Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bibliography of South Asian Ornithology

I am thrilled to announce that my bibliography on South Asian Ornithology went online yesterday! The team that made is possible comprises Suhel Quader, Anush Shetty, and Pavithra Sankaran, with inputs from Sainath Vellal.

Please visit at:

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

University of Hyderabad: of birds and a menhir

I begin scratching in my notebook no sooner we’re parked, the birding stuff taken out, and the cars locked. The ears direct my pencil, more than the eyes; the birds, of course, are always around, either visible, or audible.
Our large group troops behind today’s guide, Prof. KSR, meandering through a filigree of vegetation, towards a promised water body. I lean against a boulder and jot my tenth species, when a newcomer peers at the notebook and timorously enquires whether all those birds were seen today! His disbelief at my affirmative is expected. Most rookies do not even register birdcalls when they begin, considering them a part of background noise. He staggers away, following those who have vanished behind a screen of thorny foliage. The noisy chatter and laughter from that direction is discouraging, disturbing. Unwritten birding law frowns upon such audible excess and sudden violent movement. Breaking it is counter-productive for the birds are scared off by loud talk. But its okay I guess, for this is a day of fun birding.
I too move towards the hullabaloo and arrive at an opening in the vegetation that widens into the Gundla-kunta, a small shallow pond, with floating vegetation, and partly bouldery shores. Our group stands on some flat rocks, on its north-eastern corner. With the sun behind us we have perfect light for birding. There are a number of species actively engaged in feeding, and other activities. It is an idyllic scene. Well, almost.
This little glittering wetland, so endearing to the birds that use it, is also a dumping ground for sundry items of garbage, and a popular graveyard for that peculiar symbol of mindlessness, the shattered beer bottle. The place is littered to the gills. Empty bottles float, open-mouthed, all over the dimpled surface of Gundla-kunta. Shards of glass glint on the shores and the rock we are gathered upon crackles with it underfoot.
This act of utterly avoidable irresponsibility shocks and angers me, for it is an indignity meted to that which I revere. This was, after all, an institution for higher studies. Educated people, yes, even in the tenets of a civil society, live and study here. Does this fact absolve them of civilised behaviour and its collective, social responsibility? The wanton defacing of a public place needs a special germ of callousness to start it. The first bottle which is brought out into this pristine (read devoid of garbage) landscape, packed with care lest it break, and leak what it holds, once emptied of its contents, becomes a burden to take back for proper disposal. Chucked or shattered it simply catalyses similar future indiscretions. Such a sacrilegious act of despoliation soon assumes the dirty patina of a regular dump. Subsequent visitors see this ‘convenience’ rather than the natural beauty of the landscape beyond, which it besmirches. And before one realises what is happening, the blight takes hold.
Should not a society that permits unrestricted access to public places also demand that such areas be left in the same, clean state they were found? The self-discipline that achieves this is a social prerequisite, and really small change, in terms of the effort required, for the solace of unblemished landscapes. So what does one do to remedy the scourge? To my mind, the only solution that might last is the involvement of the perpetrators to clean their own backyard. Yes, in this case, finding the polluters might be difficult. So involve the entire campus. Let the USP of the exercise be pride in a clean campus! If this involves the teaching staff, local celebrities, environment groups, etc., so much the better! Do this every six months and I am sure it will make a huge difference, a marked shift in attitude, instil a sense of belonging to the place.
While we stand for an hour and watching birds, the excitement and enjoyment is palpable—and why not? We spot over 25 species from that one spot. Besides their ‘normal’ activities of flying around, feeding, swimming, and perching, there is some hilarious act-like-something-one-is-not, to confuse the smug birders. There are personal highlights for me—a family of dabchicks comprising fussy parents, and three precocious black baubles cavorting in the water; both species of jacanas, in different parts of the pond; and, the rare darter (two!) planing overhead in absolute abandon.
Now there are those who will argue that this diversity illustrates the indifference of wild nature to the minor callousness of devil-may-care citizenry. But that is just a senseless, myopic argument, from those who are happy to accept the visible, immediate present, as the only reality. Unfettered pollution, let it be clearly understood, ultimately wipes out entire life-cycles found in such ecosystems, big or small, gouging out the soul of a landscape, leaving behind a pauperized state of barrenness. A ‘wilderness’ overtaken by the detritus of an insensate community is a sad reflection of the state of a collective conscience, an objurgation of the right to call ourselves sentient beings.
Prof. KSR leads us northward, circuitously, through a fallow green field of rough ankle-high grass, to the earthen bund of Gundla-kunta. As soon as we scramble up its sloping side, an aura of an ancient presence, an antiquity, not so much geographical, as civilisational, is sensed. The tamarind trees leaning away from the slope are old. He says there is archaeological evidence from this very campus of millennial human occupation, even of the cultivation of millets, that much-ignored cereal. It is quite likely that this very kunta irrigated nutritious crops for several generations of Dravidians. To desecrate and pollute sacrosanct ancient sites of historical import is as sacrilegious as graffiti-scrawled monuments. What conscience permits such a strain of cultural defacement?
The atmosphere of the kunta, is so different from the bund. Angled sunlight shines on its surface. Sounds are muted under these brooding old trees, on a ground carpeted with several seasons’ leaf-fall. Wonder borders awe, and a strangely elating joy laces with deference, as though we have chanced upon a tiny gem of a marvel here, which each of us, from the glint in our eye, seems to carry away.
The walk to the nursery tosses some more birds in our path. Jaunty-tailed Indian robins, electrifying wagtails, a mysterious lark, a pair of amorous munias, and a fervently pleading plaintive cuckoo.
Tea follows, in the university’s canteen, and then, near the entrance to the campus, Prof. K leads our motorcade into an abandoned plantation of lanky-boled, thinly foliaged trees. Parking the vehicles we walk to what turns out to be the most amazing sight of our trip—at least for me: a four thousand year old granite menhir, a pre-Iron Age monolith to honour the dead. It would have taken gargantuan brawn to make it stand, or remarkable ingenuity. We shoot pictures of the group around this gigantic tombstone. Then we disperse.
Walking back to the cars, we are appalled at the lamentable repetition of litter. All around this historical monument, this irrefutable evidence of four millennia of human life, lie the same shameful broken bottles, epitomising the complete erosion of respect for culture and history, of a complete lacking of any sense of propriety that collective responsibility demands, of the lack of even a modicum of shame at negating personal margins of social obligation and behaviour.
I depart with mixed feelings: exaltation in the sense of perspective that history and archaeology provide; wellbeing from a morning spent outdoors chasing birds; utter shame at the insensitivity of fellow humans. But towering over all these emotions is a sense of rage—and the realisation that ultimately, an education only leads the horse to water.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bikram Grewal interviews me …

This interview by Bikram Gewal was first hosted on The text below contains three questions, and answers, that were deleted from that website.

Question: How did a young boy from a business family in Hyderabad get involved in the world of birds?

WWF was the great trigger. Its Andhra Pradesh representative, late Capt. N. S. Tyabji, spoke about birdwatching in my school, which was an eye-opener, as I did not even know such a term existed! It was also the age of WWF’s posters. They issued a slew of endearing ones of tiger, and leopard cubs, etc. I became a WWF member, enrolled in its Nature Clubs of India movement, and through its newsletters (I still have all the copies) learnt much, including about Dr Salim Ali, and the BNHS. I persuaded dad to buy me Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds, which he did, and also made me a member of Bombay Natural History Society! Then I looked at birds through binocs, and was permanently hooked.
Despite my interests seeming an oddity in society, my parents were my anchor and support. I was a sort of introvert, and liked the world of books. Birding too, like reading, is a hobby that can be pursued entirely by oneself, with a great deal of satisfaction. Gradually I realised that birding had enough in it to not just interest me for a lifetime, but was also an avenue for channeling my energies in stuff I am fairly good at, like, research. We are happy humsafars.

Q: You have been at the helm of affairs, for some time, of the Birdwatchers’ Society of Andhra Pradesh. It is a very vibrant group. One of the criticisms about the group is that they do not play an activists’ role. Your comments.

Activism requires a great deal of dedication, knowledge, and time, besides knowledge of the law. It also demands a kind of stability that comes from simple infrastructure like an office (an address), and at least a few people who are constantly available and willing for such work. The membership of BSAP is always in a state of flux. Its main aim is to spread the joy of birding among people. Not activism. It has a varied membership comprising people of all ages, and diverse lifestyles. We were always clear that we would not get into activism but support it from the outside by supplying information about birds and their habitat to both, activists, and the government. There are several committed activist groups out there and they are doing a great job. Lets just say that there are activists and there are birders, and we belong to the latter bunch.

Q: What is your opinion of the current state of birdwatching in India today? How has it changed over the years?

Birdwatching, happily, is in a robust state of growth in India today. The past three decades have seen enormous changes in the way people communicate and learn, through digital technology. The Internet is a great smorgasbord of floating information free for use, available at the touch of a key and the speed of light. This is a metamorphic leap. Increasingly scientific journals and period books are available as PDFs online. Email has brought the entire worldwide community into easy contact. The gathering of information is child’s play, but the conversion of that into knowledge is every single person’s privilege.
The best part of the contemporary scene is the fact that it has truly fledged from the BNHS, and spread its wings across the country. In Dr Salim Ali’s time, anything to do with birds was either equated to the great man, or the BNHS. Not so any more. Scientists who graduated from BNHS or WII have begun small institutions all over the place and are driving research. Amateur ornithology was never stronger in India. Citizen scientists wield notebook and binoculars with great felicity. Suhel Quader has pioneered citizen science through MigrantWatch and SeasonWatch. Satish Pande and his group in Pune are involved in bird surveys, education, species-specific studies, ethno-ornithology, and publishing. C. Sashikumar and his colleagues in Kerala carry out systematic land, and pelagic surveys. Bishwarup Raha’s conservation and education efforts in and around Nashik are laudable. Nitin Jamdar has worked for more than a decade with Trevor Price on warblers. BNHS, of course, continues its ornithological commitments—conservation of endangered species, migratory bird studies, etc. There are so many more I would like to name! Other institutes have sprung up too, doing equally laudable work—SACON, NCF, NCBS, etc.
One amazing phenomenon revolutionising Indian natural history in general, is the resurgence of photography—again an offshoot of the digital age we live in. Whether for pleasure or for scientific documentation, photographers have produced an amazing catalogue of our fauna and flora, as witnessed by portfolios on websites such as India Nature Watch, and Oriental Bird Images. Photographers are combing the country for pictures of the unique and the undocumented. It is a fantastic time for Indian ornithology.

Q: You are the Indian representative of the International ornithological Committee in India. What do they do here in India?

The International Ornithological Committee was recast as the International Ornithologist’s Union in August 2010, during the last International Ornithological Congress in Brazil. Actually, I am an Associate Representative—a person whose name has been proposed for membership, but who is not yet elected, and so has no voting rights. However India has six member ornithologists in the IOU, since many years. Till this change of focus and formation of the IOU, the IOC comprised a body of 200 eminent world ornithologists, and its main work was conducting the four-yearly Congress. Now, having broadened its scope to include different categories of memberships, its objectives and purpose have been substantially enlarged to encompass a wider range of issues, among which are dissemination of information, promotion of international cooperation among organizations, strengthening locally-based research, and reaching out to amateur ornithologists. A fund has been mooted for the first time to meet envisaged expenses.
More than a decade ago there was an effort to form an organization in India, called the Ornithological Society of India (OSI), with Shri Zafar Futehally as its Chairman. Despite several meetings, it petered out. One of its objectives was to try and get the IOC to hold a Congress in India. However, the future of cooperation with the IOU looks bright, and organizations, and individuals should contact them directly.

Q: You attempted (With Ranjit Manakadan) to standardise common and scientific names of the birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Subsequently Tim Inskipp and then Pam Rasmussen came up with their versions. How relevant is your version in today’s date?

Ranjit was preparing a list of English names of birds for the BNHS, and I realised that it was a good opportunity of adding to it the correct, and full scientific nomenclature of each species, thus making it a proper checklist of the birds of India, something that was lacking in such a compact form. Asad Rahmani, Director of the BNHS, agreed that this was a good idea, and encouraged us. Ranjit’s part was preparing the list of English names; mine, of compiling the full scientific nomenclature of each species, including binomen, author, and year of publication. Though I say it myself, I think we produced a neat document that was published in Buceros. It should be updated periodically, for nomenclature and taxonomy are both in constant flux these days due to the revolutionary techniques of studying DNA to determine the status of avian taxa in the phylogenetic tree.
Though Indian ornithologists began using ‘our’ list extensively, the BNHS itself seemed uncertain: their The book of Indian birds by Salim Ali (13th edition; editor, J. C. Daniel) converted all English and scientific names to our Buceros list, while their periodical publications seem to have tilted towards the Grimmskipp names. The Manakadan & Pittie list, as it is known, is in a unique position of adapting to the latest changes quickly, as it is now an online document. Like other countries, India too needs a credible ‘national’ checklist that is monitored and tinkered, and followed by ornithologists and scientific publications in our country.
I believe that the naming game is tourism driven. Birding has become a global phenomenon and the global birdwatcher does not like to confuse bird names. This move towards standardisation has robbed us of localised English names that have been in use for decades, and introduced some hilarious names in their place. In the final analysis, however, I must confess, it is the names given in popular field guides in circulation today, whether Ali, Grimmett et al., or the Ripley Guide, that will prevail.
In the second edition of our list I had written, “Change that benefits everybody is good. But change for the sake of change is another thing. The globalization of bird names impoverishes the unique culture, history, character and literature, the very fabric, of a nation’s ornithological history. Indian English names of birds are as cherished by us as are American English names by the Americans and UK English names by the British.”

Q: Your ‘dictionary of scientific bird names originating from the Indian region’ is personally fascinating to me. Are their many people in India who are really bothered with larger aspects of bird, other than just watching birds?

The meaning of words is a fascinating subject, especially if you are using a name regularly, without knowing what it means. I was always interested in etymology, and when I got a copy of James A. Jobling’s wonderful Dictionary of scientific bird names, it was a great revelation. I realised that there were so many birds that carried Latinised names that had originated from the Indian Subcontinent, that compiling them together would make an interesting document. I scoured the indices of the FBI and Handbook, listed names that sounded from this region. Then I tracked the original papers in search of etymology. Often the meaning was not given, and I had to search various ethnic dictionaries, query friends for suggestions, and trawl the Internet. It was a thrilling journey, and I still consider it time well spent.
The BNHS recently co-published a dictionary of bird names, authored by Satish Pande. I am sure their survey revealed a market for this type of book. But to answer your question, there is an increasing number of birdwatchers nowadays who go beyond birdwatching, by researching various aspects of a bird’s life, or general aspects of ornithology. This is possible because of the humongous amount of information available on the Internet, and the ease of communication that the digital revolution has brought about. Unlike the nineteenth century, when it could take up to six months for ornithological news to travel from Europe to the orient, or vise-versa, today, if a bird is sighted where it has not been recorded before, the entire world knows about it in a second! And ornithology is, after all, an evolving science, and so its history is always gripping.

Q: I had recently the pleasure of browsing through your personal collection of bird books, which must rank amongst the best personal collections. What do books mean to you?

My library is far from representative. It lacks several period works, which are now rare and cost a king’s ransom. I started collecting books on South Asian ornithology when I realised that there were hardly any comprehensive collections in India. I may be wrong here. I know for a fact that my friends Harkirat Sangha, and Rishad Naoroji, collect this genre, and I know that you have one of the finest libraries, but these are not enough, and the more access we have to books on the ornithology of our region, the firmer our foundations for future generations. I try to collect all editions of a book. Over the years books have assumed a huge importance in my life. I spend time with them, I browse them often, I rely on them, and I even simply sit in their company, with a sense of exquisite belonging, and kinship with the authors!
I am a book worm and read across several genres like, natural history, world history, literature, books on books, modern literature, historical fiction, WWII, etc. Books are my constant companions. They never complain, are never tiresome, and when I do not wish to hear them, all I have to do is shut the volume. Books decorate and furnish my room, my living space. I cannot imagine a world without books.

Q: You are India’s leading bibliophile when it comes to birds. Did this obsession grow with your passion for books?

Actually it grew out of my desire for readily available information. When I began birding, two publications contained papers and articles on birds, the JBNHS and the NLBW. The only book in fashion, and available, was SA’s BIB, and the expensive HB. But I realised that fresh information was pouring in constantly through the journals. I began indexing these under species’ names, and area, so I could keep up with new insights. Initially I maintained longhand foolscap sheets, filed alphabetically in a ring binder. Then I graduated to 5”x3” indexing cards, then computers. Somewhere along the way, Tim Inskipp, who incidentally might be the leading ornithological bibliophile for the Indian Subcontinent, advised that my database was shaping into an important archive, and that I should try and include everything published on birds. So everything has gone in, including books, journals, theses, newspaper articles, unpublished reports, Internet reports, etc. I feel that ultimately, a user has to decide what he/she wants from my database.
I have been able to compile this database because of two things. I am a touch typist, and I persevered, despite the hours upon hours spent pouring through libraries and their contents, juggling scientific names, counting pages, and plates, and scouring text and art with a critic’s eye.

Q: Your book “Birds in Books” is one of the most impressive documents I have seen in recent years, what were the traumas and travails involved in the writing and production of the book?

My friend, Ravi Singh, CEO of WWF-India, had often heard me talk about my bibliography, and how I wanted to put it online. Once he told me, “Forget the online stuff. What you need is a book on the shelf.” Frankly, that was what I too wanted, and so I began to think about how my large database could be converted into a book. That I could limit it to just books on South Asian ornithology came to me some time later, and I began working towards it.
Though pretty voluminous, this book was not traumatic, in that it got written over twenty years, as I collected and filed information on bird books. Computer software makes this process seem so easy. So in the final stage, there was no trauma. My friend, Rishad Naoroji, who has published the fantastic Birds of prey of the Indian Subcontinent, introduced me to my publisher Rukun Advani, who readily agreed to publish the book under his imprint, Permanent Black. I was fortunate in my meticulous editor, Rivka Israel, who smoothened the text. But the greatest help I received was from two people. One was Edward Dickinson, in the UK, and the other, Murray Bruce, in Australia. I have had the pleasure of meeting the former, but the latter, never. Murray and I communicated over email, and he shared his knowledge extravagantly with me. Edward took the manuscript on a holiday to Scotland, and worked on it there! Both of them hugely improved the work in terms of accuracy and content.
In a way I was also working on shaky ground. There were no extant bibliographies for South Asia. Those that did exist were family monographs or area specific databases, and either fragmented, or dated. The search for what was published in the interregnum was a fantastic journey.
I also had to learn the art of describing the physical geography of a book, an entire world with its own terminologies, and technicalities.

Q: Tim Inskipp pointed out that the one big omission from your book was the books published by the Zoological Survey of India. What were the reasons for this?

The only reason they are not in is that I left them for the end. That was my mistake. You see whenever I came across ZSI publications in libraries, I was sure that they would be easily available when I wanted to buy them, and that I would enter them into the bibliography after owning copies, from the comfort of home. But unfortunately the ZSI sales office in Kolkata is a dinosaur when it comes to selling their books. I sent several reminders and waited over a year for them to respond, to no avail. And then the book just had to get printed. I decided that I would go ahead, for I did not know when I would get hold of copies. Ultimately I had to request relatives in Kolkata to buy the lot and send them to me.

Q: After a controversial start, INDIAN BIRDS seems to have stabilized under your editorship. What are the problems you face in steering this ship?

It could be said that IB was born as a result of a controversy, but once it was launched, initially as the Newsletter for Ornithologists, we were quite clear about our goal. We wanted to raise the bar of ornithological reporting / writing in India, of course, in the amateur/citizen scientist segment that our publication fitted into. Very soon we realised that we filled an important niche, and that people really looked forward to every new issue. It is now seven years, and IB is doing well on the contributor’s front, i.e., we have a full file, but I would there were more subscribers.
My greatest problem is that I cannot keep up with the flood of articles and papers, and often disappoint contributors with delays. Most are patient, and understanding, but some get restless, which is to be expected.
We had also decided, when we began, that we would assist people with their manuscripts and try to use all qualifying contributions. This is a time consuming business, and at times really painstaking. But ultimately the results are rewarding.
I think that printing full colour issues has paid off, and we at IB have to thank all the generous photographers for this emulatory largesse.

Q: Who are the great influences in your birding life? And how did they shape your interest?

The late Pushp Kumar IFS, who retired as the PCCF of the AP Forest Department, was a man ahead of his time as a forester, and wildlifer. He was a birder par excellence, and I was lucky he steered the BSAP, as its President, and I could learn from him. He was an extraordinary influence.
So was the late Capt. Nadir S. Tyabji, the Hon. Rep. of WWF-India. I learnt a lot from him.
The ebullient Humayun Abdulali was a great influence too. He had a reputation of sorts that was legendary in the BNHS for his purported vitriolic nature, but either it was unfounded, or he never used it on me. I learnt basic things from him: how to file notes on index cards; how to be exact about spelling, and taxonomy, “A mistake in print is almost inerasable”; and how to go to the source of everything I was tracking. Whenever I was in Bombay, he would take me birding, calling up, and stating abruptly, “Free tomorrow to birdwatch? Come to the main gate of the Raj Bhavan, we’re going in!” He would write in longhand, on inland letters, and once wrote to ask, “What were those things flying around on the cricket field?” He had seen this on his TV, while watching a 50-over match between India, and another country. His inquisitiveness was insurmountable.
From the indomitable Zafar Futehally, I learnt more about character, and fortitude, than anything else. I learnt about the dignity of the human spirit and the deep satisfaction of quiet, diligent pursuit of passion.
Edward Dickinson has been a great mentor. He has the singular ability to make you comfortable in the labyrinths of ornithological taxonomy and history. He has the wonderful grace of imbibing one with the confidence to tackle complicated issues of dating names.

Q: What are your plans for the future and what mountains do you have yet to climb?

I have long wanted to place my full bibliographic database online, at the disposal of the birding community, and am happy to tell you that some friends are making this dream a reality. There is no point in sitting on such a lot of information without sharing it. It is also of the nature that requires constant updating, and therefore the Internet is the best option as a searchable database. Keeping abreast with publications on the ornithology of South Asia is a full-time affair, and needs constant attention. I still have to work a great deal on the database, adding keywords, annotations, etc.
Indian BIRDS is an ongoing labour of love, and my goal is to strengthen its subscription base.
I would like to make the BSAP a truly vibrant and contributory organization, whose members are committed citizen scientists and help strengthen Indian ornithology.
I am turning a couple of ideas in my head. Lets see what transpires.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why I birdwatch

The water floats about 400 ducks. It is still, and a dark grey-blue, under a perfectly clean January sky. Four of us are huddled behind a mound of earth, on a man-made earthen bund. Large-canopied tamarind trees line it along the water’s margin. We have come to this little wetland to count birds, driving from Hyderabad for two hours, the landscape pouring away from our speeding car; and now this sudden stillness is very welcome. Its grounding elemental stability, and the warm sun on our backs are comforting.

As we settle into the basic mathematics of a census, the southern sky is suddenly stitched with uneven lines of ducks. Skeins approach this lucid earth’s eye, floating like motes from one end of its curving firmament to the other, turning in tight formation, tugged back by the instinctive bond with their swimming brethren, as though an elastic band were stretched to its maximum, and then relaxed. Twice they circle the water at breakneck speed, with a completely mad effortlessness; then two peel off, making for the water. A cohesive tension in the flock breaks, and the entire lot plunge in comic pell-mell. Their sharp descent rips aloud the blue sky-cloth, and in the enveloping silence, the tearing sound of wind forced through curved feathers is an astonishing aural delight.

Is there a palpable joy in these returning anatids? Open-mouthed I gape as one, then three more flip in their descent, turn-turtle, belly-up in their plummeting fall through ether, up-righting last minute to belly-flop in the water. It’s a remarkable feat of contortion. While the body rotates upwards, twisting at the neck, the head is held straight to retain orientation. Why would a bird do this? I grope for logical answers; then settle for anthropomorphism—for the sheer thrill of it. Happiness may not, after all, be an entirely human privilege.

From the moment I spot them, through their fantastic airmanship, the magical rending of sky-cloth, to the jubilant bushel splash of sparkling water, I sit mesmerised by the beauty of the moment. It burns indelibly on my mind’s eye, etches itself upon my heart, and I think, this is reason enough to watch birds.

The red-headed pochards bob like cork in the eddies their landings create. There is great excitement and agitation in the manhandled raft of Anatidae. Drakes rear up in the water, stallions on hind legs, flailing wings vigorously. This flotilla of punks, dressed up in luminous orange headgear, and candy pink beaks is riveting. Gradually peace returns on the waterscape, and ripples plane out. A jostled breeze sighs through a million tamarind leaves. Wind bourne come the whistles of wigeon, flaunting their sandalwood paste-smeared foreheads in the distance.

It is a wonderfully idyllic setting. In the lee of the bund stretches a square patterned paddy tapestry, embroidered with glinting still waters. Its miniature dykes patrolled stealthily by rapier beaked pond herons, its sky-reflecting water frogeye dimpled. Forlorn toddy palm clumps stand abandoned in scattered disarray across this quilted landscape.

Screaming palm swifts tail each other, swing around fronds, arrow from clump to clump, boomerang back on slender fluttering wings. Green bee-eaters catch prey with an audible snap of mandibles, and float down to a telegraph wire to dismember a bee of its business end, or disrobe a butterfly roughly, tearing off its wings, tossing the naked body down their gullets. The buoyant colourful wings, plucked and discarded, bereft of direction, abandon themselves to the wayward breeze.

Bullock carts clatter past to a village at the end of the dirt road. A skeletal bare-footed toddy-tapper pedals his spare bicycle towards lanky trees, in the crowns of which he has tied a neat cluster of earthen pots, to collect oozing liquid that gradually ferments into toddy. He travels light; loincloth, turban, circle of climbing rope over one shoulder, to hoopla around the thinly corrugated palm, sickle, and the throat-scratching packet of rolled beedi leaves. He passes by trailing a haze of mild fermentation.

Birding takes me to such serendipitous settings where the zeal of citizen science takes a back seat and my senses absorb an essence of landscape I otherwise rarely imbibe. It creates wonderful opportunities to delve deep into myself, stilling a futile search for life’s meanings in an increasingly fractious world that we are urbanising at catastrophic speed, taking away from a generous land the solace of open spaces.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A review of my book by Carol Inskipp, in The Auk

Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology—A Bibliography.—Aasheesh Pittie. 2010. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, India. xxi + 845 pp. ISBN 81-7824-294-X. Rs 795. Distributed by Orient Blackswan Private Ltd. (www.orientblackswan. com).

Published in The Auk: 128 (2): 433–434.

This volume is an outstanding work of meticulous research documenting for the first time the ornithology of South Asia and nearby political areas: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. The region encompasses both Oriental and Palaearctic realms.
            The published literature on ornithology in the region is vast, spanning almost three centuries and recording over 1,200 species of birds. Aasheesh Pittie points out that as early as 1713–1750, about 15 books relating to South Asian ornithology had been published; this number had soared to over 1,700 by the end of 2009!
            In this bibliography, a comprehensive list of books that contain information on the birds of South Asia is provided. Scholarly, popular, as well as relatively obscure texts, are included to present a complete as possible picture of ornithological publications on South Asia. Taxonomic texts dealing with the classification and nomenclature of birds, travelogues, picture books, field guides, works published as monographs within journals, bibliographies, biographies, autobiographies, country handbooks, regional avi-faunas, multi-volume ornithological works, art folios, catalogues of museum collections, and simple checklists are all included.
                  The books are mainly in English, except for certain period literature that is in German, French, Latin, etc. A few works in Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Malaylam, etc) are also included, though the author states that these may not comprise a complete representation of existing work in regional languages.
                  The general arrangement of the works is alphabetical by author and chronological by year, under author.
                  Three indices are provided, facilitating easy access to the entries. The first is a general index of places, subjects, and taxa; the second, an index of new names proposed by authors; and the third an index of co-authors and or co-editors.
                  Twenty-one pages of introduction detail a fascinating chronology of books published on South Asian ornithology and is complemented by an interesting timeline of books from 1713 to 2009 listing the dates of key works.
                  This bibliography provides a window on a massive bank of scientific and popular knowledge that is invaluable to contemporary ornithologists, both amateur and professional. It is a landmark publication of South Asian ornithology and belongs in all university and museum libraries and in those of anyone with a keen interest in birds in the region.

Carol Inskipp, 1 Herneside, Welney, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE14 9SB, United Kingdom; e-mail:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Birding K. B. R. National Park, Hyderabad: 17 April 2011

Sometimes it is invigorating birding with beginners. Their enthusiasm rubs off on ‘old hands’ like me, whose airy mantle is scrubbed off with the vim of fresh blood.
This trip to KBR has a flock of juvenile birdwatchers flexing the pinions of their new hobby. Some are photographers with forbiddingly long lenses, no doubt a handy tool even for seasoned birders. A photograph gives me the privilege of armchair identification. Others bring less extravagant equipment, their palpable enthusiasm.
Early morning perambulators goggle our motley lot in disbelief, as though we are knights of Arthur’s table. But we are used to this attention, and invariably win the day by mist-netting one or more gawkers who succumb to our intriguing behaviour and unrestrained joy at sighting a bird; so that they join us.
The first stop is near a flowering tree. It is a-whirr with wings. A family of Indian golden orioles; purple sunbirds in various stages of dressing-up, resplendent shimmering males, demure hens in mute olives, and an eclipse-dishabille male in just a necktie; a ménage-a-trois of Indian robins; a self-consciously pink-billed Tickell’s flowerpecker, peering at the world through polished beady lignite eyes; a dapper cock Tickell’s flycatcher glistening in the recessed shadows, lisping a droll whistled cadence. Too the commoners—chattering redvented-, and white-browed bulbuls, crooning spotted doves, the distant clarion of a grey partridge cleaving all noise with its shrill urgency. Shot arrow sprays of rose-ringed parakeets tearing the blue sky above, giddy house-swifts chasing each other’s dazzling white rumps.
Where does one begin with a cheeping novice? With the first bird. Sometimes it is even more basic—how to use, no, with both eyes open (!), the shiny new binocs. There, look to the right of the tree trunk, half way up, or better, imagine the face of a giant clock in front of you, and look at 3 o’clock.
To point out the pastel orange, off-white, and blue bundle that sings upon the bough, and give it a name to hold on to, identify with, and watch the visible pleasure, the disbelief-impregnated gasp, is my reward. My hope is that a life-long appetite for birding has been ignited.
Thankfully no one argues when I point out a black-coloured male Indian robin, as one had many years ago, “A robin has to be blue,” a-la, Robin Blue garment whitener advertised in various media. His shock at learning the truth was colossal, and for the rest of the trip he looked positively let down by the demigod the media has become.
One asks how I remember birdcalls. The only way I know is to follow a sound, to cut a direct path towards it, then to stop and stare at the songster, to allow its song to drench you, soak into your very skin, become a part of your existence, your charmed private landscape.
An invisible iora whistles variations on the theme of “shaubheegi.” It blanks out my world, deafening in its lilting simplicity, it pulses into every green fibre around me, ricochets in canopies, distils the breeze, sings a glorious morning.
In the leafy world around me an intense drama is enacted, covering the ambit of essential human emotions—sex, food, and territory. I am an unseeing spectator, an aural witness.
A barbwire tangle of dry thorny branches snares an iridescent star. A cock purple sunbird, glistening in burnished purple has lit upon a twig, pouring in the breeze a cascade of exuberantly tripping notes. Its hidden golden-yellow epaulettes erupt into brilliantly contrasting searchlights, as it sings its heart out. In the circular field of my binocs a blue canvas holds jumbled thorny bush, and the mesmerising radiance of the tiny songster. As it swivels fervently, now bowing, now stretching on tip-toe with head thrown back, intent upon proclaiming territory, or enticing a coy hen, light dances its plumage into a coruscating iridescence.
A few “good” birds, those that are seen well, enjoyed thoroughly, listened to carefully, and thrilled in, give me greater joy than the endless pursuit of variety, fleetingly glimpsed, abandoned, unabsorbed, and unimbibed. The insatiate twitcher is ever hungry. Here is another thought for a beginner. Allow birds to come to you and savour their individuality, bird by bird.
If I were to choose a seductress from the common birds, to tempt someone into the birdwatcher’s fold, it would be a tantalising golden oriole. A resplendent male dazzles us as it feeds on the green berries of a tree. Light bounces off him with almost artificial effulgence. Unaware of his magnetic attractiveness, he paces the branches in showy preoccupation. His glistening black primaries and masquerade ball mask contrast spectacularly with his golden-yellow plumage. His strangely flesh-pink bill is an untarnished, pure appendage that is inserted delicately into nectar-sweetened flowers.
A few of us just cannot move on. We stand hypnotised by this aurum creature. Words are few and far. What can one say in the presence of such beauty? All are awed into a hushed silence of admiration. Thoughts are voiceless, internalised. All the senses combine into a single invocation, which at such times, overwhelms, despite stoicism, or temporal belief, and leaves us stranded amidst the glacial progress of civilisations, the upsurge of cultures, alone, in the presence of untarnished natural sublimity. Each one of us imbibes an oriole moment in those fractional seconds, in absolute solitude.
The path meanders towards a shrunken wetland that draws annual rafts of waterfowl, in winter, when it is augmented with monsoonal runoff. The authorities have been moving earth in their wisdom, deepening the trough to catch and hold more water. Excavated mud is piled up as a causeway on one side. Now the water is a shallow pool, its margins, atrophied in the increasingly hot days, fringed with cooling reeds. Rounded boulders lie scattered on the shores, some under an umbrella of stunted scrub. A couple of them form convenient islands in the water, on which some birds rest.
The group is tired, and hungry, sinking to the ground, under the leafy trees. Breakfast is passed around, throats quenched. Gradually conversation re-surfaces, and laid-back birding takes hold of satiated birders.
Dabchicks float placidly upon the still water. One or two are in breeding plumage. There are a few juveniles, precociously swimming behind adults. One, albinistic, sits on a rock in the water, foxing our rationality. Only when it slips into the liquid do we realise our folly … and it is not an albino! On the opposite shore a grotesquely long-toed jacana flashes its cuprum wings, as it scampers, as best it can on toes that have evolved to tread floating leaves. In the process it uses its wings like the balancing pole of a tightrope walker. Still, it is difficult to see, and the newly minted birders learn another trick of the trade. Do not move yourself, but spot movement. The next time the lily-walker flutters for balance, it is spotted. Its white eye-stripe is an instant hit. Two eternally questioning red-wattled lapwings stride about confidently on yellow legs, on the dry foreshores, yelling their lungs out. Much ado about nothing, or is it? Nature abhors wasted metabolism. A purple heron sails in on cupped wings, legs dangling for a foothold, planeing towards a small clump of reeds on the near shore, touching down gingerly, before folding wings over its back with visible relief. It is in brilliantly fresh plumage—ever a delight to behold. A few minutes later, its cousin, the grey heron appears in a slicked descent to the trembling margin. The ‘essed’ neck, ending at the rapier beak, is tensed up and back, like a reined-in stallion, stilt legs lowered to gently touch down into the pond-smelling ooze of its preferred terra infirma. This individual feels the heat and wades into the water no sooner it lands, letting the stagnant marsh rise to soak its belly. It looks comical, walking thus, as though swimming! But herons hunt in different ways, and this is one, wherein prey is consciously disturbed by the wading bird, and snapped up.
Our way back is partly strewn with dead leaves. The cataclysmic orgy of spring, the colossal putting-forth of leaves, the landscape transforming green foliage, lies in absolute ruin all around, devastated by the stealthy turn of seasons. Stark and bare trees surround us. Not to worry, I philosophise, this annual cycle is the engine of rebirth that is as old as the earth itself. It sustains life.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Anantgiri, Vikarabad, Andhra Pradesh: 20 March 2011

A faint “scree” chalk-on-slate sound comes from my right, as I descend into the valley. Repeated, it piques my curiosity, bouncing an echo from a befogged memory. It is uncanny how our recumbent sensory memorabilia hibernate, coiled and forgotten in the recesses of the mind, springing forth, afresh, at the slightest provocation.
That whispered gossamer note draws me towards it. I climb a few rough-hewn steps in the rocky side of the valley, deliberately, carefully, lest its source fly away. A faint movement, a give-away white spot on a dark rock background arrests my searching eye. Stealthily raising bins I focus on a glowing male Blue-headed Rock Thrush. Standing erect, with neck out-stretched, and beak partially open it is the picture of concentration as it creaks out that rusty-hinged strain. About the size of a black-headed myna, its plumage is broken up by an amazing mixture of cobalt blue, black, chestnut, and snow white, its eye covered by a bandit’s black mask. Its mien, however, belies the swagger of its flamboyant feathers; it is hesitant and uneasy on the darkly pitted lava, the confidence of its cut-up clothing crumbles as I approach. In a jiffy it is off, swirling its torn cape into flight, flashing glistening white spots that mirror its irritation.
It remains in the area, despite me perching on a convenient rock, taking notes, observing other goings on under these ancient banyan trees, rooted in aeon-defying stone that is carpeted with their yellowed rustling dry leaves. I spy it often in its furtive, tip-toed flight, bluffing my existence while hunting around the margins of my vision, disappearing exasperatingly behind an obstructing branch, as though the act of shifting my head by a hair’s width, for a better view, tugs it miraculously behind a screen! Who says the art of birding is a breeze? One way of succeeding at it plays upon patience: enough to earn the trust of and, sufficient to fool one’s target into considering you a part of the landscape. One has to sharpen this tool on the whetstone of practise, to savour its fruit.
Two relatives of this elegantly feathered elfin also share these spaces. They are heftier, the size of jungle babblers, of which anon, but more suave—every feather in place, always at their best behaviour. Their grey-blue mantle is setoff by a sumptuous wash of ochre, their cheeks tearstained white and brown, marking them for life with a palpable sadness.
It seems a busy time for them—the hour when they worm an ocean of dry leaves, and they are in no mood to let me distract them from their toil. Unlike their timorous mountain-dwelling small thrush-billed[1] cousin, they are bold blue-eared animal hunters[2], and so they stay. I am spellbound by their magical existence, and gutted by the visceral realisation that I am not even a part of their world.
They flick aside leaves with stout beaks, peer into crevices and shadows with moist black eyes. They parse every extraordinary movement tirelessly, ever vigilant, for invariably such motion means flight, or food. Today they are determined wormers, working the leaf-litter methodically, purposefully hopping on to the rough stone platform, never far from each other. I wonder about this, till I see, just once, one of the pair shiver its wings in the giveaway gesture of a hungry juvenile. There is no loud fussing, like some birds I know, but neither is there any lagging by the other thrush. Instantly it is beside the now revealed youngster, with a satiating morsel. When I eyeball this domestic scene through the bins, my ears filter a ratchety scratching buzz from the background noise, which is uttered in a ghost whisper by the young worm hunter.
The thing that strikes me, whilst I watch these two, is the method of their terrestrial locomotion. The jungle babblers show me how the thrushes differ in the way they hop. The babblers bounce along the ground, tackling undulations, obstructions, etc., without hesitation or extra effort. Their legs are placed higher up their bellies than those of the ground thrushes, and I think therein lies the difference. The thrushes are lumberous hoppers. They lean forward, shifting their centre of gravity, thereby creating an impetus, simultaneously pushing off with their feet—launching into this laboured serial of bounds, from one point to another. Their execution of this movement is so well-oiled and spirited that when seen casually, it is a joyous sight.
The thrush-mimicking[3] babblers seem to absorb their exuberant energy directly from the earth. A ruffian flock of four rummages the leaf-layered earth pelt under the figgery, ping ponging across its floor with the belligerence of self-appointed bouncers. They exude boundless energy as they graze the detritus strewn land. No tindery leaf is left unturned; no crevice of bark or stonework escapes their inquisitive eye; no suspicious morsel is left un-jabbed. Their constant guttural banter, variable to the extreme in pitch and intensity, forms an impenetrable cloud of sound above their gastronomic safari—but their demeanour remains blasé. Propelled on springy legs they bounce with surprising swiftness, towards some unfortunate arthropod whose utmost frantic attempt at escape, burying itself into the decomposing litter, is preordained to fail. The sweet-voiced thrush is no less a ruthless killer, nor the belligerent babbler, than a stooping peregrine—flung like an anchor across the firmament to hook itself into one isolated member of a frantic flock of rock doves. Human sympathy is biased towards spilt gore and guilty in dismissing crushed chitin without remorse for the simple reason that we cannot relate to it emotionally.
Babblers banish boredom. Between bouts of babbling and squabbling, they bounce, belabour, bludgeon, bulldoze, berate, bicker, and blaspheme. They are members of the avian paparazzi, the brat pack that goes berserk at the sight of a forest-dwelling celebrity, be it a Shikra espied, an owlet discovered, or a vine snake cornered. The flood of invective that they pour at the poor creature, fluttering, fluffing, switching this way and that while feverishly gripping the branch with their feet, in such paroxysms of petulance that they succeed in summoning more of their bothersome ilk to bolster their annoyed lamentations to such a pitch that the hapless victim is forced to flee, often trailing a stream of its tormentors, desperately trying to outdo each other in bravado.
Babblers are also the contact calls of a forest. They fill the pockets of stillness and quiet that envelope me suddenly in a glade, with an apologetic grunt, uttered intermittently, keeping fresh the breath of life that peoples the kingdom of trees. This is the way a sisterhood keeps in touch as its members glean the foliage, hesitate on the ground before fluttering up into the lowest branch of a tree, to work their way upwards, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, till they have scrutinised the entire canopy, reaching the top, and then launching off on feebly fluttering wings, guided by a choral thread of obscenities belabouring the enormous effort required to eke a living, dropping one after another in an untidy heap at the foot of another unforaged tree. Their extreme indecision at this moment, fuelled by mercurial, enormously opinionated egos, erupts into a free-for-all of such vituperation that one would think it is a fight to the finish. They pile upon each other right there, on the forest floor, visible to all and sundry, with nothing but murderous intent in their heart. And yet, the very next instant they begin preening one another, the best of babbler buddies!
Another avian marvel perambulates the debris of shed leaves, first noticed when I am taken aback by the apparent self-propulsion of a fallen leaf, but dismissed for the wind. But it keeps happening, and when I finally focus on a moving leaf it is transformed into a delectable Olive-backed Pipit! Three stroll among the disintegrating leaves, hidden so completely that if I look away, I lose them. They are feeding with an obvious single-minded zeal—tucking in for the long and arduous continent-spanning journey back to their breeding grounds in the Himalayas. If the globetrotters in front of me are Anthus hodgsoni yunnanensis, they will travel much further north, to the taiga belt. Alarmed by a shikra’s mock sortie, one bird flies up into a lower branch of the ficus, perching bolt upright for a few moments, its bold tiger-striped chest in spectacular display, pumping its tail up and down, bolstering its quaking heart. It saunters blithely along the branch, till fear abates, and descends to feed again. Tree pipits are the silent waifs of our forests, for even when feeding in each other’s proximity, they seem aloof, impersonal, introverted. These individuals in front of me, in obliterative fatigues, look rotund with accumulated fat, essential fuel for their mind-boggling peregrinations.
Looking straight up at the fecund ficus, into its filigreed lacework of a million leaves and tiny orange figs, glowing in their ripeness like thin-skinned Jack-o’-lanters, I enter an uncanny planet, humming with vibrancy, peopled by a myriad world of feathered bipeds, all so utterly and completely unaware of my own living constellation intent upon general annihilation, that I am sucked up into their hubbub, suddenly becoming aware of the microcosmic immensity of all this as though in a vision. In an unbelievable momentary epiphany I merge with the avian metropolis above. And then the spell breaks. A gargantuan archaeopteryx slides into my prism-enhanced field of vision. Perceptibly darkening the trillion sun specks bouncing in the foliage, it slips through the upper canopy rending the verdure fabric of an idyllic morning with a blood-curdling shriek that momentarily freezes all feathered frolic. The grey hornbill resembles a giant aircraft so much, and the birds below it, a gawking crowd at a busy airport, that I involuntary sink onto a rock—the world encapsulated by that fig is no less a melting pot of avian diversity than are airports of humans.
The dazzlingly bright morning starts to warm, as the rising sun filters into the valley. We wander on, enchanted by sight and sound, mystified, exclamatory, surprised, and fascinated by turns. The valley widens ever so slightly, with space for trees and shrubbery, and tiny ephemeral rills that puddle water from some recent, off-seasonal rain.
In a sun-dappled forest patch, atop a chest-high bush perches a brown-breasted flycatcher. Bathed in golden light, surrounded by airy verdure, its large pensive eyes follow every movement in the buzzing understorey, sharply watchful for flying midges. It too is piling on fat for a shorter journey than the tree pipits, and in the opposite direction too. Its summers are spent on the emerald island of Sri Lanka. Its obliterative grey-brown plumage, and its muted, undemonstrative ways convey a false sense of secrecy. Flycatchers of its ilk demand our focus and therein lies their charisma. They tantalise not due to any innate reclusiveness but because we are blind to the obvious. Bird … watchers … need also to see!
Muscicapa muttui’s[4] aerial realm exists in the understorey of open forest, where it sorties after flying insects without any extravagant display, taciturnity being its dependable oeuvre. Once, when I press suspiciously near it with the, well, characteristic intrusion of a birder, it vanishes in a smoke screen of blurred pinions. Then I re-spot it across the road on the tip of a declining thin tamarind branch, and raise my bins, and for the second time that morning, incredibly, the eye streams sound into my ear. Sotto voce, Muscicapa muttui is muttering malignments in my direction. We see two more of them further ahead, invisible in the open.
There are erythrinas on the path, medium to tall trees, open canopied at this time, leafless, sky revealing, but rubied with a nectary of small tiger-clawed blossoms. This little valley surely pampers its wild denizens. Here is a street displaying hundreds of nectar heavy flowers luring the birdy-eyed.
It is almost midday by now and when we turn back, the frenzy of dawn tipplers has thinned to a couple of diehard chestnut-shouldered petronias and a few mousy-voiced white-eyes, pushing each other self-consciously, towards the lambent red temptation. In the settling heat, their buzzing replaces cicada music. The petronias don’t give a fig about the world. From flower to flower they move, thrusting bills deep into each cup, savouring shiny nectar, emerging glistening beaked, dazzled momentarily by the sun, only to spot another heady tumbler, conjure another ethereal dive into its depth. One of them, in sheer drollery, eschews the mandatory hop to another blossom’s base, and simply leans across space to partake off a fulsome flower, flashing its nectar-dipped beak. It is a rich sight to end a glorious morning’s worth of birding.

[1] =Monticola cinclorhynchus
[2] =Zoothera citrina cyanotus
[3] =Turdoides
[4] Named after the Sri Lankan discoverer’s servant, Muthu!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Books in my life: Stoop like a Peregrine

The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer & Diaries. The Complete Works of J. A. Baker. 2010. Introduction by Mark Cocker; Edited by John Fanshawe. London: Collins. Pp. 416. £20.

John Alec Baker’s (1926–1987) The Peregrine (1967) scorched an incendiary trajectory to literary fame by winning that year’s Duff Cooper Prize, awarded for, “the best in non-fiction writing,”[1] and remains the only work in the genre of ‘nature writing’ so honoured, since the award was instituted in 1956. Over the past four decades Baker has attained the coveted stature of being a writer’s writer on a remarkably slim body of work comprising two books, the above, and The Hill of Summer (1969). He is considered the most influential British nature-writer of the twentieth century—joining ranks with Gilbert White, John Clare, and W. H. Hudson, all revered masters of the genre—elevated to that pedestal by admiring contemporary poets and nature-writers, awed by the adroit use of words, and consummate turns of phrase that he forged in his word-smithy.
Baker lived all his life in the small English town of Chelmsford, Essex, and for a greater part of his working life was manager, first of the local branch of the Automobile Association, and later, of a fruit juice depot. Strangely, he never learnt how to drive, preferring to ride a bicycle around the countryside while watching birds! He was a true champion of the local patch, meandering quiet country roads either after work hours, or from dawn to dusk on holidays, absorbing the wild topography of his beloved Essex, so he could, “Convey the wonder of … a land to me profuse and glorious as Africa.” He preferred birdwatching by himself, occasionally hinting the presence of a companion with a privacy-guarding initial, or using the non-committal ‘we,’ in his diary. Towards the end of his life he suffered from, and finally succumbed to, the protracted agony of rheumatoid arthritis.
I have read The Peregrine four times since the 1980s, stooping into its pages between readings, and have, every time, come away gasping at the brilliance of Baker’s incandescent prose—clearly my favourite for a marooned-on-an-island book. It is written in the form of a diary, purportedly covering a year, but conjecturally encapsulating the author’s decade-long (mainly 1955–1966) single-minded, Ahabic[2] pursuit of this iconic predator, during a time when it was considered rare in Great Britain.
Baker’s ability to imbibe landscape and atmosphere in its entirety cannot but be celebrated: to convey a sense of place and its denizens with incomparable intuition; to metamorphose into the wolf in its hackled pelt, or fleece-trapped sheep; to torpedo his reader into the visceral stoop of the savage wanderer, plunging earthward as though that circumambulating sphere were ether and the bird intent on emerging unscathed beyond; to terrorise him into the frantic flight of a doomed pintail; to make the world tilt and flash in the seething cauldron of this quicksilver moment, this temporal drama.
In an insightful passage of great import to the birdwatcher, Baker once found himself,

… crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.[3]

The hill of summer is a lyrically pastoral record of a year in the life of a hill, the changing cycle of its seasons, the covering and disrobing of its vegetative mantle, the peregrinations of its denizens. It is profoundly enjoyable if you let the author’s immaculate eye unravel the scenery for you. Baker’s hawk-obsessed passages are fiery, fierce, and exquisitely tooled:

The male sparrowhawk lives very close to the edge of things. He is a primitive, an aboriginal among birds, savage in killing because his power is small. His long legs look thin and fragile, like stems of amber. He snatches his prey, bears it down, grips it insanely as though he fears its life will swell up in his foot, will swell up and burst and overwhelm him … Every movement of the wood reaches out and touches him with a long finger … But unmated, or when nesting is over, he reverts to what he was: a wild-leaping gazelle of the air, whose thin yellow eyes pierce all shadow, whom all steps tread upon, whom all sounds deafen, whom all sights dazzle; the flying nerve of the wood.[4]

And yet, despite his raptor fixation, he is euphonic when describing other facets of the countryside,

The wood lark’s song is less abandoned and more melancholy-sounding than the skylark’s. Each new cadence is elaborated from the one that went before. The bird seems to ponder each phrase before shaping it into song. He sings it, lets it fall, recovers it, lets it fall, then lets it lie where it fell … It was a wonder to me that so small a fragment of life could fly in complete darkness, and in heavy rain, breathing so carefully, skilfully, out into nothing, for nothing, to nothing, but to be itself.[5]

While the two books are distillations of his diaries, a third of which are published in this volume of his ‘complete’ works, it is these recently discovered sheaf of papers, printed now for the first time, that shine a ray of sunlight on the true spirit of the man. Through them we learn of his birding companions, of the tools of his trade that created his style of birding, of his frailties, of the incredible sensitivity, and reluctant mortality of his thoughts. The above song of the Wood Lark was taken and rearranged from a slightly differently worded, yet profoundly poignant, diary entry of 16 June 1954:

We stood under that wonderful sound, coming down to us in the thick darkness and the pouring rain. And a feeling of great exhilaration possessed me, like a sudden lungful of purer air. The great pointlessness of it, the non-sense of nature, was beautiful, and no-one else would know it again, exactly as we knew it at that moment. Only a bird would circle high in the darkness, endlessly singing for pure, untainted, instinctive joy, and only a bird-watcher would stand and gorp up at something he could never hope to see … sharing that joy.

Baker’s greatest achievement is the ability to draw the reader into the atmosphere of the peregrine’s, or indeed, his own, landscape on any page that falls open, despite the author’s perceptive confession, “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.”
No birdwatcher’s library is complete without The peregrine perched on the shelf, nor his eye honed to that skill, if it were not well thumbed.

[Published in Indian BIRDS 7 (1): 22–23. 2011.]

[1] Source: [Accessed on 25 March 2011].
[2] The striking parallel of Baker’s obsession to the immortal grandeur of Captain Ahab’s mania for the white whale was taken from ‘LRB Blog’ []. [Accessed on 25 March 2011.]
[3] The Peregrine, chapter entitled ‘November.’
[4] ‘May downland’ (p. 194).
[5] ‘May downland’ (p. 195).