Bengaluru’s birding bio

Birdwatching, or birding, as it is referred to, seems to have become a very popular pastime in Bangalore. In this context, it’s interesting to find out just how it’s organized and carried out in the city…and I decided to talk to several people who’ve had more than thirty years of experience in this activity

A team at the HSBC Bird Race. Pic: Deepa Mohan.

There are no “professional” ornithologists, as far as  I can gather, in the city. Most of the experienced birders of Bangalore are those who pursue birding as a weekend or holiday activity. Their professions might or might not be allied to the study of the world of Nature..and in fact, very often become a hindrance to the regular pursuit of birdwatching. 

In spite of such obstacles, though, birdwatching seems to have found a firm and lasting foothold in Bangalore. Every experienced Bangalore birder that I talked to  is unanimous about the origins of birding as a regular activity. “This was made possible by  the settling of two great individuals in the city: Dr Joseph George from Dehradun, and then,  Zafar Futehally from Mumbai,” states Dr S Subramanya. The Birdwatchers’ Field Club of Bangalore (BWFC), was set up shortly thereafter.

Postcards used to communicate meeting details. Pic courtesy: L Shyamal.

In those days before the Internet, communication between the members of the Club was through  postcards, which Dr Joseph George, and later, U Harish Kumar,, used to send out. Mr  L Shyamal, who has made outstanding contributions on Wikipaedia on the subject of birds, says that people would exchange postcards  to share information

Another group, the Merlin Nature Club, was also formed by people like J N Prasad and Mr T S Srinivas, and was registered with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) under the Nature Clubs Movement of WWF India. S Karthikeyan, or Karthik as he is known, who is now the Chief Naturalist, Jungle Lodges and Resorts Ltd, was then with WWF,  organized regular nature-related film shows  “I organized two film shows a month, at the Raman Institute,  and at the Institute  of Astrophysics,” he  mentions. “I was  doing this for fourteen years, almost without a break. There was always a good turnout, of between fifty to eighty people Though meant  for the members of WWF, anyone who saw the newspaper announcement could attend.”

In those days, travelling to different birding  locations in Bangalore was not the headache-inducing exercise it is today….plus, face-to-face was the only way the birders could gather, before conference calls and group chat.

Dr S Subrahmanya, or Subbu as he is affectionately known in birding circles, also  talks about how the field trips became  regular outings on the 4th Sunday of every month. Members would meet at Lalbagh, and then make trips to destinations such as Nandi Hills.

One of the important milestones for the  Birdwatchers’ Field Club was the compilation of the official Annotated Checklist of the birds of Bangalore, with sponsorhip from Bikram Grewal, a noted naturalist.. The very first bird list was made by Dr Joseph George, and released by  Dr Salim Ali,  in November 1977 (on his birthday), at a function at the Raman Research Institute,.  Several lists followed the first Annotated Checklist; the latest one, says Subbu, is Shyamal’s Wikipedia Checklist.

This official list had its origins in the many field trips and observations  by  the members of the BWFC. “Dr Chakrapani, Dr Subramanya and I had research interests, and we organized the Waterbird Census in co-ordination with the Forest Department,” remarks Dr M B Krishna, or MBK, as he is called. “I used to count land birds  for a period spanning 14.5 years….. at Lalbagh,  Kalkere ( now Kalkere Reserve Forest) , and the  Bangalore Military School on Hosur Road. These included counts at  different levels…ground, shrubs, and tree canopies….and we also did  about ten years of water bird counts,” he says.

Courtesy: L Shyamal.

The Midwinter Waterfowl Census, that ran from 1987 to 1996, was an important development. To quote Subbu: “This  laid the beginning for understanding our wetlands through birds and has formed the basis for shaping lake conservation movement in the city. We knew more about our waterbirds or the wetlands because of the census, and  we set standards for rest of the country with respect to the quality of the data collected.

Meanwhile, an important change was also occurring in the way members would communicate with each other. As  a post- doctoral student at  IISc, MBK got his first email account in 1993. He realised  the potential of email for communication, and started the “bngbirds” egroup,  which MBK calls the “discussion group” The egroup specifically stated  that it is only a communication medium, and is  not the actual birders’ group. Most birdwatchers in Bangalore now think that bngbirds is the name of the birding group…but it is the Birdwatchers’ Field Club that is the organization, and bngbirds is only a mailing list.

Indeed, the outings of BWFC slowly  became standardized to Hebbal Lake and Lalbagh. Why did this happen? “When introducing people to birding,” says Karthik; “We  did  not need to take them to far-flung locations and show them rare birds. We could  start them off with the common birds.” And of course, the common birds were far more plentifully found earlier. “The bird population in Lalbagh is  1 to 2% of what  there was,  30 years ago,” rues MBK. “There’s also been a sharp reduction in the number of species.” For example, he says, earlier, on 70% of his visits, he would find the Common Iora in Lalbagh; today it is not found there at all.

Which brings us to the question…what have been the changes in birding over the decades, in Bangalore? “The number of birdwatchers, crows and common kites have increased…and the number of.birding areas has decreased!” says Prasad, joking about the reality of the situation. The green canopy in Bangalore, which sheltered so many birds, has been decimated over the decades.

Though everyone agrees that the number of birders has gone up, several feel that the number of committed people has actually come down. “It’s become a strange sport,” muses Shyamal. “A lot of people are not interested in going beyond gloating over sighting new species. They have yet to realize that one doesn’t know much about birds by just identifying them.”

Postcards used to communicate Bird watcher Field Club meeting details. Pic courtesy: L Shyamal.

This is why, to most  experienced birders, the four-year-old Bangalore Bird Race will be nothing more than a pleasant way of getting more people involved in the activity. “It can never be like a proper census or data collection”, is the unanimous opinion. However, it is a very popular annual event, where teams of birders vie to see who can spot the most species of birds on a given Sunday in January.

Ethical birding practices:

1. Disturb the birds as little as you can, even if this means not observing them properly. Some birds are more used to human beings; others are very shy and wary.

2. Do not spend too much time near nests. Birds, and nestlings, are very vulnerable to predators.

3. Do not let your passion for spotting or photography overcome the need to keep your distance from the bird.

4. Do not withold information about bird locations from other birders; they have as much right as you do, to observe them. But while doing so,  lay stress on these guidelines for ethical birding and ask them to adhere to them, too. Passing on the message of ethical birding is as important as passing on the enthusiasm for birding.

Prasad and Subbu talk about the days when, in Subbu’s words, they were “lurking behind boulders and bushes or crawling on the ground” to get as close to the bird as possible. In an era when photography was prohibitively expensive and only for the few, keen observation, and meticulous documentation was key to learning. “We need to remind the newbies not to forget the usefulness of sketches,” says Prasad.

If “bngbirds” doesn’t organize outings to various bird destinations, because  it is BWFC which is the group of birders….why, then, is BWFC no longer doing this? I get different answers. Apart from from the reason given above, Karthik also says that many areas of forest now require special permission. “We have all become busy with our various careers, and find it difficult to organize such outings now,” is Prasad’s view. The strength of the bngbirds egroup is around eighteen hundred now.

In this context, it must mentioned that one couple, Geetanjali and Subir Dhar, have been making a sustained effort to organize outings (on the third Sunday of every month)  to various Reserve Forests and other areas in the Bannerghatta zone. The outings have now become very popular.  Another group in the Sarjapura area, spearheaded by Dr. Glenn Christo, Dr Sandra Albert, and Dr Prarthana Gupta, has also just started a 4th Sunday outing , with the very first one taking place in February this year.

When more people  go on trips,  in quest of the birds that they can no longer see within the city limits, the question of “ethical birding” arises. Watching the birds without disturbing them unduly, being mindful of nests and habitat, and not letting excitement overcome discretion, is a lesson that new birders need to learn from the more experienced ones.

Sunday outings of the Bird Watchers Field Club of Bangalore:

  • 1st Sunday of the month: Outing to Hebbal Lake. Meeting point: Entrance of Hebbal Lake, approx. 7.30 am.
  • 2nd Sunday of the month: Outing to Lalbagh. Meeting point: The Glass House, facing the Bandstand, approx. 7.30 am.
  • 3rd Sunday of the month: Outing to a venue in Bannerghatta, meeting point,  time, and Wikimapia coordinates announced on the bngbirds egroup.
  • 4th Sunday of the month: Outing to the  Sarjapura area, meeting point,time,  and Wikimapia coordinates announced on the bngbirds egroup. Started in February 2011.

Birdwatching tips:

1. Wear comfortable, dull-coloured clothes (birds are very sensitive to colour.) ,good walking shoes, and caps/hats.

2. Carry a sketch/note pad and pencil, a good pair of binoculars, and a field guide. Cameras are optional.

3. For better spotting and observation, “Eyes and ears open, mouth  shut,” in the words of Karthik. Early morning and dusk are good times for birding.

4. Be on time for the outings, as it’s generally a large group and it’s not polite to keep others waiting!

5. Join the bngbirds egroup, and exchange information about your observations in the field.

6. Do make up groups and go birding in the various birding destinations in and around Bangalore. Of late, there have been untoward incidents, and there is safety in numbers. It’s also a green option to car-pool as much as one can.

7. User all the resources you can….books, experts, the Internet….to learn more about birds and birdwatching. It’s a fascinating activity, and generally leads one into various other fields of interest.

One dimension of bird-watching that seems to have “developed” quite fast lately, is bird photography. How has the immense popularity, and affordability, of digital photography, affected birding?  Prasad says, “People tend to aim and shoot, and then try to  id the bird, rather than patiently try and observe its behaviour. They want to photograph another bird rather than observe the same bird and learn more.” MBK calls it “.trophy photography”. His theory is that people sometimes  do bird photography, and make exaggerated claims, to get personal credit.. However, Subbu is far more positive about this: “The boom in bird-photography, the digital revolution and the internet birding – the way we have access to, and share,  information on birds and birding; and the speed at which we can communicate …we are on a much happier grounds than before,” are his words.

Another significant aspect is that many more  women and children, too,  are interested in birding; but MBK feels that even this has its flip side. “The children are being brought there by the parents,” he opines. Would the children be interested of their own accord, and left to wander around the fields, looking for birds, as his parents let him do? he wonders.

Apart from the inactive Merlin Nature Club,  other birding clubs (such as Green Cross), are all but defunct now; all the experienced birders say that after attending a few of the field sessions, most people form informal groups of their own and go birding together. But to me, the fact that such a large group of people are still under one umbrella…called the “bngbirds group”(though it is technically the Birdwatchers’ Field Club of Bangalore)…is something quite satisfying! It’s a sort of microcosm of India…a lot of diverse people, opinions and attitudes, still somehow held in one entity by their mutual interest in the birds of Bangalore.

About Deepa Mohan 147 Articles
Deepa Mohan is a freelance writer and avid naturalist.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you Sarath. How did you happen upon my article? I realize it’s nearly 4 years old…must add some more to the chronicles 😀

  2. I just stumbled across this post today. I love how you have managed to chronicle birdwatching in Bangalore through all your posts here, Deepa! 🙂

    The postcards are lovely. They even made a stamp for field outing details! I can imagine the excitement of getting a postcard with details of the next outing.

  3. Very nice writeup, Deepa. Enjoyed reading it.
    Common Iora, 70% of the time in Lalbagh? Wow!
    I do hope all the extra activity around birding will eventually lead to conserving our existing green cover and wetland areas.
    nanda

  4. we must remember what happened to the sparrows, or there might even be a world crow day or a world black kite day in the future…

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