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: inskipp@btinternet.com.

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 m√©nage-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 blas√©. 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: http://www.duffcooperprize.org [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’ [http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2010/08/03/gillian-darley/who-was-j-a-baker/]. [Accessed on 25 March 2011.]
[3] The Peregrine, chapter entitled ‘November.’
[4] ‘May downland’ (p. 194).
[5] ‘May downland’ (p. 195).