Bird Watching

Bird Watching

A large number of people all over the world (not too many in India!) enjoy bird watching or birding. There are over 1250 species of birds found in India. Birds are colorful, lively, interesting to listen to and relatively easy to attract to our gardens. Bird watching does not require a lot of equipment, just a good pair of binoculars and a field guide that helps identify the bird.

There are over 925 breeding species (920 residents). The Indian birds belong to 25 groups called ‘Orders’, which are further divided into ‘Families’, ‘Sub-families’ and ‘Genera’. For birding in India, 13 bio-geographical regions can be demarcated: Trans Himalayan, Western Himalayas, Eastern Himalayas, Desert, Semi-arid, Gangetic plain, Central India, Deccan Plateau, Western Ghats, Eastern Ghats, North East, Coasts and the Andaman Nicobar Islands. The Blue Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), also known as the Blue Peacock, is the national bird of India.

Getting Started: The best way to start is to go with someone who has been birding for a while. If you don’t have friends that bird, try finding a local birding club. Many good bookshops have a selection of books, magazines and tapes on bird watching. Birding is also a popular Internet subject. Learn to identify common local species using your field guide. Consider putting a bird feeder and/or bird attracting native plants around your home. Because different birds live in different habitats, try to visit as many different habitat types as you possibly can.

Choosing a Bird Guide: A good bird guide has clear, easy to recognize, color illustrations. The guide includes information about habitats, maps showing range of different birds, if, where and when they migrate and what their song or call sounds like. The better guides show seasonal color changes, similar appearing species, and provide information on how to tell them apart. These guides also give information about the various birding sites.

Bird Topography: is the list depicting different visible parts of a bird. This is important because as you read through the birds descriptions next to their pictures, the guide will often use these unfamiliar terms. To the beginner many birds look alike. By learning basic bird anatomy more experienced birders soon become proficient not only at telling species apart, but also knowing where in the guide to look for them. Bird anatomy also provides clues to where birds live, what they eat and what general group they belong to. Therefore, a good knowledge of bird topography is essential for bird watching.

Range Maps: show areas inhabited by a particular bird. This is helpful in eliminating similar appearing species. Range maps also tell you when species are in the area. Some birds are year round residents, some are found only in the summer or winter, some pass though during migration, and some are vagrants. Through the use of different symbols and colors range maps can tell a birder that information.

Field Guide Organizational System: Bird field guides start with a section on how to use the guide and then show illustrations and descriptions of the birds. This usually starts out with water birds, progresses through birds of prey, and ends up with perching birds. Knowledge of this allows experienced birders to flip to the section of the book that contains the bird that they are looking for. The back contains classification of birds, and an alphabetical index of birds by both their common and scientific names.

A list of birds in any one particular area is called a ‘Checklist’. The various National Parks and Bird Sanctuaries have checklists of the birds found within their range. Some websites have checklists for every country in the world! This can be followed by observing the habits and habitats of different bird species.

Lastly, we can use the calls and songs of the birds to help us in identification. To find a bird, we will often hear it first. Also read about the good birding spots in nearby areas. Some pointers for the beginners:

Join a group of other birders. Birders are very friendly and helpful. They are always willing to share their knowledge. We can try a birding trip or tour. Local bird trips are sometimes advertised in the newspapers. The trips may last a morning or most of the day. We may also join a professional guide on a tour. When birding, wear neutral colored clothing, not white.

We can attract birds to our yard with just a little work. Planting the right flowers will attract hummingbirds. Sunflower seeds will bring lots of new birds to our house. We can even build a bird house. We must keep a diary or list of the birds seen in our yard. We can also keep a list of birds seen in our town or on our vacation. Birders often keep lists for their state and country. They may also keep track of birds seen in one day or one month or one year.

Identifying Birds: The first thing to do for beginners is to make a list of birds that are commonly found in their neighborhood. We should eliminate as many species as possible from consideration before attempting to identify anything. One of the easiest ways to exclude birds is to go through the field guide and mark those that do not typically occur in our geographic area. By doing this we drastically reduce the number of birds from the 1200 birds in the guide to 300 or so that are regularly seen in our area. Another way to eliminate choices is to consider the time of year the bird might occur in your area. The range maps included with field guides display this information. Some beginners might even find it beneficial to place colored dots next to birds in their field guides.

Identification Clues: There are many basic clues that allow you successfully identify the bird; bird’s silhouette, its plumage & coloration, behavior, its habitat, and its voice. Sometimes, the key to identification is simply knowing which clue to look for first when you see an unusual bird. As your birding abilities increase, you will be able to pinpoint the important clues with greater ease and certainty.

Silhouette – Shape and Size: After birding for a few months one should be able to categorize most birds into families using silhouette. With experience we learn to note the details of a bird’s shape, size and any characteristic that stands out. The shape of a bird’s bill is very helpful in identification. Finches, and sparrows have short conical bills. Woodpeckers have chisel-shaped bills for working dead wood. Hawks, eagles, and falcons have sharp, hooked bills that make quick work of meat. Shorebirds have slender bills of varying lengths for probing into the sand. Size is also an important field mark and field guides do list the size of birds next to pictures.

Plumage: Striking colors of many birds, (usually male of the specie), will attract the attention of even a casual observer. The distinguishing plumage clues that identify different species are known as “field marks.” These include such things as breast spots, wing bars (thin lines along the wings), tail bands, eye rings (circles around the eyes), eyebrows (lines over the eyes), eye lines (lines through the eyes) etc. Some field marks are best seen when a bird is in flight.

Some families of birds can be broken into smaller groups based on one or two simple field marks. For example, warblers are fairly evenly divided between those that have wing bars and those that do not. So if you see a warbler-like bird, look quickly to see if it has wing bars. Sparrows, on the other hand, can be separated into two smaller groups based on whether or not the breast is streaked. Look for other broad distinctions for other families.

Bird’s Behavior: How a bird flies, forages, or generally comports itself is one of the best clues to its identity. For example, Woodpeckers climb up the sides of tree trunks searching for insects. Flycatchers spend most of their time perching on a suitable spot. When they see an flying insect, they will, true to their name, fly and catch their meal, before returning to the same perch or another nearby. Finches spend a lot of their time on the ground in search of fallen seeds. Some wading birds are very active foragers and chase their prey around in shallow waters. Other wading birds are less impetuous and hunt slowly with great patience and stealth.

Even the way a bird props its tail gives some clues as to which species or family it might be. Wrens generally hold their tails in a cocked position and often bounce from side to side. Spotted Sandpipers bounce their tails and rumps rapidly up and down as if doing a stylish dance step. Some Thrushes and Flycatchers move their tails frequently but slowly, with a wave-like motion. You can even identify some birds just by the way that they fly. Most finches and woodpeckers move through the air with an undulating flight pattern, flapping their wings for short bursts and then tucking them under for a short rest. The Buteo raptors circle the sky on outstretched wings. Most falcons fly with strong wing beats and rarely hover. The accipiters usually fly in a straight line with alternating periods of flapping and floating.

Habitat: Birds segregate themselves according to habitat type and are sometimes quite picky in selecting an area as home. For example, waders and waterfowl prefer watery habitats. So too most the Kingfisher species. Beginning bird watchers will need to spend some time in the field to be able to associate different species with different habitat types.

Voice: Birds have unique songs and calls. Listening to recordings and spending time in the field helps when you are try identify birds by their call.

Birding Ethics
• Be quiet, avoid harassment; don’t disturb the birds.
• Be extra careful during the breeding season of the birds.
• Do not handle eggs or young or tarry too long at nests.
• Don’t use bird calls audio tapes to attract birds, unless very necessary for some research.
• Follow all rules of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
• Divide larger groups of people into smaller more manageable numbers.
• Leave no litter or trash, carry it back with you. Ingested trash items can kill.