UK, I have picked up bird watching activity in the last few months, especially after a very lean 2016-2017 season. I will consider the last five years birding experience as stepping-stone to a more proactive contribution towards birding and nature. I need to return the favour to the avian species for all the joy, knowledge and entertainment they have provided me.
Happy Birding in 2018 and beyond !!

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