By Prabhat Verma*
Yes, it may sound strange but many seasoned wildlife lovers have switched over to birdwatching from chasing big game that drew them to National Parks earlier. I am one of them. Guess it has something to do with choosing a laidback walking safari on a quiet trail over a rushed one in a jeep. I have nothing against Tigers, I love safaris, I have been to every jungle repeatedly that has tiger population yet the craze and mania for stripes always beats me. The usual question when you return to your lodge after a safari is, “Did you see one?” When will this breed ask you what you want to see or if you have any birds in mind? The Safaris have become so tiger-centric that the waning interest for other mammals & birds deserves to be highlighted too.
Hopefully, one day when better sense prevails, someone will have something else to inquire. I remember how I shocked a tourist on being asked “Kya dikha?” and I retorted “Asian Paradise Flycatcher”. The perplexed look on his face and a million dollar smile that insinuated itself on mine, brightened up my day. This beautiful bird, often referred to as APFC is every photographer’s delight and a prized catch!
I am also convinced that a Tiger is the most clicked subject, even more than Taj Mahal in India. I have been lucky too on many occasions but capturing a bird requires a bigger mettle as it may fly off while you are still trying to adjust your camera settings. A Tiger, being a laidback animal unless disturbed, poses for you and often walks right in front of your safari vehicle, allowing one enough time to click to ones heart’s fill. At the same time, looking for a bird that you can only hear or has given you a fleeting appearance, is a challenge that gives many a huge kick.
A Safari experience is much more than just looking for a Tiger. Try and enjoy the time spent on a safari to look for other aspects. The forest has to be enjoyed in its totality for its peace, tranquillity, sounds, sights, smell, and breeze. Then there is calmness, chirping of birds, sound of your vehicle driving over the dry fallen leaves, suspense of your eyes landing on something that others might have overlooked etc. The hollows in the trees could also have a surprise in store, who knows! National parks offer foliage that is parallel to none and can’t be found in cities. Observe as much as you can as every bend can bring something new to cherish.
Spotting a bird requires some discipline, where every noise made is considered a crime. A few dirty looks from your co-birders speak louder than any other language. Birding also happens when Parks are closed for three months every year from July to September. Birders know no park boundaries and are happy exploring a park’s periphery or buffer zone.
Birders like me, sharing the same jeep with ones looking for Tigers, are always at the receiving end. The day is not far when birders and tiger-maniacs will demand separate vehicles and different zones. After all, which birder would like to see epileptic fits on people who have been lucky to spot the stripes? It is easy to identify one against the other. While one’s eyes will be towards the sky looking for birds perched on trees, other one will be ensuring they fly away before you spot them. Easy!
The dynamics of a park change every year, and monsoons as well as tiger corridors have an important role to play in this phenomenon. Tigers change their territory; tigresses bear cubs. All these factors combined together result in the exodus of photographers, who change their loyalty from one park to another, season after season. Birders on the other hand remain focused and committed. They know the birding hotspots and would continue to frequent them time and again.
Unlike Tigers, who are concentrated mostly in central India’s tiger reserves, birds take birders to as far as Nagaland for Amur Falcons, Thattekad in Kerala for Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Leh for Lammergeier, Snow Partridge, Dippers and other high-altitude birds, Sankholiya near Ajmer for Lesser Floricans, Kutch for Great Indian Bustard or Peregrine Falcon, Chambal River for Indian Skimmer, Khichan near Jodhpur for Demoiselle Cranes, Haiderpur wetlands in U.P for Indian Grassbirds, Bhondsi in Gurgaon for annual visitors such as Fire-capped Tits, Indian Pitta, Orange Headed Thrush & APFC, and Chopta for Himalayan Monal.
Then the wetlands are good to see waders; agriculture fields and flats all over the country are excellent areas to scan for Sarus Cranes, Raptors, or for monsoon guests such as Rain Quails and Black Francolins etc. These areas have become popular off lately for they don’t have any park boundaries to stick to, entrance fee to be paid, weekly close day or any restrictions whatsoever. All one needs is a binoculars and good walking shoes. Such excursions to rural belts have often resulted in discovery of rare birds such as Long-eared Owl, Slovanian Grebes, and a few others.
Himalayan towns like Pangot, Sattal, and Corbett attract us for a variety of birds found there and once you have covered one birding trail, you start dreaming and planning the next one in another terrain.
Birds are about their colour, about contrast! They are often camouflaged and it takes an effort to spot them, unlike a tiger that appears majestically out of nowhere, invariably. Some birds are migratory; they follow an annual routine, a pattern. Some are prized captures, some like Marsh Harriers make their presence felt, a few sing for you, some are always in pairs while others are loners. Parks like Sultanpur outside New Delhi or Bharatpur in Rajasthan can offer every variety of these characteristics in high season. There is some mystery to bird life as each one is unique and different. No two birds have similar habits unlike Tigers, who are extremely predictable which makes them an easy target for poachers.
We have 50 Tiger Reserves in India and there are 72 bird sanctuaries. It is now time for us to shift focus to birds and explore them in their habitat.
Hope the readers will be tempted to explore the wonderful world of birds if not doing it already! Whenever on a safari in a jungle, let us pledge to look for birds too, for they never let you down and a birder never comes back disappointed from a trail.
*Author is an avid birder and a hiker. He is a travel agent by profession organizing worldwide Safaris & nature centric holidays for niche travellers and can be reached at email@example.com.